This is part of a series on Canes football games that have been lost to history. Information on the series including other articles is available here.
The year is 1988. President Ronald Reagan is in the final year of his presidency. The week of September 17th, 1998 saw Sweet Child O- Mine by Guns N’ Roses top the Billboard Hot 100 list. And The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy was #1 on the New York Times fiction best seller list. Gas was $0.96 a gallon. The big news story was that we were a week away from the first Presidential Debate between Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Miami entered the game 1-0, having beat Florida State 31-0.
Michigan was 0-1, having lost at Notre Dame 19-17.
The Canes were the defending national champions, having gone undefeated in 1987. They were the #1 team in the country and favored to win this game. The infamous Seminoles Rap game had elevated the Canes to an almost Super Human level of play.
Michigan came into this game ranked 15th in the nation. They had lost the Notre Dame game after falling behind early, and then rallying to take the lead, only to lose in the 4th quarter.
Another story was the coaches. Michigan was lead by the legendary Bo Schembechler. Miami had the greatest coach in football history in Jimmy Johnson.
Miami got off to a poor start when they fumbled on their opening possession after one first down.
Michigan QB Michael Taylor was able to move the Wolverines inside the Canes 15, but the drive stalled. Michigan did collect a FG and lead 3-0 5 minutes into the game.
The Canes responded, immediately. Cleveland Gary and Rob Chudsinzki would combine on the next drive (something that would be a running theme). Gary carried for one first down, then Chud helped convert a 3rd and long to midfield, collecting a pass from Steve Walsh. On 3rd-and-9 from the 49, Walsh hit Gary who broke several tackles and outran Michigan to the end zone putting the Canes up 7-3.
Michigan countered with a drive to the Canes 29. Taylor again proved elusive as his mobility was neutralizing the Canes pass rush. But Michigan kicker Michael Gillette missed the FG.
Miami’s next drive was a disaster, as they threw an incompletion and then made a dead ball personal foul. They ended up punting from the end zone, and the punt was short. Michigan started at the Canes 40. Fortunately, Gillette was off on the day, and after the Wolverines drove to the Canes 17, he missed another FG.
That ended the quarter with the Canes leading 7-3, and Michigan having missed 2 FGs.
After the Canes went 3-and-out, Michigan once again drove, this time behind Tony Bowles’ running and Taylor’s ability to throw on the run. The drive stalled inside the Canes red zone, but Gillette made this FG and it cut the lead to 7-6.
On the next drive, Randall Hill bobbled the kickoff and the Canes faced a long field. Cleveland Gary had a long run and long catch to move the ball out to the Canes 40, but a holding penalty killed the drive. On 4th down, the Canes faked the punt and successfully converted. That led to Cleveland Gary diving in from the 1 to put the Canes up 14-6 with 3 minutes left in the half.
Miami almost short-circuited the next Michigan drive. Bowles fumbled, and several Canes had a chance to recover near midfield, but couldn’t. They’d pay for that as on 3rd-and-7, Michigan would complete a big pass on an out route to the Canes 17. A few players later, Taylor would throw a TD on a play-action pass. Michigan went for and missed the 2, so they trailed 14-12, with 57 seconds left.
On the ensuing kickoff, Miami fumbled after a good return out to the 35. Michigan recovered. On 3rd-and-6 from the 22, the Wolverines threw a TD to the corner of the end zone on a great sliding catch. Michigan also converted the 2 and led 20-14.
Miami managed to accidentally kneel the next kickoff at their own 3, but got into the half by diving into the line.
Miami had been in control of the game, but gifted Michigan 14 points in the last minute of the half to trail.
After forcing the Wolverines to punt to open the 2nd half (Michigan’s first punt of the game), Gary, Leonard Conley, and Chud made several plays to take the Canes to the Michigan 12. Gary was open for the go-ahead TD, but Walsh just overthrew him. On the next play, the ball went off Dale Dawkins’ hands and was intercepted by Michigan at the GL. They returned it out to the 19, so Miami didn’t even get field position.
Another 3-and-out returned the ball to the Canes, but once again Walsh had a ball go off a receivers’ hands, this time Gary, for an interception, this time near midfield.
The Wolverines took advantage, getting a big completion to the Canes 20, and followed that up by Taylor scrambling inside the 10. But Randy Shannon made a huge sack to force Michigan to settle for a FG, which they made to go up 23-14.
The quarter ended with Michigan having forced a Canes 3-and-out and driven it out to the 45. Michigan would convert 2 3rd-and-longs. The first was a pass to the Canes 38. The second was after Taylor was injured on a sack. On 3rd-and-16, backup Demetrius Brown came in and completed a long throw to the Canes 14. Taylor returned for a 3rd-and-13, and hit Chris Calloway for the TD that put the Wolverines up 30-14.
If the Canes were ready to mount a comeback, it didn’t show on the next drive. Miami went backward and punted out of their end zone. Michigan took over at the Canes 41. The defense held and forced a punt that went out for a touchback.
Trailing by 16 with 7:30 left and the ball on their 20, a win seemed almost impossible. Almost.
Walsh hit Dawkins for 22 yards, and then Andre Brown to the Michigan 45. Chud then got involved, catching several passes to convert 1st downs, including finally for a TD with 5:23 left. Dawkins caught the 2-point conversion and the lead was down to 30-22.
The Canes forced a 3-and-out and caught a fair catch at their own 43. After a completion to Chud was just short of the 1st down, the Canes and specifically Cleveland Gary made the play of the game. From the Michigan 48 on 4th-and-2, Walsh hit Gary on a crossing route and he broke free from the defenders, headed up the sideline and ran for a TD to pull the Canes within 2. The 2-point conversion was intercepted, and the Canes trailed by 2 with 2:58 left.
This is where Jimmy Johnson made the call of the game. With 3 timeouts, the Canes could have kicked deep. Instead, he went for the onside kick. And Miami recovered. Not wasting any time, Walsh hit Andre Brown to the edge of field goal range. From there, Cleveland Gary ran the ball to the Michigan 16. The Canes ran the clock down as much as possible, and Carlos Huerta nailed the FG with 43 seconds left to put the Canes up 31-30.
Michigan moved the ball to near midfield, but a Hail Mary attempt fell short and the Canes escaped with a 31-30 win.
Full Game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zXKXXjQlcw
Why is it Memorable?
This game is the closest I came to a game being too memorable to be on this list. But, you ask anyone about the 1988 season, and the discussion is about the Notre Dame game, not this one.
But Miami should have lost this game. The missed Michigan FGs, the multiple interceptions short-circuiting drives, the multiple errors on kickoffs…you shouldn’t be able to recover from that.
The Canes did, though. Timely stops by the defense, and an awful lot of Rob Chudsinzki and Cleveland Gary, as well as nerves of steel from Steve Walsh turned this game around. Gary himself scored 3 TDs and was unstoppable all game long.
And what about Jimmy Johnson? Twice, he made critical decisions that won the game. In the first half, the Canes were clinging to a 1-point lead but struggling. His fake punt decision got them in the end zone. And then there’s the onside kick, which set up the winning FG. Conventional wisdom is to kick deep and use timeouts, but Johnson went the other way.
That resulted in Michigan fans being a bit stunned:
This dude is lucky it was 1988 instead of 2018, cause this would have been a meme pic.twitter.com/jMH8fP2Bsy
— Vishnu Parasuraman (@vrp2003) April 5, 2020
When you leave the opponents looking like that, it is a win for the ages.
This turned out to be 2 of the best teams in the country.
Miami would “lose” to Notre Dame because apparently Cleveland Gary lying flat on the ground is not down yet. That blemish would cost them a National Championship and they’d finish 2nd.
Jimmy Johnson would move on at year’s end, turning the Dallas Cowboys into a dynasty while Dennis Erickson took over and won 2 National Championships in the next 3 years.
This team deserved a championship, but was robbed.
As for Michigan, they only tied one game the rest of the year, winning the rest, including the Rose Bowl to finish ranked 4th.