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Michigan comeback sparks (Big) House Party

9/27/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Part of the credit for Saturday's historic comeback goes to the Michigan Stadium FieldTurf.

Unlike real grass, FieldTurf can't be penetrated by gophers, moles and other subterranean creatures. That's a good thing, because Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez wanted to join his furry friends at halftime.

"If there was a hole to crawl into, a bunch of us, including myself, would want to crawl in that hole," Rodriguez said.

Many of the 109,833 in attendance wouldn't have minded if Rodriguez had gone underground after Michigan's miserable first half. As the first-year coach and his players walked to the locker room trailing Wisconsin 19-0, the fans let them know exactly how they felt.

Coaches often talk about living in bubbles and ignoring distractions, but the boos bouncing around the nation's biggest stadium were impossible to block out.

"If you were anywhere in the Ann Arbor vicinity, you heard 'em," Rodriguez said, smiling. "The fans are frustrated. They want to play at a high level here, and that's OK. I hope they're not booing the kids, they're booing the coaches. We have to take it as coaches.

"But I didn't see a lot of people leave."

Michigan's new uniforms are embroidered with Bo Schembechler's famous saying: "Those who stay will be champions." Those who stayed at the Big House on Saturday afternoon were witnesses to history.

The Wolverines went from incompetent to inspired, from hopeful to heartened, from futile to unstoppable, all in a blink of an eye.

They rallied from a 19-0 halftime deficit to beat ninth-ranked Wisconsin, 27-25, completing the biggest comeback in Michigan Stadium history in the 500th game played at the Big House. They avoided a disastrous 1-3 start and won their 23rd straight Big Ten home opener.

"It [was] a defining game for this team," nose tackle Terrance Taylor said. "If we had lost, it would have been a setback. ... Now that we've won, we've got momentum going for the rest of the season. It's who we are."

If Michigan solidifies its identity for the rest of the season, players likely will point to The Speech. Before Rodriguez addressed the team at halftime, Taylor spoke up. Despite being known for his mouth in defensive line meetings, Taylor had never given a halftime speech.

"I was talking to everyone, offense included," Taylor said. "If anyone's slacking off, we feel like as a team, we can come to whoever it is and call them out. And they respect that. So that's what we do."

An offense that produced no points and just 21 net yards in the first half answered Taylor's call. Quarterback Steven Threet, who tossed two interceptions and had -7 pass yards in the first half, led the offense on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that changed the game late in the third quarter.

Threet settled into a rhythm with top wideout Greg Mathews, and Rodriguez rotated several running backs rather than sticking solely with freshman Sam McGuffie. Beefy junior Kevin Grady converted two short-yardage situations into first downs and Threet got the Wolverines on the board with a 26-yard scoring strike to freshman tight end Kevin Koger, a player Rodriguez recently considered redshirting.

"It was a difference in reads and execution," Threet said. "They were similar plays that we ran in the first and second half. Obviously, there's some adjustments we made. It wasn't the play-calling in the first half that wasn't getting it done. It was us."

Despite his struggles, Threet didn't worry about being replaced, and Rodriguez gave the redshirt freshman no reason to look over his shoulder.

"He's our best one," Rodriguez said. "He's proven that in practice, he's proven that in games. Steve knew what he was doing as far as the decisions go. There were some technical things. The ball was sailing, he had to dip his front shoulder a little bit. He had to just relax and get some passes, because we thought there were some things there."

Rodriguez talked this week about the ability of young teams to improve dramatically in short time spans. It was hard to tell in the first half, as the Wolverines repeated many of their mistakes from the Notre Dame game, committing five turnovers.

"[It looked like] we were sleeping for the last two weeks," Rodriguez said.

Michigan woke up fast and showed how dangerous it can be by scoring all 27 points in a stretch of 12:11. Even Threet, criticized for his lack of mobility, showcased his speed on a 58-yard run that set up Michigan's final touchdown.

"He surprised a lot of people, maybe even himself," Rodriguez said. "We were getting ready to call another quarterback run, and I told [offensive coordinator Calvin Magee], 'You better let him rest for about three snaps. I think we should let him catch his breath.'"

After holding their breath in the first half, the fans were once again heard from down the stretch, as Michigan's defense held off a late Wisconsin charge and Rodriguez posted his first win against a ranked opponent as Wolverines coach.

"You get 100,000 cranked up and getting into the game, it lifts those guys up," Rodriguez said. "They make a tremendous impact, especially when our defense is on the field. "Again, they all stayed, and I really, really appreciate the crowd staying and hanging in there."