As he stood in a small anteroom off the boisterous visitors' locker area at Beaver Stadium last Saturday, Michigan running back Chris Howard briefly allowed himself a smile of gratification: He had just slammed his way for a game-high 120 yards and a touchdown in the Wolverines' 34-8 rout of Penn State. Now Howard, a senior, talked about all the carping he'd had to live with week after week through every year of his Michigan career. "We'd pick up the newspaper sometimes and read all this stuff about how the M in Michigan stood for mediocre," he said.
The part that stung the most? "We probably deserved it," Howard conceded.
Not anymore. The unbeaten Wolverines' blowout, combined with undefeated Nebraska's narrow escape at Missouri (page 62), enabled Michigan to jump three places to the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 for the first time in more than seven years. Florida State, 9-0 after a 20-3 win over North Carolina (page 38), is No. 1 in the USA Today/ ESPN coaches' poll. What an unpredictable season this has been. Even victory carries no guarantee: Three times the No. 1 team in the AP poll has dropped from first after a win, including the Cornhuskers' unusual two-spot fall last weekend. Now all eyes are on Michigan and Florida State. The Wolverines play at Wisconsin (8-2) on Saturday before closing the season against dangerous, overdue No. 4 Ohio State. The Seminoles, second ranked in the AP poll, are hardly better off. They take on soft Wake Forest on Saturday but close the season at wounded Florida. If they beat the Gators, they then would probably meet Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
This much the Wolverines can savor: Two more wins will put them in the Rose Bowl for the first time since New Year's Day 1993, with a good shot—if they're still No. 1—at no worse than a shared national championship.
On Saturday, though, in a game billed as the biggest late-season showdown in the Big Ten since 1973, when Michigan and Archie Griffin-led Ohio State tied 10-10, the Wolverines weren't playing just to keep their national-title hopes alive. They weren't just trying to knock off a Penn State team that had manhandled them in three consecutive seasons. They were playing for peace of mind.
With a wince Howard recounted how everyone in the Michigan program was fed up after finishing last season with four losses for the fourth straight year. Even after opening 1997 with eight consecutive wins, the Wolverines knew a defeat by the Nittany Lions most likely would keep Michigan from winning or sharing the Big Ten title for the fifth season in a row, its longest drought since the 13-year slide that ended in '64. The specter of leaving behind such a dismal legacy was something these Wolverines couldn't stomach. "We had to win this game," Howard said.
Playing in a steady drizzle before a stadium-record crowd of 97,498, Michigan won in a most uncharacteristic way: It's oft-maligned offense performed like a juggernaut for the first time this season. Only one of the Wolverines' six scoring drives took more than four minutes. Their offensive line kept shoving Penn State back, and Howard had his most productive game of the year. Quarterback Brian Griese also had his best performance of the season, completing 14 of 22 passes for 151 yards. In the second quarter, slow-footed though he is, Griese made the daring choice to cut back upfield rather than run safely out-of-bounds—a move that caught Penn State by surprise and transformed his bootleg from a 20-yard pickup into a game-altering 40-yard gain. "I was on our sideline for that play, and I looked up just as he ran by," said Wolverines freshman running back Anthony Thomas, with a laugh. "I said, 'That's Griese?' "
Two plays later All-America cornerback and part-time receiver Charles Woodson lined up in the slot, slipped behind two defenders and turned a perfectly placed pass from Griese into a 37-yard touchdown that effectively finished off the Nittany Lions, who trailed 17-0. There were still 2� quarters left to play, but the lead was insurmountable against the Wolverines' defense, the best in the country. "To say the only reason we win is our defense is an injustice," Howard said afterward, speaking for the offense. "We hear it everywhere: The defense could win the game by itself. It's aggravating."
When the wire-to-wire hammering was through, stunned Penn State guard Phil Ostrowski sat on a locker room stool with a thousand-yard stare and said, "They outplayed us. They outsmarted us. They just kicked the crap out of us. They were blitzing every which way, and we had it planned out. We just couldn't get to our blocks. They flat outhustled us on every play."
As far back as last spring, Michigan's coaches and players did a lot of soul-searching about the Wolverines' inability to play to their potential. They set out to divine why Michigan had lost 16 times in four seasons despite having so much talent. Now they realize that they only began to improve after they had accepted some unflattering truths about themselves: They didn't always prepare as hard as they could; they didn't always play together; they faded in the fourth quarters of some games, especially last year; and they didn't have the focus and mental stamina to gut it out for an entire season.