Monday, June 6, 2011

Remember When: 2003 Ohio State

The 2003 version of The Game will always hold a special place in my heart. It's a mile marker imprinted upon my fandom, reminding me of the exact point when things were good and Michigan was Michigan. I was just a kid, Keith Jackson still called college football games, Bo was still alive, and John Navarre finally got the respect he deserved. We've been slowly driving away from that point since then, a hearse for our expectations and understanding of what once was. Other than the final two contests of the 1997 dream season, it's hard to think of another game that means more to me and resonates as strongly as this one.

It was finally next year--November 22, 2003, high noon--and both teams came into the game ranked in the top 5. The Big Ten Title was on the line and the Buckeyes were looking to punch their ticket to the national championship game for the second year in the row (a surprisingly underrated feature of that game). The game was about to start, but not until Keith Jackson could have a word in the way that only he could:

This has to be one of my favorite intros to any Michigan game ever, including the 2006 intro. Keith Jackson laid it all out there, making it plain for all to see (if they didn't already know) what this was all about. In a little over a minute, Mr. Jackson summarized decades of history, of a storied back-and-forth that will go on for years to come. He told us of the principal players, briefly but pointedly, giving us a vast impression with so few words, like Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. After the Prologue, all that was left to do was go on the journey and tell some stories. Here, all they had to do was play the game now that the stage was set.

Michigan came out and played one of their best games that I've personally seen them play. It was a wonder that Michigan was even in the position they were in at all. After losses in Eugene and Iowa City in the first half of the season that quickly derailed any briefly sustained post-Notre Dame game national title aspirations (as well as an epic comeback against Minnesota which featured John Navarre making really slow pocket passers running much farther than they should ever be able to cool five years before Steven Threet did it), Michigan's season becomes even more impressive in retrospect.

The then record-setting crowd of 112,118 saw a Michigan team play like a Michigan team should. The Wolverines ambushed the Buckeyes, starting the game with a 21-0 lead. Listening to Beckemann breathlessly call the Breaston keeper for the first score, you'd think that Terry Malone had brought the spread to Ann Arbor. Remember, this was when the shotgun was exclusively a "oh we're down 2 scores with 5 minutes left" offense.

Jason Avant went down and I felt bad for him; he cried and pumped his fist as they carted him off the field, and I wished that he could've kept going just about as much as I wanted Michigan to win. It was raw and genuine.

UM vs. Ohio State

UM vs. Ohio State

Despite Nate Salley and Co. knocking Braylon's helmet off once or twice, #1 refused to buckle his chin strap up any tighter. That's Braylon for you. Brandstatter quoted Mickey Redmond after one particularly ferocious hit that sent Braylon flying into the sideline: "This ain't no place for a nervous person."

UM vs. Ohio State

Chris Perry's performance was that of a virtuoso, during and in between plays. After every run he would struggle to his feet, slowly and not without some theatricality. The 150+ yard, 2 touchdown performance was one of acts and scenes, intermittent bursts of activity and passive waiting behind the curtains, a white arm band reading MOM moving in sync with the rapid pumping of his arms, chopping up the air before cutting and turning the corner to cut up the Buckeye defense on the way to the endzone. Whether or not Chris Perry was playing a role that day on the big stage that is the Big House turf doesn't matter much to me. If he was playing a role, "exaggerating," if you will, then he played it so well that the art imitated life, and vice versa, so that the two were indistinguishable. If you asked Chris Perry today, "Were you really hurting? Were you injured?", I doubt he'd even know the answer anymore. Does it even matter?

UM vs. Ohio State

Lastly, we come to one John Navarre. It's no small secret that he was unfairly criticized throughout much of his Michigan career. Despite the lack of mobility, the frustrating ability to get passes batted down despite his height, and despite his supposed inability to make the big plays when they were needed most, he made a quarterback out of himself (and a pretty good one at that). The guy who was recruited by Wisconsin as a linebacker/tight end, the guy who was thrown into the fire way too early due to a Drew Henson injury, carried himself with a stoicism that you just can't learn. Carey Venne, John's high school coach in Cudahy, WI said about him:

He's kind of an ice man. He keeps his emotions in check. He doesn't get shook easy, and that's because he's been such a physical player. Even if he's nervous, he internalizes and fakes it pretty good.

Where as Perry's acting was hyperbolic and over-the-top, a celebration and affirmation of his game all at once, John's was subdued, understated, and probably not acting at all. That is perhaps the biggest reason that I find this game so satisfying: a guy so maligned got his redemption. This was a guy that was, above all else, painfully cognizant of the criticism:

"I felt I was established already," Navarre said. "But the reality was I was going to be defined by this game."
John finished the game with 278 yards passing, completing 21 of 32 passes with two touchdowns to one interception. It was a great performance at the biggest stage of Midwestern college football. Never would I have imagined, however, that it would be our last win against the Buckeyes for many years to come. In light of the scandal in Columbus and depending on your opinion on the validity of each Buckeye win against the Wolverines in the Tressel era, this game has risen in stature as the years have passed, and, by proxy, so has John Navarre's place in Michigan football lore.

UM vs. Ohio State

I've watched my DVD of this game dozens and dozens of times. Ever since 2003, I've taken to watching it from start to finish the night before The Game, hoping that it would unearth some untapped reservoirs of good karma for Michigan the next day. It didn't work in 2004, and every year afterward became a remainder of how long it had been since we've beaten them. Reading this ESPN recap refer to the pair of losses against OSU in '01 and '02 as a "skid" makes me cringe a little bit.Here we sit, seven and a half long years later, wishing that we could go back. I love that DVD, but I hope that I can update that special tradition, starting with a win this year.

That's not to say that it gets old. It never does. Braylon's cockiness (before it became malicious and off-putting in his NFL days), Perry's histrionics, one of Lloyd's most classic interview responses ever ("Why would you ask a dumb question like that?"), and Navarre's redemption, so satisfying and deserving that it felt like it was my own...all these things make this game, in my mind, one of the best in the last ten years.

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