We've suffered enough because of that play.
—MICHIGAN COACH LLOYD CARR
Could a simple game twice be so cruel? Carr stood on the Wolverines' sideline late last Saturday afternoon at Colorado's Folsom Field, a cold, autumnlike rain bleeding from black thunderheads. Far to the east a rainbow stretched across the flatlands at the base of the Rockies. Five seconds remained in the game, with Michigan leading 20-13 and the ball resting on the Wolverines' 37-yard line. A new Colorado quarterback, Koy Detmer, called a last, desperate play—Rocket Right this time—and sent four wide receivers streaking into the end zone. Carr felt a familiar chill. "I was sick," he would say later. Detmer launched a pass into the sky, and Carr watched its flight.
Nearly two years had passed since Kordell Stewart, an old Buffaloes quarterback, had heaved a tight spiral 73 yards into the gathering darkness of an Ann Arbor evening on the last play of these two teams' last game against each other. That ball had been deflected into the hands of Colorado wideout Michael Westbrook, who had fallen into the end zone clutching a 27-26 victory. For the Buffs and their fans, the 23½ months between that game and last Saturday's seemed like a sweet millisecond. The play—one of the most remarkable ever in college football—was always fresh in their minds, as if it had happened yesterday. "It was a part of history, and I was there," said Colorado free safety Steve Rosga before Saturday's game. For Michigan and its backers, those 23½ months seemed a lifetime of bitter reminders. "I have seen the tape of that play a thousand times, and I would like to never see it again," said former Wolverines defensive tackle Trent Zenkewicz, who rushed Stewart on the play but never reached him.
Eight days before the rematch, Carr sat in a small chair in his office and vowed, "I am not going to talk about that play." It was a decision he had reached months earlier and one he didn't waver from until late Saturday afternoon, when he stood in front of a spare dressing cubicle, an unlit victory cigar on the bench behind him. "That Colorado team was as good a football team as we've played since I've been at Michigan [17 years]," said Carr, who at the time of the 1994 game was the Wolverines' defensive coordinator under coach Gary Moeller and thus took much of the blame for Westbrook's catch. "And we had the game won. It was the greatest nightmare I've ever experienced in sports. I didn't sleep for a month. Our kids saw that play forever. It's hard to let go of something when people won't let you."
Indeed, the play—now famous as the Catch—had never loosened its grip on Michigan. The Wolverines of '94 were also a fabulously talented team. But after falling to Colorado, they lost three more games. It was a descent into mediocrity that wasn't interrupted until a 31-23 upset of Ohio State late last season. "Mo [Moeller] and I talked about it after the '94 season," Carr said. "There's no question that play affected us deeply, emotionally." The '94 season was Moeller's last in Ann Arbor. The next May he resigned under pressure following an embarrassing display of drunkenness at a restaurant that ended with him being charged with disorderly conduct and assault and battery, to which he pleaded no contest.
Moeller's counterpart in the '94 Colorado-Michigan game, Bill McCartney, also resigned following that season. But in a sense Stewart's heave gave McCartney's successor wings to fly. Rick Neuheisel was then Colorado's 33-year-old quarterbacks and receivers coach, not even the offensive coordinator. Yet there was an obvious synergy between Neuheisel and Stewart, and television cameras were drawn to Neuheisel's youthful animation as he worked the Buffaloes' sideline. As last Saturday's contest approached, Neuheisel coolly stated that the '94 game "has nothing to do with this game," but he also swiftly jumped from his chair at a writer's request and not only recalled Rocket Left, the winning '94 play, but also diagrammed it, squeaking a yellow grease pencil on a white board. Neuheisel is now 35 and the youngest coach of a perennial Top 10 college football team. That game against Michigan made him a star. "You never know why, all of a sudden, people decide to put you in the limelight," Neuheisel said. "I'm sure that game helped me. I was in the right place at the right time."
The game also brought Stewart national renown; he's now Slash Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the star of a slick TV commercial. It helped elevate Westbrook to the No. 4 slot in the 1995 NFL draft and propel Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, who gained 141 yards rushing that day, to the '95 Heisman Trophy. And it left Neuheisel with a memory of rushing onto the field, celebrating the magic, looking for players to hug ("like Jim Valvano," Neuheisel said) and suddenly seeing Moeller walking off. "I had eye contact with him," Neuheisel said. "He was in shock. It's not a fair game. Not fair."
As Saturday's game neared an end, Michigan seemed certain to exact its revenge without having to endure any final dramatics. With less than 35 seconds left to play, the Wolverines faced a fourth-and-13 on their own 39-yard line. The clock was running. All sophomore quarterback Scott Dreisbach had to do was let the 25-second play clock run out, take a five-yard penalty for delay of game and then kill the final few seconds by backpedaling and dropping to a knee. Dreisbach had been solid throughout, throwing for 108 yards without an interception, a steady performance in his biggest game since a severely sprained thumb had ended his 1995 season. But on this play, with hostile crowd noise swelling around him, Dreisbach rushed the snap, hobbled the ball and took a knee at his own 37 with five ticks on the clock, leaving Colorado its last chance.
Michigan's defense rolled onto the plastic field. "Nobody said anything about two years ago," said sophomore cornerback Charles Woodson later, "but you knew everybody was thinking about it." Said nosetackle Will Carr, "I thought, Here we go again."
Among the Wolverines defenders was senior linebacker Jarrett Irons, one of only two Michigan players who was also on the field for the final play in 1994. He had talked about the pain of that loss and had tried to explain the twisted psychology that lets a miracle take place on a play that is so simple to play defense against. "You keep telling yourself, One more play. Don't let anybody get behind you," Irons said before the game. "But in the back of your mind, you're thinking, It's over. The game is over."