Friday, July 08, 2005

Anatomy of a Michigan Loss

Despite being one of the premier college football programs in D-1 football, Michigan has given fans countless ulcers and heartbreaks. It seems like Michigan invents a new way of losing each year. Things go wrong at the most inopportune time providing some of the more memorable losses in sports history. I'm going to break down every Michigan loss since 1988 to see if there's some kind of a trend or method to Michigan defeats. At the very least, going over these losses again will hopefully be therapeutic.

I chose 1988 for two reasons.

1). The 1988 season is the first season I can vividly remember and thus the first season I can speak from personal experience.
2). The 1988 season seems to be a good starting point in analyzing heartbreaking Michigan losses since the first two games were as crushing as they come. The season opener featured the all-too-familiar heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame. The second game was even worse when Michigan had #1 ranked Miami on the ropes before an unforgettable fourth quarter collapse left the Big House stunned.

The Losses:

Here are the 46 losses since 1988:

Sept. 10 1988 @ #13 Notre Dame 17-19 (lost to lower ranked team)
Sept. 17 1988 #1 Miami (Fl) 30-31
Sept. 16 1989 #1 Notre Dame 19-24
Jan. 1 1990 #12 USC 7-10 (Rose Bowl) (lost to lower ranked team)
Sept. 15 1990 @ #1 Notre Dame 24-28
Oct. 13 1990 Michigan St. 27-28 (lost to Unranked team)
Oct. 20 1990 #22 Iowa 23-24 (lost to lower ranked team)
Sept. 28 1990 #1 Florida St. 31-51
Jan. 1 1991 #2 Washington (Rose Bowl) 14-34
Sept. 11 1993 #11 Notre Dame 23-27 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 9 1993 @Michigan St. 7-17 (lost to unranked team)
Oct. 23 1993 Illinois 21-24 (lost to unranked team)
Oct. 30 1993 @ #21 Wisconsin 10-13
Sept. 24 1994 #7 Colorado 26-27 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 15 1994 #3 Penn St. 24-31
Oct. 29 1994 Wisconsin 19-31 (lost to unranked team)
Nov. 19 1994 @#22 Ohio St. 6-22 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 7 1995 #25 Northwestern 13-19 (lost to lower ranked team)
Nov. 4 1995 @Michigan St. 25-28 (lost to unranked team)
Nov. 18 1995 19 Penn St. 17-27 (lost to lower ranked team)
Dec. 28 1995 #19 Texas A&M 20-22 (Alamo Bowl) (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 5 1996 @#22 Northwestern 16-17 (lost to lower ranked team)
Nov. 9 1996 @ Purdue 3-9 (lost to unranked team)
Nov. 16 1996 #11 Penn St. 17-29
Jan. 1 1997 #16 Alabama 14-17 (Outback Bowl) 3 (lost to lower ranked team)
Sept. 5 1998 #22 @ Notre Dame 20-36 (lost to lower ranked team)
Sept. 12 1998 #19 Syracuse 28-38 (lost to lower ranked team)
Nov. 21 1998 #7 @ Ohio St. 16-31
Oct. 9 1999 @ #11 Michigan St. 31-34 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 23 1999 Illinois 29-35 (lost to unranked team)
Sept. 16 2000 @ #14 UCLA 20-23 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 7 2000 @ Purdue 31-32 (lost to unranked team)
Nov. 4 2000 @ #21 Northwestern 51-54 (lost to lower ranked team)
Sept. 8 2001 @ #15 Washington 18-23 (lost to lower ranked team)
Nov. 3 2001 @ Michigan St. 24-26 (lost to unranked team)
Nov. 24 2001 Ohio St. 20-26 (lost to unranked team)
Jan. 2002 2002 Tennessee 17-45 (Outback Bowl)
Sept. 4 2002 @ #20 Notre Dame 23-25 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 26 2002 #13 Iowa 9-34 (lost to lower ranked team)
Nov. 23 2002 @ #2 Ohio St. 9-14
Sept. 20 2003 @ #22 Oregon 27-31 (lost to lower ranked team)
Oct. 4 2003 @ #23 Iowa 27-30 (lost to lower ranked team)
Jan. 1 2004 #1 USC 14-28 (Rose Bowl)
Sept. 11 2004 @ Notre Dame 20-28 (lost to unranked team)
Nov. 20 2004 @ Ohio St. 21-37 (lost to unranked team)
Jan. 1 2005 Texas 37-38 (Rose Bowl)

Here are just some of the ways Michigan managed to lose those games:

-1988 Miami comes back from a 17 point deficit with eight minutes left which included a two point conversion and an onside kick recovery.

-1988 Notre Dame scores 0 offensive touchdowns. Michigan misses a fg as time expires.

-1989 Notre Dame scores 1 offensive touchdown. Rocket Ismail returns two kicks for TDs

-1990 On potential game winning drive, Michigan gains 24 yards on 4th and 2 but a holding penalty negates the drive. USC scores on next possession for the win.

-1990 Michigan St. beats Michigan as one of the most mind-boggling calls (or non-calls) in sports history negates a last second Michigan score.

-1994 Michigan controls Colorado for the entire game sans one miracle Hail Mary.

-2000 Michigan appeared to be headed for victory as Travis Dorsch missed a fg with 2:11 seconds left. Michigan went three and out and the Michigan def. faltered giving Dorsch another chance only a minute later.

-2000 With Michigan needing only to run out the clock to preserve the win, Anthony Thomas fumbled giving Northwestern one final chance for the victory.

-2001 Washington scored 0 offensive touchdowns. Michigan led 12-6 in the fourth quarter before Washington returned a blocked fg attempt for a td and a few minutes later returned an interception for a touchdown.

-2001 Michigan St. beats Michigan once again in controversial fashion. Michigan appeared to have won the game after stopping Michigan St. on 4th and 16 but Jeremy LeSueur was called for a personal foul giving Michigan St. a fresh set of downs. Michigan St. moved the ball close to the goal line where the clock should have expired. A friendly time keeper gave the Spartans an extra second which ended up costing Michigan the game.

-2003 In a particularly tough game to swallow, Oregon only managed two offensive touchdowns but somehow put up 31 points to win 31-27.

-2005 Michigan had all the momentum as they led Texas by 10 late in the game. Michigan's conservative play calling prevented Michigan from scoring again as Texas stole the game with Vince Young running all over the M defense.

There seems to be a blueprint for a Michigan heartbreaking loss. In most cases, the opponent doesn't play well. Michigan lost four of these games while giving up only three offensive touchdowns combined. Also, Michigan has given up games where they appeared to dominate the game or be in control until the last few minutes. These games include Miami (1988), Colorado (1994), Illinois (1999), Washington (2001), Iowa (2003), and (Texas 2005). In three of these losses, Michigan was the victim of deplorable officiating. Even though this was before 1988, Michigan lost to USC in the 1979 Rose Bowl on one of the worst calls in sports history. Charles White was awarded a touchdown after fumbling at the two yard line.

One thing that Michigan fans have taken pride in is the fact that even after falling behind early (and sometimes by large margins) Michigan always seems to make it close in the 4th qtr. This was the case recently with the loss @ Oregon in 2003 and the loss vs. Ohio St. in 2001. Michigan rarely loses without a fight. Giving this phenomenon credence is the fact that out of the 46 losses Michigan has suffered since 1988, there were only five games where they stood little to no-chance of winning entering the game. These mismatches were against USC in 2004, Tennessee in 2002, Ohio St. 1998, Washington in 1991, Florida St. in 1991. If you take these five games out of the stats, the average margin of defeat in the remaining 41 games is 5.7 points per game. This means that 41/46 (89%) of the losses since 1988 were in games where Michigan was either expected to win, or had at least a 50/50 shot at winning. That last statistic is the main reason why many Michigan fans have such paralyzing memories of past Michigan games.

The 5.7 average margin of defeat should explain why there have been so many notoriously disastrous defeats in the minds of the average Michigan fan. Check out any ESPN Classic listing and it will surely feature a Michigan defeat somewhere in the near future. It's important to understand that it's not just that it seems like Michigan has so many heartbreaking losses, but that it's a reality. Since 1988, these are the games where Michigan grasped defeat away from the hands of victory (or at least was close enough in the 4th qtr to flirt with victory):

Texas 2005, Iowa 2003, Oregon 2003, Notre Dame 2002, Michigan St. 2001, Washington 2001, Northwestern 2000, Purdue 2000, UCLA 2000, Illinois 1999, Alabama 1997, Northwestern in 1996, Texas A&M in 1995, Michigan St. in 1995, Colorado in 1994, Wisconsin 1993, Illinois 1993, Notre Dame 1993, Notre Dame 1990, Michigan St. 1990, Iowa 1990, USC 1990, Notre Dame 1989, Notre Dame 1988, Miami 1988

That's 25 heartbreaking losses out of 46 total losses. That's 54%! What this means is that more than half of Michigan's losses have been gut-wrenching. 30 of the losses were decided by six points or less. That means Michigan has been one score away from victory in the 4th qtr 65% of the time only to come up short. Those are 30 losses that could've been victories with a bit of luck. That's 30 losses that will be burned in the memory for years to come.

The Trends:

The 46 losses since 1988 have yielded some disturbing trends. 52% of the losses have come on the road. 33% have come at home and 15% have come in bowl games. Michigan was ranked higher than its opponent in 72% of the losses! That's another reason that Michigan's losses seem to be so heartbreaking. 72% of all Michigan losses in the last 17 years are to teams that were ranked lower. Any loss is tough but it's much easier to swallow a loss to a better team. 33 times (or about two games per year) the Michigan fan base has had a reasonable expectation of victory only to see the Wolverines lose.

Even worse than losing 33 times to a lesser ranked team is the fact that Michigan has lost 12 times (or 26%) to teams that were unranked! 25 times (or 54%) Michigan has lost to a team ranked 19th or worse. It's tough to say that team A is definitely better than team B just because team A is ranked higher. Because of that, I won't say that all of Michigan's losses to lesser ranked teams were unacceptable. However, I think that any loss to an unranked team is unacceptable and any loss to a team ranked 19th or less is at the very least borderline unacceptable. That means that over half of all Michigan losses since 1988 have been unacceptable. That is a brutal percentage.

Another trend that pops off the page is that when Michigan loses to someone, they lose to them more than once. Here is the breakdown of losses to each team:

7 to Notre Dame 15 % of losses since 1988
5 to Ohio St. 11% of losses since 1988
5 to Michigan St. 11% of losses since 1988
3 to Northwestern 7% of losses since 1988
3 to Iowa 7% of losses since 1988
3 to Penn St. 7% of losses since 1988
2 to USC
2 to Washington
2 to Purdue
2 to Illinois
2 to Wisconsin
1 to Miami, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, UCLA, Syracuse, Alabama, Florida St., Colorado, Texas A&M,

The seven losses to Notre Dame probably explains why so many Michigan fans despise the Fighting Irish. Five of the seven losses to Notre Dame were by five points or less. 58% of the losses came to Notre Dame, Ohio St., Michigan St., Northwestern, Iowa, and Penn St. Considering that Notre Dame, Ohio St., and Michigan St. are the three primary rivals, it certainly hurts that they've accounted for more than a third of the losses. Also, Michigan has lost seven times to the three primary rivals when the rivals were unranked.

Judging from the breakdown above, it appears that you either beat Michigan multiple times, or you don't beat them at all. Michigan has lost to seven different Big Ten teams over the last 17 years. Those seven teams accounted for 25 of the 46 losses (54%). The seven Big Ten teams that Michigan has lost to have beaten the Wolverines an average of 3.5 times. Each team has beaten Michigan at least twice.

Six of the losses have come to Pac-10 teams.

From the data above, it can be said that Michigan loses to a select group of teams. 38 of the 46 losses (or 83%) have come to the Big Ten, Pac-Ten, or Notre Dame.

Big Ten vs. Non-Conference-vs. Bowl Games:

14 of 46 (31%) of the losses have come in non-conference regular season games.
7 of 46 (15%) of the losses have come in bowl games.
25 of 46 (54%) of loss have come in the Big Ten

So, 46% of Michigan losses have come to non-big ten teams despite Michigan playing twice as many games against the big ten as all other teams. This indicates that when Michigan plays a non-conference team, the chances of them losing is close to twice as great as when they play a Big Ten team. Michigan has been the strongest program in the Big Ten over the last 17 years so it's understandable that they have a relatively low percentage of losses coming from conference play. However, the teams that Michigan has lost to in non-conference games have often been equal to or worse than the average Big Ten team. It can be argued that, Ohio St., Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan St. have been better programs than Notre Dame over the last ten years yet Michigan has lost to them three times since 1998. Just last year, perennial Big Ten doormat, Indiana won in convincing fashion at Oregon. Michigan lost at Oregon in 2003. At the time, the game was considered a quality loss since Oregon has had success at home. However, if Indiana can pummel Oregon, then Michigan has no business losing to the Ducks.

Month by Month breakdown:

14 in September
14 in October
11 in November
7 in December/January

There doesn't seem to be a trend with regards to what month games are played. Michigan has a much lower winning percentage in December/January (bowl games) but that makes sense since the opponent is usually much better than the average team on the regular season schedule.

Moeller vs. Carr:

Moeller had eight of his 13 (62%) losses come to teams that were ranked lower than Michigan. Four of his 13 (31%) losses came to unranked teams.

Carr had 23 of his 29 (79%) losses come to teams that were ranked lower than Michigan. Eight of Carr's 29 losses (28%) have come to unranked teams.

There really isn't much of a difference between the two coaches in the fact that both lost more games against lesser teams than they should have. As a fan, the thing that sticks out about the Moeller years (besides the felonies and 3-4 loss seasons) is that Michigan put away teams they were supposed to beat. Moeller's teams scored 35 or more points 26 times in five seasons. On the other hand Carr's teams scored 35 more points only 28 times in his first eight seasons. I think this is important because Moeller's teams seemed to put games away more often than Carr-led teams. The bottom line here is that Moeller didn't lose nearly as many games against lower ranked teams but was just as prone to losing to unranked teams as Carr.

Moeller's teams were more impressive against Notre Dame despite playing better Notre Dame teams. Moeller was 2-2-1 against the Fighting Irish despite playing against Notre Dame teams ranked #1,#7,#3,#11,and #3 respectively. Carr is 3-3 against Notre Dame despite playing Notre Dame teams that were unranked, #22, #16, #20, unranked and #15 respectively.

Positive Trend:

There has been a positive trend that has developed over the last few years. I was troubled to see that most of Michigan's losses seemed to be coming at home in the first ten years of the breakdown. However, that trend has changed dramatically. Since the Michigan St. loss in 1995, only 5 of the 28 losses have come at home (18%). Even more encouraging is that since the UCLA loss in 2000, only 1 of 16 losses have come at home (6.2%). I hope that this means Michigan finally has a home field advantage when playing in the Big House.


After researching the last 17 years, I can conclude that Michigan loses way too many games to teams they should beat. They lose an extraordinary amount of games in heartbreaking fashion. They lose most often to teams that are considered hated-rivals. They often lose rivalry games to teams that are unranked. And they lose to the same teams over and over again.

I'm sure that most college football fans feel that their team has had particularly mind-numbing losses. Every school has memorable wins and losses. This breakdown is not meant to take anything away from the on-field accomplishments that Michigan has achieved. It's simply meant to confirm what most Michigan fans have thought for years. The manner in which Michigan loses is not normal. Most people can accept a loss when it's reasonable. However, when the loss takes on the feel of torture, it ceases to be reasonable.


ATL_eagle said...

If you're up for more pain, some Notre Dame guy broke down all of Bo's big losses. The guys at Blue Gray Sky will probably bust it out for the Notre Dame-Michigan game. I feel for you, but at the same time you've won a MNC in your lifetime. More than most fans can say.

Anonymous said...

I have absolutely no idea how Michigan fans still feel the time should have run off in the MSU game. I've watched it countless times, and a whole second didn't go off. Next time you watch it, get a stop watch, it wasn't more than one second. There was no friendly timekeeper, he was simply a timekeeper doing his job. Besides, UM got a lucky win back last year anyways, it's amazing how quickly that games has been forgotten.

Jake said...


First let me say that I don't blame "clockgate" for the loss. I blame pure stupidity in the form of an unecessary personal foul that kept the game going after Michigan stopped MSU on 4th and 16. That was just ridiculous and at that point, Michigan probably deserved to lose.

However, if the complaints were limited to just Micigan fans who thought this, then you'd have a point. But it's not, and you don't. The timekeeper himself admitted that his bias got the better of him. The Big Ten implemented a new rule as a result and there isn't one publication that has suggested that Michigan St. did not beneft from a "slow finger". You paint a picture of it being Michigan fans vs. the world, when in reality, it's Michigan St. fans vs. the world.

One play doesn't decide a game. Michigan put themselves in a position to lose. However, to say that you don't understand how "Michigan" fans can still think there was tomfoolery going on is to minimize the amount of people that feel something wasn't right.

P.S. As for last year, UM did get lucky that Stanton got injured but there was no controversy. A game won without controversy does no make amends for a game won with controversy.

Anonymous said...

I was at the clockgate game, and all the MSU fans were laughing about it right after it happened. That was proof enough for me.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that the timekeeper may have had a slow trigger finger, and, i don't doubt that a lot of msu fans would have laughed about it, i think it is funny. However, that does not change the fact that it was reasonable, and, if someone put a stopwatch to it, i bet they'd find out it was called correctly.

Anonymous said...

The first anon is wrong about the 2001 MSU game. What happened was obvious: The timekeeper stopped the clock on the snap.

What's supposed to happen? The timekeeper is supposed to stop the clock when the ref signals the play is dead. You can watch any game where a team rushes up after a first down (when the clock is stopped temporarily) and check how much time runs off when the team spikes the ball. It's always 2-3 seconds that run off the clock. Not one. And certainly not zero.

The original post was wrong on one point in an earlier UM/MSU controversy: From 1990. The ground cannot cause a fumble on a fumble. The ground CAN cause an incompletion. A receiver has to maintain possession and control of a pass as he hits the ground (whether on his feet or on his back). Desmond Howard did not maintain possession as he hit the turf, so it was properly ruled incomplete (Keith Jackson and Bob Griese messed that up, so don't trust the replay).

That doesn't mean Desmond wasn't illegally tripped; he was. But if the proper call had been made Michigan would have had another try 18 inches closer, not a guaranteed 2 points.

Why U-M didn't try a quick out then a FG after the onside kick is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if stopping the clock when the ball hits the ground and having it stop when the ref signals it arguement makes sense. A ref is supposed to signal the stoppage of the play simultaneously with the ball striking the ground incomplete, which in turn, the timeskeeper is supposed to stop the clock simultaneously with the ref signalling the stoppage. If there was instant replay, the refs would have ordered the time to be stopped the instant the ball was incomplete, not when the ball stopped rolling or a half second later to account for a typical timekeepers reaction time. Just because there is typically a one second delay doesn't mean that is how it should be.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me of my favorite program's failures. I have enough of my own to worry about. Let's talk about the Lions' failures. That sits much better with me since I'm not a fan. MFL

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I used to read DSR fro criticisms of Detroit sports, but that site has declined recently.

Refreshing to hear a Michigan fan not wholly blame "clockgate" for the 2001 loss. However, your assessment of the game is missing a key moment. Not only did JL get personal foul for trying to rip Charlie's helmet off with his head still in it, but later on that same drive, on another 3rd or 4th and long, Michigan was called for a personal foul for playing a down with 12 men.

You sack Smoker 12 times in that game and still can't win? That's pretty bad.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to do this. I really enjoyed (well, I hated it, but you know what I mean) the "Anatomy" and the sequel. Keep up the good work. I've passed it along, and others also think it is excellent.


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