Also working in the Wolverines' favor were the facts that Gary Moeller is a more confident coach in his second year in Ann Arbor and that, for a change, Michigan had opened a season with a victory, having defeated Boston College 35-13 on Sept. 7. It felt a lot better to be 1-0 than 0-1, which had been the case since 1987 thanks to the Irish. As Howard pointed out after Saturday's game, for the first time in his career he was undefeated.
Grbac and Howard have known each other since 10th grade, when they were high school teammates in Cleveland. They are mutual admirers, although not close friends. "Elvis is the smartest guy on the football field," Howard said. "He's headsy."
It takes a certain headiness to know how far to throw it to Howard, whose philosophy is, I want them to hold their breaths every time I touch the ball. He has a remarkable ability to reserve his best work for the most important moments. Howard scored four of Michigan's five touchdowns against Boston College, including a game-breaking 93-yard kickoff return. When one of his spectacular plays appears on the game films in meetings, his teammates erupt in shouts of "hocus-pocus." They call such performances the Magic Show.
Future opponents would be well advised to kick away from his reputation. Otherwise they will be able to do little to prevent him from handling the ball; the Wolverines will make sure of that. Against Notre Dame, they gave it to him on a second-quarter reverse, Howard shooting up his own sideline on a 29-yard gasp of a scoring run. He took a handoff from Powers, turned upheld and put a dazzling move on cornerback Rod Smith. No one else came close to touching him. "It was a pitch to Ricky, and Ricky handed off to me," said Howard. "What more do you want?" Where did Smith go when he disappeared, so abruptly faked out of his shoes? "I had to dismiss him," Howard said, once again with a smile.
Moeller had told Howard before the season that double coverage would not be an excuse for failing to make a reception. Triple coverage, yes. According to Moeller, Howard should have the advantage against two defenders, because he has three directions he can go—left, right or downfield. "There are only a few ways they can cover me," Howard said. "In front and behind, or on either side."
Howard's explosiveness is what provoked Moeller to make what is surely one of the bolder calls ever by a Michigan coach on that fourth and inches at the Notre Dame 25. After Moeller signalled the play in, Grbac hunched over the line, surveyed the defense, began calling the signals and then pulled up and called time out, afraid he couldn't get the play off in time. In a sideline huddle with the entire offense, Moeller reaffirmed the pass play. The Wolverines had been stopped a series earlier on the Notre Dame 35 when Powers couldn't convert on a fourth-and-one situation, and Moeller feared another failure would be too costly, "This is our chance," Moeller told his players.
Whether it was a good call is arguable. "When it works," Moeller said later, rolling his eyes. "It takes a guy like Elvis to throw it, and a guy like Desmond to make it work and make me look smart."
Grbac told Howard as they returned to the field, "We've got to make it work, we've got to make this play." Howard had barely missed making a catch on a similar play in the second quarter, the ground jarring the ball loose at the goal line. He reminded himself to tuck the ball away this time. As Grbac got set to take the snap, he saw Burris in single coverage on Howard, who was split right and was to run a basic out pattern.
Grbac took a three-step drop and pumped once. Burris hesitated when he saw Grbac pump. "I stopped moving my feet," Burris said.
Davis, the Irish strong safety, had come over from the middle of the field to help. Grbac let the ball go. "When it left my hand it was kind of wobbly," he said. "It was really high. I thought I'd overthrown it. Des was running as hard as he could, and the ball was just floating."