It wasn’t exactly how Brady Hoke planned it, but Michigan’s 23-20 Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech was a fitting end to Team 132’s season. The squad that endured three of the worst years in Michigan history fought to the end on Tuesday night and came away with an ugly victory, fulfilling Bo Schembechler’s legendary statement that “those who stay will be champions.”
The seniors who endured more than perhaps any other senior class in the 132-year history of Michigan football came up big in New Orleans. Rimington Award winning center David Molk injured his foot in pregame warmups and missed the first series, but fought through the pain the rest of the game. Junior Hemingway came up with two outstanding touchdown catches to bail out quarterback Denard Robinson. Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen held their own in the middle of the defense, tightening up when needed.
On a day when Robinson and Michigan’s electric offense was never able to get going, everything that has been Michigan’s downfall the past few seasons won the game. The defense that couldn’t stop anybody the last three years held Virginia Tech to its fifth-lowest total yardage of the season. It was truly a bend but don’t break defense that never did break, allowing Tech to convert third-and-longs with ease, but clamping down when it truly mattered. Kicker Brendan Gibbons, who lost the kicking duties last season after starting 1-for-5, continued the clutch kicking he has displayed all season by booting three field goals including a 39-yarder to put Michigan ahead with four minutes remaining and the 37-yard game-winner in overtime.
Michigan certainly got its share of breaks when the Hokies were penalized for roughing the punter late in the second quarter, an interception was overturned, Frank Beamer inexplicably called a fake punt from midfield late in the game, a touchdown in overtime was overturned, and Tech kicker Justin Myer missed a 37-yard field goal in overtime. Both calls could have gone either way, but seemed to be correct overturns. Regardless, it’s uncommon to see two close calls overturned in a game and even more uncommon for Michigan to get all the breaks.
It didn’t look promising for Michigan from the start when two poor snaps forced the offense out of rhythm and Michigan went three-and-out. Virginia Tech put together a solid drive, but Michigan forced a 37-yard field goal. On the next drive, Robinson was picked off by Kyle Fuller, giving VT a chance to widen its lead. But Michigan forced another field goal, this time from 43 yards out.
After a Michigan punt, Virginia Tech put together another promising drive, but Michigan’s defense stuffed quarterback Logan Thomas on 4th-and-1 from the Michigan 4-yard line.
Michigan was forced to punt once again, but punter Matt Wile drew a roughing the kicker penalty, keeping the drive alive. On 3rd-and-17 from the VT 45-yard line, Robinson fired a back footer towards a double-covered Hemingway. It looked as if it would be picked off by the safety over the top, but Hemingway held on and cruised into the end zone putting Michigan ahead 7-6.
On the ensuing kickoff, J.B. Fitzgerald forced a fumble and Michigan recovered at the VT 26. On 4th-and-3 from the VT 19, field goal holder Drew Dileo ran to the right and threw a prayer towards the middle of the field. It bounced off a pair of Hokies before falling into the arms of lineman Jareth Glanda for a first down at the eight. A pass to the 1-yard line left Michigan with just two seconds left before halftime and Hoke elected to kick the field goal and take a 10-6 lead into the half.
The third quarter started out with a pair of punts and on the first play of Tech’s second possession, freshman Frank Clark picked off a Thomas pass, giving Michigan the ball at the Hokie 35. Four plays later, Robinson found Hemingway in the back of the end zone, again out-leaping the Tech safety and this getting a foot down in bounds. Just like that, with virtually no offense, Michigan had a 17-6 lead.
Tech wasn’t done, however, scoring 11 straight and keeping Michigan’s offense from widening the gap. With nine minutes remaining and the game knotted at 17, Tech faced 4th-and-1 from the Michigan 48. Instead of punting and pinning Michigan’s stagnant offense deep, Beamer chose to run a fake, which Michigan sniffed out and stopped, getting the ball back at the Virginia Tech 45. Robinson moved Michigan into field goal position and Gibbons gave the Wolverines a 20-17 lead with four minutes left.
But Tech put together another long drive, getting all the way down to the Michigan 8-yard line before facing a third down. A false start pushed it back to 3rd-and-7 and the Michigan defense stopped the Hokies two yards short. Myer nailed a 25-yard field goal as time expired to send the game into overtime.
In the first extra period, after two straight runs for five net yards, Thomas connected with receiver Danny Coale in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. But after review, it was ruled incomplete and Tech was forced to settle for its fifth field goal of the game. This time, however, Myer pushed it right, giving Michigan the ball needing just a field goal to win.
Three runs by Fitzgerald Toussaint set up Gibbons in the middle of the field for a game-winning 37-yard field goal that was right down the middle, giving Michigan its first BCS bowl victory since a 2000 Orange Bowl win over Alabama.
It certainly wasn’t pretty, but Team 132 became just the fifth Michigan team ever to win 11 games in a season, and it did so with defense. Tech’s offense came in averaging 415.8 yards and 28.5 points per game. Michigan held the Hokies to 377 yards and 20 points. Michigan also held running back David Wilson to his second-lowest rushing total of the season, 82 yards. He came in averaging 125 and had surpassed 123 yards in 10 of 13 games.
And so, what began with an embarrassing loss to Appalachian State, continued with two losing seasons without bowls, the worst three-year stretch in Michigan history, and NCAA sanctions, ended with wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska, Ohio State, and a Sugar Bowl victory. The plight of the senior class of Team 132 was summed up in Sugar Bowl MVP Hemingway’s postgame interview on the trophy podium, with tears streaming down his face: “It shows our hard work. It shows everything we put in from Day One, all the long days, long nights. Man, I’m telling you, it feels good man. Too good.”
Hemingway himself serves as a microcosm of the entire senior class. He entered as a heralded receiver out of Conway, South Carolina and showed promise of breaking out as a sophomore when he caught a 33-yard touchdown in Michigan’s 2008 season opener against Utah. But he developed mono, forcing him to miss the rest of the season, receiving a medical redshirt. Over the next couple years, he fought injuries before becoming Robinson’s go-to guy this season. And when all was said and done he was the one who stepped up with two tremendous touchdown catches and earned the Sugar Bowl Most Valuable Player award.
He’s just one of many seniors who will be missed next season, but their legacy will live on. Just like the Navy SEALS that Team 132 patterned its season after, Michigan found a way to get it done through adversity with grit and a determination that 10 wins was just not enough.
Michigan will head into the offseason with a likely Top 10 national ranking, 15 starters returning, and what should be a top 10 recruiting class. And when Team 133 takes the field in Dallas on Sept. 1 it may very well be the start of a national championship run against the defending national champions.