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NEW ORLEANS — Michael Shaw refused to lift his foot.
Slumped over at his locker inside the Superdome, the Michigan senior running back pinned his football pants to the floor, refusing to surrender a keepsake from a wonderfully painful career that culminated Tuesday evening in a 23-20 overtime win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Get lost, Mr. Equipment Manager. These pants are leaving with me.
“I’m keeping everything,” Shaw proclaimed.
The memories, especially.
A senior class that went 3-9 as freshmen arrived at the end of the gamut in New Orleans, relying on a defense that excelled with “a place to stand” and a kicker who was thinking about — what else? — brunettes before making the game-winning field goal. Surely, there have been more talented classes to come through this decorated program, but perhaps none has experienced the range of emotions that Shaw and this group has.
Tuesday encapsulated the path taken the past four or five years, as the Wolverines stumbled, and stumbled some more, before regaining their balance at the end.
“We kept fighting and we kept our faith,” Shaw said, his voice gone hoarse from celebrating. “Like the saying that Bo [Schembechler] made up so many years ago, those who stay will be champions. We stayed, and now we’re Sugar Bowl champions. Who would have thought?”
Just how the Wolverines managed to finish off this campaign triumphantly and become the fifth team in program history to secure 11 wins cannot be answered truthfully without mentioning one invaluable intangible — luck. They were outgained 377-184 and averaged only 1.9 yards per carry. Two woeful passes by Denard Robinson — and Michigan’s quarterback certainly had more than two of them Tuesday — were dropped by Virginia Tech. The two touchdowns the Wolverines scored weren’t the product of great play calling or execution, but the result of circus catches made by a senior who goes by the moniker Big Play Junior Hemingway.
“We’ve been through the worst of the worst,” senior Ryan Van Bergen said. “We’ve lost by 30 and we’ve won by 48. We’ve been through every situation.”
Any situation they hadn’t previously encountered was checked off Tuesday. Such as when Michigan’s long snapper, Jareth Glanda, was in a fortuitous spot to catch a deflected ball on a fake field goal. Other members of the unit were unaware coach Brady Hoke had ordered a fake, and yet it worked, capping a 10-point burst before halftime. That play, it could be said, should never have even reached that zany stage because the kicker, Brendan Gibbons, appeared to move before the snap.
When it was the Hokies’ turn to whip up some trickery, they failed to execute a fake punt that set up Michigan for a go-ahead field goal with four minutes left.
These Wolverines must be living right.
Yet still, despite the proverbial ball bouncing in Michigan’s favor all night, Virginia Tech was an overturned call from likely winning. Hokies fans thought Danny Coale’s marvelous one-handed catch in overtime was a touchdown. Michigan viewed the play similarly, including Shaw who turned to his offensive teammates on the sideline and said, “Ooh, we gotta step up because that was a catch.” Except it wasn’t, because the replay booth said so. Short of another Hemingway miracle, Michigan’s chances of matching Coale’s touchdown to force a second overtime were unfavorable.
Yep, after years of not catching breaks, the Wolverines were drenched in them. Just don’t expect an apology anytime soon.
“We were looking up halfway through the third quarter and the stats rolled across the screen,” senior tight end Kevin Koger said. “They had more first downs, they had more total yards, they had more time of possession, and we were still up. We had no idea why. It wasn’t pretty. It was definitely ugly, but we found a way to win.”
The brunettes dancing around in Gibbons’ head presumably were pretty, not ugly. There’s a story behind that. Sometime after Hoke arrived to Michigan, he realized it was Gibbons’ confidence, and not his skills, that led to him making just 1 of 5 field goals and losing his job in 2010. Thus, Hoke advised him that rather than focusing on the pressure of making the kick to think about something less stressful. Something like ... a beach full of hunnies. Brunette hunnies, to be exact.
Whatever works, right? After three set-up runs, Gibbons buried a 37-yard kick — his third of the game. Confetti rained from the rafters as the Wolverines convened on a temporary stage, slipping into T-shirts that read “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”
“Everybody wrote him off as a guy who couldn’t kick and as a guy who couldn’t play for Michigan,” Shaw said. “Now he kicked the game winning field goal in the Sugar Bowl. What more could you ask for?”
How about a pair of pants?
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo