- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It came from everywhere in the stands, a noise Michigan players and coaches were unaccustomed to hearing during home games -- at least directed towards them.
Michigan trailed Virginia, 17-0, in the fourth quarter Aug. 26, 1995. Lloyd Carr was in his first game as Michigan's interim head coach after replacing Gary Moeller.
"The most important decision I ever made was with 12 minutes to go," Carr said. "There were loud boos coming out of those stands because people were unhappy, and I think they wanted somebody else to get a chance at quarterback. So the most important decision I made was when I stayed with [Scott] Dreisbach. There's no question when you have all inexperienced guys, the guy who has played the last 48 minutes for you, he gives you the best chance to win.
"My guess is had we not won that game I would have never become the head coach at Michigan. From that standpoint, it was a pretty important decision for me."
What resulted was one of the most memorable games in Michigan history. The Wolverines roared back to win on the final play, 18-17, on a Dreisbach touchdown pass to Mercury Hayes, setting records at the time for the largest comeback in school history.
Entering this Saturday's game against No. 2 Alabama, Michigan has played in a game labeled as some sort of kickoff classic only once before in its history -- against Virginia. It was Carr's first game as Michigan's head coach, Greg Mattison's first as the school's defensive coordinator and Brady Hoke's first as its defensive line coach.
Carr had been given the job on an interim basis when Moeller resigned in May 1995 after a public intoxication incident. When Carr was promoted, then-athletic director Joe Roberson said Carr would not be a candidate for the full-time job.
Carr went into the season with an inexperienced quarterback, Dreisbach, and an inexperienced backup, freshman Brian Griese. Carr would learn how to be a head coach as his players learned how to play under him.
During training camp, Carr made a fortuitous decision -- one that would end up being a benefit in the opener, though he couldn't have predicted it.
"Every day I wanted to work on our two-minute offense," the coach said. "I thought it was a drill that you know during a season you're going to have some games that are going to come down to where you can execute the two-minute offense.
" ... But in the Virginia game, our two-minute offense ended up being the 12-minute offense."
Almost 17 years later, Carr wouldn't say he had any extra nerves. On the field, everything felt familiar. He had called plays as a defensive coordinator.
Not all of his players buy that.
"I think he was nervous. Who wouldn't be?" Griese said. "As much as he gives off the stoic exterior, I think he was a little nervous leading up to the game. But at the same time, he didn't give off that to his players that week."
Unlike his coach, Dreisbach had more than 100,000 reasons to worry. He had never played in front of a crowd like that. Now, with two experienced receivers in Hayes and Amani Toomer and a good running back in Tim Biakabutuka, he'd be taking the field for the first time.
"A lot of nerves coming down the tunnel and going into the open stadium, coming down the dark tunnel and seeing a sea of people," Dreisbach said. "I had nerves before every game, and usually, first snap, they would go away. But yeah, warmups and everything, just the hype around the first game of the season."
The way the game started wouldn't help.
Virginia had never been a marquee team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but the Cavaliers were coming off a 9-3 season and entered 1995 ranked No. 17. They had playmakers in the Barber brothers -- running back Tiki and defensive back Ronde -- along with linebackers James Farrior and Jamie Sharper, and safety Percy Ellsworth.
"We were a cocky group," Ellsworth said. "Mostly Virginia boys sprinkled with some good additions, but it was mostly Virginia boys and a lot of us tried to stay in state to support in-state."
Ellsworth, though, knew all about Michigan. He rooted for the Wolverines as a kid. Stepping inside Michigan Stadium was a chance to feel first-hand the tradition he grew up following.
Virginia dominated for three quarters. The Cavaliers ran the ball inside on Michigan, headlined by an 81-yard Tiki Barber touchdown. Biakabutuka was injured for Michigan. The Cavs knew who they were. The Wolverines, with a new coach, a new quarterback and a struggling defense, did not.
"As a defense and a team, really, we were in limbo," former Michigan safety Chuck Winters said. "Not really having an identity and trying to pick up on Lloyd's identity. But it was fresh to us, a changing of the guard."
After Barber's long touchdown run in the third quarter gave Virginia a 14-0 lead, linebacker Jarrett Irons pulled Michigan's defense together. As much of a plea as a command, Irons implored the rest of his defense to calm down.
Carr stuck with Dreisbach at that pivotal moment when Virginia took a 17-0 lead. Virginia stuck with what had been working. In a flash, though, things started to shift.
The momentum kicked in, Carr said, with a completed pass from Dreisbach to Hayes with about 12 minutes remaining -- at the time, it was just a single play, but it altered the next decade-plus of Michigan football.
Carr's decision to work on the two-minute drill throughout the preseason was about to pay off.
"The game changed. You could feel it," Carr said. "The crowd was excited by that play. Our team was excited, and from then on, we didn't make a big mistake and utilized the clock extremely well."
Michigan finished off that drive with a 2-yard touchdown run by Ed Davis. Then the Wolverines stopped Virginia and, running the two-minute, scored again, on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Dreisbach to Hayes.
"I don't think our attack and aggression was the same," Ellsworth said. "I think we relaxed as a team and when they got momentum, things happened."
Michigan was in the game. Still, Virginia needed just one thing to go its way, and it would likely have a big win on the road to open the season.
It didn't get it.
"On that last drive, we had a third-and-2 or 3, makeable," Virginia offensive lineman Jeremy Raley said. "If we get that first down, we're on the other side of the field, kick a field goal and things change.
"I can remember missing a block on that third-down play, Michigan stops us, we punt."
It set up one of the most dramatic plays in Michigan history.
Dreisbach had taken his team down the field, putting Michigan on the Virginia 15 with 21 seconds left. Then he threw incomplete passes to Jay Riemersma and Toomer, setting up third down with eight seconds left. Dreisbach hit Tyrone Butterfield in the hands on a short route at the 10-yard line.
Depending on whom you ask, he either dropped the ball or purposely didn't catch it.
"It was supposed to go to him," said Dreisbach, who set then-Michigan records for pass attempts (52) and yards (372). "It was an error on my part to throw the ball. That's where it was supposed to go. Luckily, the way it turned out, it was incomplete and we could stop the clock."
"If he catches it with four or five seconds left, they don't have any timeouts, we tackle him, game over, off to a great start to our season," Ellsworth said. "He drops it. They get another chance and history is history."
Four seconds. One play. Those who were involved take it from here:
Dreisbach: "Pre-snap, Amani was to the left, and on the drop they rolled the coverage his way. He was doubled and I came back. If you watch my eyes I watched the safety and they rolled the coverage and that's when I turned to Mercury."
Ellsworth: "Honestly, you know how in the movies how everything is slow. Honestly, it took forever. No exaggeration. It took forever."
Carr: "I saw the ball come out of Scott's hand and my first thought was he threw it out of bounds. What I remember thinking was he overthrew him. Then, it seemed like forever. My recollection was there was no sound. There was a period where the stadium went dead quiet."
Dreisbach: "I knew it was going to be close. It was, 'Put the ball up there and let the receivers make a play.' I don't really remember thinking it was going to be in or out."
Ellsworth: "I'm watching it and I'm like, 'Nahh, he's not ... ' It was one of those 'Noooooo ... ' Then I waited to see if the ref called it good."
Carr: "I think [assistant coach] Erik Campbell, maybe it wasn't Erik, but somebody said 'Touchdown!' "
Raley: "The place erupted. It just went crazy -- 105,000 fans just screaming mad when he caught the football. That will always remain with me, how loud and crazy it got when that took place."
Former Michigan linebacker Rob Swett: "I probably jumped higher than I ever jumped when Merc caught that ball. Jumped off the bench and ran out to try and find somebody to hug."
Former Michigan offensive lineman Jon Runyan: "I remember cramping up and then everyone piling on. Those dog-pile things get kind of scary, too, when you get too many people on top of you."
Carr: "I don't think a lot of people realize how good [the Cavaliers] were. I guess the answer is I just think you go into that game, a game everybody is expecting you to win against an opponent that is underappreciated, and you're at home starting the season and you lose a game, I think it would have changed everything."
Lloyd Carr and more Wolverines recall the coach's first game and the last time Michigan played in an opening "classic," the 1995 comeback for the ages over Virginia.