The once 0-2 Wolverines return from the dead
Stunned by Notre Dame and embarrassed by Syracuse, Michigan began the year as if it couldn't wait to resume its streak of underachieving that was interrupted by last season's co-national championship. After the 38-28 loss to the Orangemen on Sept. 12—a game in which Michigan trailed 38-7 in its own stadium after three quarters—all appeared lost. "I was sitting at my locker with tears in my eyes," linebacker Sam Sword says, "thinking we had too much talent to be 0-2 and have our season slipping away."
Well, now. Playing in the anonymity afforded the unranked, the Wolverines have won five straight. They beat Indiana 21-10 last Saturday in the same fashion in which they'd won their three previous Big Ten games, with the defense dominating the line of scrimmage and the offense scoring three touchdowns despite an array of drive-killing penalties and four turnovers. Coach Lloyd Carr continues to complain that Michigan is "a long way from being the kind of team that we want to be and we can be." But this far into the season you are what you are, which for the Wolverines is fourth in the Big Ten in total defense and last in turnover margin. Michigan nevertheless reentered the rankings this week, at No. 22, and is tied with Ohio State (7-0, 4-0) in the conference, half a game behind Wisconsin (8-0, 5-0).
After playing for the Little Brown Jug at Minnesota this week, the Wolverines host Penn State and Wisconsin before heading to Ohio State on Nov. 21. They aren't likely to run the table. Michigan is too good for the Golden Gophers and has the home field advantage over the Nittany Lions and the defensive speed to stop the one-dimensional Badgers, but whatever voodoo it has cast over the Buckeyes won't overcome the Wolverines' offensive shortcomings. Only wide receiver Tai Streets, who caught two touchdown passes against the Hoosiers, has proved he can break a game open. Too often, Michigan stops itself, as in the case of Anthony Thomas's 34-yard touchdown run against Indiana that was called back for holding.
Still, it's hard to believe this is the same team that made a mess of early September and then, in the week after the Syracuse debacle, lost senior free safety and co-captain Marcus Ray, who was suspended for six games for accepting concert tickets and dinner from an agent last summer in Cincinnati. At the first practice after the loss to the Orangemen, Carr told the Wolverines to forget the two losses and that the season started again that week. So it did. The defense that allowed Syracuse's Donovan McNabb (293 yards of total offense, three touchdown passes and one TD rushing against Michigan) to "run the option like he invented it," as Sword says, stuffed the Hoosiers' option-based attack. Antwaan Randle El, Indiana's dazzling freshman quarterback, rushed for 110 yards but completed only seven of 22 passes for 65 yards and threw two interceptions. The biggest reason for Michigan's improvement against the option: Last week speedy freshman defensive back. Julius Curry ran the scout team's offense—with Ray, an erstwhile high school running back, at tailback. "Marcus has a great attitude," says safety Tommy Hendricks. "A lot of guys might have had too much pride and said, Tm not going to the demo team.' "
Ray returns to the defense on Nov. 7—not that his absence has hurt much. Michigan has given up an average of 8.3 points and 206 yards in its last three wins, against Iowa, Northwestern and the Hoosiers. After starting 0-2, the Wolverines looked as if they would be fortunate to repeat the four-loss seasons endured from 1993 to '96. Now four defeats would be a disappointment.
Drama at Auburn
The Bowden Bubble Bursts
For the last six years the Bowden family lived in a coaching bubble, not subject to the Newtonian principle that for every winner there's a loser. Father Bobby at Florida State and sons Terry at Auburn and Tommy at Tulane rarely lost and didn't worry about job security. Says Tommy, "People thought we were untouchable."
If that sounds like a fairy tale, it was—and last week the fairy tale ended. Auburn's most powerful alumnus got word to Terry on Oct. 21 that he would be fired at the end of the season; it didn't matter that Bowden had gone 47-17-1 with the Tigers, or that after Auburn won the SEC West last season, his contract had been extended through 2004. Bowden was done, and he knew it, so last Friday he walked away.
The man behind Bowden's ouster is Bobby Lowder, a wealthy Montgomery banker and member of the Auburn board of trustees. How powerful is he? When Governor Fob James declined to reappoint him to the board in 1995, Lowder refused to leave. He marshaled support in the state legislature and took James to court, challenging in a lawsuit the governor's attempt to remove him. Lowder prevailed when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in his favor last year. In December '92 he engineered the hiring of Bowden from I-AA Samford University in Birmingham; Lowder's daughter, Catherine, had worked in Bowden's office there. (She came to Auburn with Bowden but left her job a few years ago.)