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Original Issue


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

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

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 21/2 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

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.

The Wolverines didn't wait until Penn State week--or even the
start of this regular season--to do something about these
shortcomings. For example, Howard took Thomas, his backup and a
fellow Louisianan, under his wing and, as they worked out four
days a week together before the season, pounded home the
importance of sweating himself into top shape, of playing every
down full tilt, of leaving nothing to chance. When some other
players checked college football preview magazines and found
that a few of them hadn't even ranked Michigan in the Top 20,
they wanted to prove everybody wrong and went to work to attain
that goal.

Coach Lloyd Carr added another crucial piece to the puzzle this
summer. Realizing that the Wolverines face one of the most
difficult schedules in the country year after year--and
recalling how the disappointing 1996 season was plagued by
lapses of concentration in games Michigan should have won--Carr
wanted his team to approach the season as a mountain climber
would attack a summit, by concentrating every step of the way.
Carr says he got the idea after reading Jon Krakauer's Into Thin
Air, the best-seller about a tragic ascent of Mount Everest. One
member of Krakauer's group, Lou Kasischke, lives in Bloomfield
Hills, Mich., about a 40-minute drive from Ann Arbor. Carr
called Kasischke this summer and asked him to speak to the

"He talked for an hour and a half, and he had the rapt attention
of every person in that room," Carr said last week. "There are a
lot of things that are significant in terms of achieving a great
goal in football and in climbing the highest mountain in the
world. First of all, if you're going to climb Everest, it takes
more than two months, and it takes great concentration,
tremendous determination, incredible discipline, perseverance
and courage. All those are qualities that it takes to win a Big
10 championship."

After Kasischke's speech, Carr gave each Wolverine a climbing
pick bearing the player's name and color-coded by position and
class. The picks are now all stuck in the ceiling of the
Michigan meeting room, and, Howard says, "they symbolize our
struggle to get to the top, the importance of playing as a team.
Everybody has a pick because we're all a part of this. If one
guy slips, we all fall off the mountain."

Nine games down, three to go. "Can't let up now," Howard said.

Not with the mountaintop in clear view.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Michigan smothered Penn State, with Andre Weathers giving Chafie Fields a first-quarter taste of what was to come.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Into the thin air: Howard's 29-yard TD run moved Michigan closer to completing its Everest-like quest. [Chris Howard carrying football in game]