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September 7, 2013

Under The Lights: Past, present and future

There is an unspoken social contract between the home team and its fans: the patrons show up, respect the game, cheer their hearts out and leave when the stadium when the clock strikes zero.

Sometimes, a game is so magical - so instantly classic - fans can't help but soak every minute of the incredible atmosphere in.

When the Wolverines toppled Ohio State, 24-12, in 1969, snapping the Buckeyes' 22-game winning streak and earning a trip to the Rose Bowl, the fans knew they had just witnessed the greatest upset in program history.

Long after the team had taken a celebratory lap of The Big House and retired to the confines of the locker room, athletic department officials informed them they had to return to the field.

The stands were still jam-packed; no one was going anywhere until the Wolverines came back out of the tunnel for one more round of raucous celebration.

On Sept. 10, 2011, the clock was inching closer to midnight, but no one wanted to leave Michigan Stadium.

The Wolverines had just capped off one of the most memorable victories in recent program history. Under the lights - in the first night game in program history - Michigan overcame a 24-7 deficit, scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning touchdown catch by Roy Roundtree with two seconds left in regulation, to take down Notre Dame.



Quarterback Denard Robinson trotted back out of the tunnel to meet ESPN College GameDay host Rece Davis for a post-game interview on the field. The still fully packed student section, which had been dancing and singing to an assortment of tunes blasting over the P.A. system, erupted when No. 16 came back to the field.

Robinson was flabbergasted by the response.

"The game is over!" he yelled it into the microphone. "Look at this. It's crazy!"

Under The Lights, the name the Michigan athletic department tagged onto the game, was a rousing success.

The atmosphere, the pageantry and the game combined in a hectic amalgamation of everything great about college football. The tired, happy fans eventually filed out of the stands.

The game was, as Robinson had pointed out, over. But the memories would last forever.

The Leadup

Michigan coach Brady Hoke has made his preference for noon games well known. The coach famously doesn't eat before games - and an 8 p.m. start means he's mighty hungry by the time he gets home.

Many of his players feel the same way.

"I like 12 o'clock games," redshirt sophomore cornerback Blake Countess said. "Get up and get right after it. Waiting around, it has its good and bad. There's nothing like playing at night, but at the same time, you have to wait around all day.

"But you can't just sit there, leading up to a night game. Coach Hoke says, 'Preparation doesn't stop until you step on the field.' If there's any ounce of preparation that you feel you need, you take that time and you get it. If you need to watch more film, you do it. If you need to go over the defensive game plan with your coach, then that's what you do. If you just need to take a nap. Some people just like to take a nap, maybe take a bath. I don't know."

While the players were waiting for the clock to tick away, the weight of the day was weighing heavy.

Since the athletic department had announced its plans to host a night game, fans and students had eagerly anticipated the day the Irish came to town.

Even famous Wolverines were reminding the team how big the game was. Former Michigan wide receiver Desmond Howard, who cemented his own legacy with a fourth-down touchdown grab to beat Notre Dame in 1991, was honored at the game and spoke with the team the night before the game.

"I said, 'You guys, this is a huge opportunity to make history. You're doing something that no team has ever done at Michigan,'" Howard said. I was jealous. That's history. When you have such a storied program like Michigan, any time you can do something for the first time, that's amazing and you should take full advantage of it."

The wait - and the hype - was well worth it.

When the Wolverines finally left the Campus Inn and arrived at the stadium, they walked into an unbelievable atmosphere.

Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback, had played in Michigan Stadium. As a member of the ESPN College GameDay crew, he had been back to Ann Arbor on eight occasions for the show.

But leading up to the 2011 Notre Dame at Michigan game, the show had not been in Ann Arbor since 2007, and Herbstreit had no idea what he was in for.

Since his last trip to Michigan Stadium, the stadium had undergone a major renovation, adding tower skyboxes to the exterior of the famous bowl, home to the largest crowd in America.

"To be honest, and I've thought about this, the shape of the stadium for decades, was just a huge bowl," Herbstreit said. "Michigan could be ranked No. 1 in the country, and you could come in here and it just wasn't that intimidating, at all. It was over 100,000 people, but it wasn't as loud as you might think.

"Now that they have the suites and the pressbox, my impression of that night was, 'Wow, it is loud in here.' I don't know if that theme has carried, but it has not become a very loud and intimidating and difficult place for opposing teams and quarterbacks to try and communicate and execute. So I think it is a factor. It ranks up there."

The new configuration of The Big House certainly helped keep some of the noise inside the stadium - but it was more than that.

Fans stormed through the gates more than an hour before kickoff, packing the bowl and making the pregame warmups - usually a mellow affair - an event.

"Coming out of the tunnel when the sun wasn't out," fifth-year senior Quinton Washington remembered. "It was like a glow. It was an experience just coming out of that tunnel at a different time, without the sunlight."

"It was a full the stadium was when you went out to warm up," Hoke added. "Student section -- really the whole stadium, it was a neat atmosphere."

The Game

"If you were around for the last night game, it was absolutely special in my opinion," Countess said. "It was crazy. You can't really put it into words, especially because I was a true freshman at the time. It was definitely a sight to see and one I won't forget."

Countess' comments echo the sentiments of the NCAA record 114,805 fans in the stands.

How do you put into words what happened that night?

But soon after kickoff, it looked as though the special night would be soured by a forgettable game.

Notre Dame cruised down the field on its first two drives to open a 14-0 lead. By halftime, the Wolverines had compiled just 90 yards of offense (to 268 yards for the Irish), which included a 43-yard pitch-and-catch prayer from Robinson to senior wide receiver Junior Hemingway that helped stop the bleeding.

Michigan went into the locker room down, 17-7.

"Coach said we have a whole bunch of football left and keep playing until the end, and that's what we did," Robinson said after the game.

After the Irish opened the lead to 24-7 in the third quarter, the fireworks happened.

The Wolverines racked up 240 yards and 28 points in the fourth quarter. After a furious comeback attempt, running back Vincent Smith took a screen pass and scampered 21 yards for a score, giving Michigan its first lead of the game, up 28-24 with just 1:12 left in the game.

That'd make for a pretty memorable game - but just to heighten the intensity, Notre Dame drove down and scored a go-ahead touchdown, leaving Robinson 30 seconds to make something happen.

And he did, hitting wide receiver Jeremy Gallon for a 64-yard gain to put Michigan in scoring position with nine seconds to go.

"Just run the ball to the middle of the field, set up an easy field goal and take this thing to overtime," Herbstreit nearly pleaded over the ABC coverage.

But that's not what the Wolverines' did.

"Roy told me in the huddle, 'Denard, I got to get 'em, I got to get 'em,' and he gave them the move, their guy kind of held him, and I just threw it up," Robinson said after the game.

Roundtree leapt over Notre Dame cornerback Gary Gray, snagged the ball and came down with one foot in bounds.

The officials reviewed the play - but there was never any doubt.

"I knew I had possession of it," Roundtree said. "I looked to the sideline because I knew I already had it."

"As a kid growing up, it was a rivalry my whole life," junior outside linebacker Brennen Beyer said. "I loved watching that game. It was one of my favorites as a kid growing up a Michigan fan. Being in that night game, that was one of the craziest games I've been a part of. That's something that will never leave me and will stick with me the rest of my life."

The Present, And The Future

This year, the Michigan-Notre Dame game has been dubbed "Under The Lights II." The first installment was such a rousing success. If not yearly, a night game on the schedule is becoming a budding tradition at Michigan Stadium.

And the players are psyched to be a part of it.

"I'm really excited. It's a big game," redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner said. "It's the biggest stage in college football. I'm pretty sure there will be close to 115,000 people there. It's the 8:00 p.m. game, College GameDay, and this is what every quarterback dreams up. Being able to perform like this. I can remember when I was a recruit coming to watch the Notre Dame game. It's always a good, close hard-fought game and each team is going to give it their all.

"It was amazing two years ago too. Even though I didn't get a chance to play, it was pretty amazing to be around the atmosphere, and I feel like we're ready for it."

Unfortunately, Notre Dame won't be involved in Under The Lights III - or any future installment.

Before last year's game, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick informed Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon that the Fighting Irish would be pulling out of the rivalry after the 2014 game.

"Our schedule is booked going out into the early 2020s, and my understanding is theirs is as well," Brandon said. "The only way we're going to play Notre Dame after next year would be if we run into them in a bowl game, or if our schedules allowed us to have some sort of neutral-site one-off game.

"We're busy scheduling, they're busy scheduling. Anyone who says there's going to be a continuation of this rivalry in the near future isn't looking at the football schedules."

Notre Dame or no Notre Dame, the Wolverines have shown they can host a successful night game. In the future, they could have one against Utah (2014), Oregon State or BYU (2015), Colorado (2016), Cincinnati (2017), Arkansas (2018), Virginia Tech (2020) or, possibly, for a Big Ten game.

And even though Hoke prefers earlier games, he has to admit that Under The Lights was something special.

"It was a neat atmosphere," he said, succinctly.


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