Commentary

Michigan-ND rivalry's best games

No. 1: Grbac-to-Howard in 1991 forever known in Michigan lore as 'The Catch'

Updated: September 9, 2011, 4:02 PM ET
By Chantel Jennings | WolverineNation

The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry is one of the biggest and oldest in college football. Michigan played Notre Dame in the Irish's first football game in 1887, and with some breaks in the middle, the teams have been rivals since.

"This is important," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "This has always been a game where you get -- for both teams, I remember Coach [Bo] Schembechler talking about this -- it's a game where you get a gauge of where you are at as a team.

"It's always been in the national spotlight and gives you expectations of how your guys are going to play."

Now, WolverineNation looks at the top five Michigan-Notre Dame games of the modern era leading up to Saturday's matchup at 8 p.m. ET at Michigan Stadium.

Date: Sept. 14, 1991

Result: No. 2 Michigan 24, Notre Dame 14

[+] EnlargeElvis Grbac
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesElvis Grbac was on the throwing end of "The Catch" against Notre Dame in 1991.
What happened: Desmond Howard and Elvis Grbac were teammates long before Grbac threw that ever-famous pass to Howard for "The Catch" during the 1991 Michigan-Notre Dame game.

The two had played together at St. Joseph's High School in Cleveland for two years. During those years, Grbac threw only one touchdown pass to Howard. But the pair would be remembered for the risky pass and miraculous catch that put Michigan 10 points ahead of visiting Notre Dame.

The Wolverines had suffered four consecutive losses to the Fighting Irish coming into the '91 season. They were facing top-ranked Florida State the following weekend in Ann Arbor, but first Notre Dame rolled into town the second weekend in September.

Michigan charged out to a 17-7 halftime lead. Grbac, the senior quarterback, was making his way through a nearly flawless game, completing 20 of 22 passes for nearly 200 yards.

In the third quarter, Notre Dame cut the lead to three when quarterback Rick Mirer threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Tony Smith. With just under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Wolverines clutched to a 17-14 lead.

Just a few minutes into the fourth quarter, on a play that made Howard a household name -- even for those who'd never heard of Michigan football -- Grbac threw that famous pass to Howard on fourth-and-1.

Coach Gary Moeller called the play, but once Grbac got onto the field and looked over the lines, he felt that he wouldn't be able to run it. He looked over to the sidelines and called a timeout. Again, Moeller called the same play. He had a deep respect for his senior quarterback and knew that even though the Wolverines had controlled the ball for much of the game, this play was vital if Michigan wanted to come out with a win.

Notre Dame came out in single coverage, and the defense rotated, but Grbac saw that Moeller's play call still would be effective.

"He [Desmond] just jukes the guy and takes off to the outside," Moeller said. "As he went to do that and juked the guy, Elvis saw what was happening and saw him take off, and he just laid it up there. He did a great job throwing it with a lot of height on the ball so Desmond could adjust to it."

Grbac threw it with so much height, in fact, that he believed he'd overthrown Howard and blown the entire play.

"When it left my hand it was kind of wobbly. It was really high," Grbac said after the game. "Des was running as hard as he could and the ball was just floating."

But Howard, who would eventually earn the nickname Magic, seemed to be the one floating when he caught the pass in the back of the end zone. The play would be replayed millions of times, and it stands out as one of the most historic moments in the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry.

Michigan would finish the game by eating up the final six-plus minutes, keeping the Irish from mounting one of their famous comebacks or allowing any kind of luck to come into play.

Later, when asked about the play, Moeller said, "When it works, it takes a guy like Elvis to throw it, a guy like Desmond to make it work and make me look smart."

The Wolverines' defense didn't look bad either, holding the Irish to their lowest scoring total since 1985.

"That was a good player making a great play," Moeller said. "And that was very special, all the particulars. Some of those things kind of get away from you, but to have Elvis and Desmond do that in that situation against that team, with all the pressure of that game, was very, very special."

Significance to season: The win helped to push Michigan to the next weekend, when it faced top-ranked Florida State. The Wolverines came out of that game with a 20-point loss but would go on to finish first in the Big Ten and sixth in the AP poll. The Wolverines would make their way to the Rose Bowl that year, falling to Washington 34-14.

Historical significance: The win and The Catch shot Howard onto the radar for Heisman voters. He would finish the season with 62 receptions for 950 yards and a whopping 19 touchdowns. He added two rushing touchdowns (one against the Irish), a kickoff return for a TD and a punt return for a TD en route to winning the Heisman Trophy by the third-largest margin in history.

They said it: "There's no doubt that catch made me a candidate for the Heisman," Howard said before the Rose Bowl game. "I didn't think much about anything but catching the ball at the time it happened, but when I went home that night and watched it on TV, I could see how spectacular it was."

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.

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