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Michigan football: are the ghosts gone?

Michigan football stadium
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
The Wolverines set to score against Ohio State in 2005.

Michigan football fans often wear funny pants and funny hats. They sing funny songs and tell funny stories.

But to Michigan fans, some things are not funny – and Appalachian State is about five of them. 

You might recall those guys, who opened the 2007 season against the fifth-ranked Wolverines. Everybody made fun of Appalachian State, because nobody knew where it was. It turns out it isn’t even a state. I looked it up. 

No ranked team in the game’s top division, like Michigan, had ever lost to a team from Appalachian State’s division. The point spread was 27. Not since 1891, when the Wolverines opened the season against Ann Arbor High School, did Michigan’s home opener seem like such a mismatch.   

Until the game started, that is. App State led most of the game, and held a 34-32 lead when Michigan set up for a last second field goal. As scary as it had been, once Michigan kicked the field goal, everybody figured, all would be well.

It is still considered the greatest upset in the history of college football, a game now called simply, "The Horror."

But Appalachian State blocked the kick, won the game, and sent Michigan’s players and fans into a vortex of pain and shame. It is still considered the greatest upset in the history of college football, a game now called simply, “The Horror.” There’s no need to explain what it means to a Michigan fan.

With it, Michigan’s aura of invincibility, even at the Big House, vanished.

The next year, a bad Toledo team proved it was no fluke when the Rockets became the first Mid-American Conference school to beat the Wolverines in 25 attempts. 

But these losses seemed like bad nightmares after coach Brady Hoke led the Wolverines to an 11-2 season in 2011, including Michigan’s first victory over Ohio State since 2003, and its first BCS bowl victory since a young man named Tom Brady did it 12 years earlier. The ghosts were gone. 

This season, the Wolverines crushed Central Michigan, 59-9, then beat Notre Dame at home. The ghosts were gone. The aura, it seemed, was back. 

Next up: the Akron Zips, named for rubber galoshes that were popular 90 years ago. The Zips finished their last three seasons with identically miserable marks of 1 win against 11 losses. They had not won a single away game in five years.

This was the kind of game where Michigan coaches tell the back ups, “You’ll be getting in this weekend,” and thousands of fans don’t show up until the second half, or show up at all. 

But the lowly Zips had other plans. They went ahead 10-7 in the third quarter, and again, 24-21 with just four minutes left. Years ago, Michigan fans would have been mildly amused by the plucky visitors, still confident that their Wolverines would be stomping them shortly. 

But after the Appalachian State and Toledo debacles, the nightmares came creeping back. The fans were often silent – covering their foreheads, eyes and ears with their hands, in the fear that it could all come true again.

Their Wolverines responded by marching down the field in just 91 seconds to retake the lead, 28-24. But the Zips did something that was becoming increasingly common since The Horror: They responded by marching down the field themselves, playing without fear.

The Zips had already knocked a would-be field goal off the upright. They had already thrown an interception in the endzone. And they had already thrown another pass right through the hands of a receiver in the endzone. On the final play, the quarterback threw too high, incomplete. 

The Wolverines might have been lucky, but they survived.    

Some pundits are already calling this the game “The Worst Win Ever” – but the key word is “win.” Unlike upsets, fans forget about ugly victories pretty fast.

But these three games set up next year’s rematch with – you’re not going to believe this – Appalachian State. Despite the recent stunners, you’d still be foolish to bet against the Wolverines. But not as foolish as you would have been seven years ago. The ghosts just might be here to stay.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.