Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're going back to one of the conference's most memorable slugfests in history, on a chilly afternoon 12 years ago in Evanston, Illinois.
Chris Brown of Smart Football called this game the most important game in the history of the spread offense. He is probably not wrong. This was one of the most sensational, most jarring, most eye-opening offensive performances by both teams, and yet the game came down to two critical, unforced errors.
If you were there, you've probably got your ticket stub framed. If you saw it live on television, you'll never forget it. And if all you saw were the highlights, well, you saw about 80% of the game.
Michigan was a fairly typical Lloyd Carr team in 2000. The talent level was high, and the Big House was a prohibitively difficult place to play, but there were definite holes in the Wolverine armor that especially became evident in hostile environments. Quarterback Drew Henson was untouchable at his best, though, and it helped that he had all-conference talent surrounding him.
Northwestern, meanwhile, was something of an anomaly. Or so it appeared. The Cats were 6-2 coming into the game with really only one victory of note, a 47-44 shootout with a very good Wisconsin team. The previous week, they had won on a last-second Hail Mary at Minnesota, capping a furious fourth-quarter comeback but solidifying the notion that the team was, say, more smoke and mirrors than steak.
Michigan, though, that was a steak team.
Northwestern's season-long struggles on defense were evident early, as an early 7-0 lead devolved over the course of the half into a 28-10 deficit with six minutes left before the break, as Henson had no trouble finding David Terrell on three first-half touchdowns.
Northwestern answered with a quick touchdown of its own, then rolled the dice on a beautifully executed onside kick. The Wildcats would turn that extra possession into a field goal, then add another before the break to cut their deficit to 28-23.
The two teams traded blows in the second half, both moving the ball with relative ease, but suddenly Michigan was having a little tougher time moving the ball... and Northwestern wasn't. Damien Anderson was demolishing a formerly sound defensive unit, eventually racking up 268 yards on the ground, and Zak Kustok would break 300 yards passing on the day.
Northwestern finally took its first lead at 46-45, and even though Michigan quickly countered with a go-ahead score, the stage was set for one of the most surreal final two minutes in college football.
Northwestern drove down to Michigan territory and faced a fourth down, at which point Walker called a beautiful wheel fade for Anderson coming out of the backfield. Uncovered, Anderson dropped the ball at the goal line, crushing the Wildcats' comeback and forcing its defense to accomplish a task it had failed at spectacularly for the entire game: stop Michigan.
On the ensuing possession, Northwestern looked to be en route to failing spectacularly at that task one last time. On a second and three with under a minute to go, Anthony Thomas burst through a hole, gaining a first down and looking to be running for open field. Even if he wasn't about to score a touchdown, the game would be iced.
And out of nowhere, he dropped the ball.
Northwestern, of course, pounced; the fumble was recovered, and the Wildcats wasted no time marching down the field, where Kustok delivered the fatal blow on Walker's weapon of choice in the passing game: the quick slant. Boom, touchdown and a botched field goal by Michigan on the final play sealed the Wolverines' fate.
The aftermath of that game, regardless of its final score or the insanity of the last two minutes, reverberates in college football today. Northwestern, of all teams, rang up almost 650 yards of offense on Michigan, of all teams. They used the spread to run the ball all over a team that was impossible to run on.
What's more, all of a sudden, Michigan's staid, downhill-running 4-3 system of defense looked badly out of date. It had just given up 54 points, the most a Wolverine defense had allowed since 1958, when, of all teams, Northwestern hung 55 on Michigan. Presumably that was not out of the spread, but still.
12 years later, the spread is not everywhere by any stretch of the imagination, but it is in many more places. It's being tweaked, updated and adapted to individual teams' personnel, and the result can be seen at places like Texas Tech, Ohio State, Nevada, Oregon and even one ill-fated three-year stretch at Michigan.
Defenses are adapting, and as a result we almost never see teams with three 250-pound linebackers patrolling the middle of the defense anymore. Speed is the neutralizing weapon of choice for back sevens now, and if there's one date where the Big Ten began to accept that fact, one ought to point to November 4, 2000, in Evanston, Illinois.