This is how a guy who has a name like a British aristocrat's, who's small enough to hang from your rearview mirror and who says his greatest catch was of Michael Jackson's hat in a concert crowd lunged into stardom in a single afternoon: Desmond Howard brought a hundred thousand spectators to the swooning point, reduced his Michigan teammates to wiggling their fingers and chanting "hocus-pocus" and made Notre Dame's fleetest defenders look as if they couldn't catch an elevator.
Howard had come to be known—at least around Ann Arbor—as the Magic Man, but after the Wolverines' 24-14 victory over the Irish last Saturday at Michigan Stadium, you can throw that nickname away. It isn't enough. What do you call a guy whose catches resemble death spirals, who fractures defenses with a turn of his hip and who has scored six of his team's eight touchdowns in their first two games? Certainly, you can call him the leading Heisman Trophy candidate. Or what about just How, as in Michigan offensive lineman Matt Elliott's wonder-filled observation, "Lord only knows how he does it."
How did Howard catch that seemingly uncatchable 25-yard touchdown pass from Elvis Grbac, against double coverage, with 9:02 left in the game and the Wolverines, their lead having shrunk to 17-14, facing fourth down and a foot? First, he made Notre Dame defensive backs Jeff Burris and Greg Davis disappear with his speed. "I eliminated them," said Howard with a smile. Then he took a couple of smooth strides to run under a ball that seemed impossibly overthrown. He stretched his wispy, 5'9" body to its full length, extended his fingers and pulled in the football as he landed belly down in the back corner of the end zone with Davis clutching at his ankles. Whereupon Howard heard the silence of the crowd, then the roar. "It felt beautiful," he said.
The cheers Howard produced traumatized Notre Dame all afternoon and helped end four years of Irish dominance over Michigan. In the process, the Wolverines established themselves as a team of imposing proportions and glamour, as well as one to be reckoned with in the national championship race. Michigan turned two Irish turnovers into 10 points to take a 17-7 lead at halftime, held the vaunted Notre Dame rushing attack to 78 yards and controlled a bloody line of scrimmage. But most telling was this: The Wolverines possessed the ball for 40:40 and devoured the last 6:30 to deny Notre Dame any chance of mounting another of its remarkable comebacks. "All that stuff about Irish luck?" said Grbac after the game. "That's bull."
Along with Howard, who's a junior wide receiver, two others were most responsible for keeping the Irish offense on the sidelines: Grbac, who's a junior, and sophomore tailback Ricky Powers. Grbac ran Michigan's no-huddle attack rhythmically, completing 20 of 22 passes for 190 yards and making flawless checks at the line. Frequently, the audibles came when he saw openings for Powers, who darted for 164 yards on 38 carries.
Grbac made the last of his astute calls from the sideline. As Notre Dame took over at its own 12-yard line with 8:57 remaining and Michigan in front 24-14, he turned to assistant coach Mike Gittleson and said, "If we get the ball back with five minutes to go, we win." He was correct. The Irish floundered at their 49, and with that failure, they lost control of the national championship race.
Notre Dame's four consecutive defeats of Michigan had come in various ways. In 1987, the Irish capitalized on seven Wolverine turnovers to win 26-7. In '88, Notre Dame's Reggie Ho Kicked four field goals, and Mike Gillette's attempt at the game-winning field goal for the Wolverines with no time left just tailed off to the right, so the score remained 19-17 in favor of Notre Dame. In '89, Rocket Ismail set his career ablaze with kickoff returns of 88 and 92 yards for touchdowns in a 24-19 victory. Then, last year, Michigan led 24-14 in the third quarter when a pass from Irish quarterback Rick Mirer bounced off Ismail, over the head of a Michigan defensive back and into the hands of Notre Dame's Lake Dawson for a 45-yard gain that set up a crucial touchdown. Final score: 28-24.
Those experiences left Michigan with "a little hatred, I think," Grbac said. Also with a little fear. Notre Dame has a viper quality that makes the Irish most dangerous when they're most threatened. For instance, the Wolverines never entirely contained Mirer or flanker Tony Smith, whose five catches for 121 yards would have been the game's most outstanding performance were it not for Howard, who, among his other accomplishments, had six receptions for 74 yards. Mirer's 35-yard pass to Smith with 6:47 to play in the third quarter brought the Irish to 17-14. And it brought the following thought to Grbac's mind: Oh, God, this is not happening again?
Going into the game the No. 3 Wolverine players were galled by the notion, which had been engendered by those four straight losses, that the No. 7 Irish might actually be better. They are from the same neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago and Cleveland, or from the same rural communities, out in those stretches of rolling orchards and pasture, where Michigan, Indiana and Illinois sort of melt into each other. So what made Notre Dame so perfect? "I mean I never experienced anything like this," Grbac said before the game. "It's time. It's time to get rid of this Notre Dame thing, to put the Irish where they belong."
In short, if Michigan hoped to confront top-ranked Florida State in Ann Arbor on Sept. 28 with any sort of credibility, it had to stomp on luck and on Notre Dame. Which is just what the Wolverines did with a combination of seniority, conviction and timeliness. The Irish were inexperienced, judging by their standards of the last four years; their defensive line had only one 1990 starter, and their secondary had six sophomores and two seniors filling the first-and second-string slots on the depth chart. These defenders were no match for Michigan's mammoth offensive linemen, led by 6'8", 322-pound tackle Greg Skrepenak. "It's fun watching them play," said Howard of the Wolverines' blockers. "They don't just push. They lay pancakes on guys, knock them down."