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They still roll off the assembly line like Detroit's chromed finest. In the 1990s alone Michigan has produced eight first-round NFL draft picks, 13 All-Americas and a Big Ten-best 43 all-conference players. Yet in the wake of the Wolverines' fourth straight four-loss season, there is the increasingly widespread belief that Michigan football isn't Michigan football anymore. "I know what other teams are saying," says junior defensive back Marcus Ray. "I've heard the jokes about the M in Michigan standing for mediocrity."
A run of 135 consecutive 100,000-plus crowds at the Big House, the occasional win over a nonconference heavyweight (the Wolverines defeated Colorado in '96, Notre Dame in '94) and a mastery of Ohio State (a 7-1-1 record against the Buckeyes since 1988) still ensure Michigan a steady stream of talent. Indeed, during the offseason coach Lloyd Carr reeled in another Top 10 recruiting class, which included running back Anthony Thomas of Winnfield, La., and defensive back James Whitley of Norfolk, Va., both of whom could help out immediately. However, uncertainty at quarterback, holes in the offensive line and a murderous schedule that includes the aforementioned Buffaloes and Irish will most likely keep the Wolverines out of the Rose Bowl for a fifth straight year, their longest such stretch since the early '60s.
After finishing sixth in the Big Ten in total offense and seventh in scoring in '96, Michigan could struggle even more this year when trying to move the ball. Neither junior Scott Dreisbach nor senior Brian Griese, who split time at quarterback the last two seasons, emerged during the spring as the clear-cut starter. At tailback, senior Chris Howard and junior Clarence Williams (a combined 1,477 yards rushing in '96) must be more consistent this season, a task that will be made difficult by the loss of three starters from the offensive line.
The Wolverines suffered another loss in June, when junior defensive end David Bowens, who set a school record with 12 sacks last fall, left school for academic reasons. However, the defense will again be strong, particularly in the secondary, which is anchored by Ray and junior cornerback Charles Woodson. Last fall, while cementing his status as one of the game's top cover corners, Woodson also lined up at wideout, catching 13 passes for 164 yards and rushing six times for 152 yards. This season Carr promises an even greater offensive role for the All-America. "I'm not saying he will he the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft," says Indiana coach Cam Cameron. "But he might be."
Such paeans ring hollow for Woodson. During the off-season he and Ray, his roommate, would talk long into the night about the upcoming season. "This is what we kept coming back to," says Ray. "That we've let too many games slip away in the last couple of years, that we need to develop a killer instinct."
Ray cites as an example last season's 13—9 upset of Ohio State in Columbus. As he hauled in a last-second desperation heave by Buckeyes quarterback Joe Germaine, Ray saw nothing but empty field in front of him. "I could've run it all the way back, rubbed it in their faces," he says. "But I didn't think that was the classy thing to do. And being from Columbus, I was afraid what people might have done to my mom's house. So I just slid in front of the Ohio State sideline."
Given the same opportunity when the teams meet in Ann Arbor on Nov. 22, Ray promises something different. "Let's put it this way," he says. "I'm not sliding next time. Kick a team when it's down. That's the mentality that has been missing around here."
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