The blueprint for beating the Michigan Wolverines in the largest football stadium in the nation is fairly straightforward. If followed religiously and enthusiastically, it can supply a positive result.
Here’s how it goes: Obsess about the Big Ten team at all times during the off-season; when running 100-yard stadium sprints, do two more for Michigan; and when lifting a prescribed amount of weight, hoist a few more reps for the Maize and Blue.
Thirty-seven years ago, the University of Washington football team didn’t waver from this plan. The 16th-ranked Huskies entered the Big House in Ann Arbor, 40 miles west of Detroit, and made themselves right at home.
They raided the refrigerator, put their feet up on the coffee table,, and laughed at the No. 3-rated Wolverines, 20-11. Following that glorious afternoon in 1984, they returned home to Seattle with one of the most satisfying road victories in school history.
“Everything you did was geared for that Michigan game,” former UW safety Jimmy Rodgers said.
Now 59, with flowing gray hair and forever a mischievous streak in him, Rodgers helped orchestrate UW’s only victory in four trips to what is formally known as Michigan Stadium, capacity 107,000.
CBS selected Rodgers as the Huskies’ co-player of the game, with quarterback Hugh Millen, after he intercepted a pass, broke up two others, recovered a fumble and chalked up six tackles, including a sack.
“It was the last time I physically felt great,” said Rodgers, a hellbent player who broke his arm three times during his career and needed hip surgery when he was done playing.
The Oregon native remembers the Big House walk-through, staring at the magnitude of the never-ending rows of seats, of catching a glimpse of a most surprising coaching moment and wishing he had a photo of it: in the stadium tunnel, old friends Don James and Bo Schembechler stood locked arm in arm, chatting away before getting after each other the following day.
On Saturday, Rodgers noted how close the stands were to the UW bench as they filled up, maybe 10 feet away. One Wolverines fan steadily chirped at him, supplying an assortment of insults.
Once the game began, the Huskies took it right to Michigan. They forced five turnovers and sacked Michigan’s quarterback five times. The Wolverines couldn’t handle Rodgers or edge rusher Reggie Rogers, a UW basketball player the year before when these teams met in Husky Stadium. One guy controlled the line of scrimmage and the other played center field immaculately.
Still, this was a higher level of play than the then-Pac-10 supplied, requiring a momentary adjustment period.
“When you see the guard pull from Oregon, it’s a party; you can’t wait to run up and meet him,” Rodgers said. “When it’s the pulling guard from Michigan, it’s so scary.”
Rodgers held up well, though. He made life miserable for Jim Harbaugh, then the Wolverines quarterback and now the coach.
He noticed how the quarterback gave away his passes by moving his head certain ways and he picked up his audibles.
“I knew Jim Harbaugh better than he did,” the UW safety said.
Rodgers and Harbaugh got much better acquainted midway through the first quarter. The aggressive defensive back drilled the Michigan offensive leader well after he scrambled out of bounds, knocking the quarterback clear over to the Wolverines’ Gatorade bucket.
He drew a late-hit penalty and a one-on-one meeting with the hot-tempered Schembechler.
“Here I am behind enemy lines and Bo Schembechler is in my face and calling me every name in the book,” Rodgers said. “It was so delightful. It was a surreal moment. It was like, ‘Hi Bo, thank you sir.’ I just smiled.”
The Huskies built a 20-3 lead that held until the closing seconds. While James inserted his second-team defense into the game in the final quarter, Schembechler stayed with his starters and moved the ball near the UW goal line.
Once the Wolverines got close, James put his No. 1 defense back on the field, but couldn’t prevent Michigan from scoring on a short Harbaugh pass with two seconds remaining.
With no chance of winning, Schembechler still instructed his team to go for a two-point conversion, which was good and cut the final margin to nine points.
After the Husky victory was complete, Rodgers once more encountered that loud-mouthed Michigan fan, who turned classy by congratulating him and putting two cold beers in his helmet.
The personable Rodgers, ever hopeful the current Huskies can bounce back from their shocking opening defeat to Montana and produce another UW victory at the Big House, lives in Seattle these days and is the fun-loving host of the Downtown Dawgs podcast.
He comes across like a football-minded Jimmy Kimmel, enticing an assortment of celebrities to sit in front of the camera with him and laugh a lot.
A month ago, Rodgers even called up Harbaugh, trying to get him to do an episode long distance. To his surprise, the Michigan leader clearly remembered him and even the late hit. They had a pleasant chat.
The former Husky safety next sent Harbaugh a video clip promoting the show, which he later realized was a tactical mistake. The footage showed Rodgers tackling the old Michigan quarterback late and well past the sideline stripe. They never got together to do a podcast segment.
There was a valuable lesson in there for someone who otherwise had learned how to tame the Big House and all of its inhabitants.
“If you want to get an interview with the opposing coach,” Rodgers reminded, “don’t send him a video of him getting his ass kicked.”
The Ann Arbor Agony
The collective UW-Michigan series stands at 5-7, including 2-2 in Seattle and 2-2 in the Rose Bowl. Outside of 1984, the Huskies’ other Ann Arbor visits were extra painful.
1953, Michigan 50, Washington 0 — The Johnny Cherberg-coached Huskies had nothing to offer, getting outrushed 373-99 and committing six turnovers. The score was 31-0 at half. It didn’t help that the Wolverines curiously missed six of eight extra-point kicks. Only 51,223 of the 97,000-plus seats were filled.
1969, Michigan 45, Washington 7 —The Wolverines scored on their first five second-half possessions, enlarging a modest 12-0 lead at half into a beatdown. Michigan running back Glenn Doughty rushed for 191 yards and quarterback Don Moorehead for 128. Sixteen years later, the home team still had extra-point problems, missing four of seven. Just 49,684 fans, half of the Big House capacity at the time, watched this one.
2002, Michigan 31, Washington 29 — Before 111,491 fans, the Huskies flat-out gave one away. Sure victory was snatched from them when they were penalized 15 yards for having too many men on the field with just six seconds remaining, enabling Michigan kicker Philip Brabbs, after missing his first two attempts, to convert a 44-yard field goal as time expired. The UW assistant coach responsible for the miscue was Bobby Hauck, the Montana head coach who directed last weekend’s equally shocking 13-7 upset of the Huskies.
Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Dan Raley’s latest work can be found at Husky Maven at si.com