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 off-season 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 be the No. 1 pick in next
year's NFL draft," says Indiana coach Cam Cameron. "But he might
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."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER THE WOLVERINES NEED MORE FROM WILLIAMS, WHO HAD TWO RUSHING TDS IN '96 [Clarence Williams in game]
5 Passing touchdowns allowed by the Michigan defense last
season, fewest in the nation.
TWO GAMES TO WATCH
SEPT. 13 VS. COLORADO It's not over until it's over; the last
two meetings have come down to the final play.
NOV. 22 VS. OHIO STATE Wolverines have owned the Buckeyes in the
'90s (5-1-1). If Big Ten favorite Penn State falters, the winner
of this one could be Rose Bowl-bound.
Passing Scott Dreisbach Jr. 149 comp.,269 att.,
2,025 yds., 12 TDs
Rushing Clarence Williams Jr. 903 yds., 2 TDs
Receiving Tai Streets Jr. 44 catches, 730 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles LB Sam Sword Jr. 109
Interceptions CB Charles Woodson Jr. 4