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It Finally Comes to Pass at Michigan : Nonconference: Wolverines’ surprise play on fourth down helps beat Notre Dame, 24-14, ending Irish’s dominance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The play would have brought a shriek from Bo Schembechler. But Michigan’s fourth down-and-inches touchdown pass gave the Wolverines a 24-14 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday, the kind of victory people will remember here for years.

Michigan Coach Gary Moeller won’t soon forget the call. Standing on the sidelines, his team needing less than a foot for a first down, Moeller did what his predecessor, the ultra-conservative Schembechler, would have done only in his dreams: Call a pass play. No wonder Schembechler, who was back in a New York television studio at the time, needed a few moments afterward to collect his thoughts.

“I can hear him now,” Moeller said: ‘You crazy son of a gun, what are you doing?’ ”

Schembechler wasn’t the only one muttering those words. Imagine--fourth down at the Notre Dame 25, the third-ranked Wolverines ahead by three points, slightly more than nine minutes to play . . . and Moeller tells quarterback Elvis Grbac to pass. Never mind that Michigan’s massive offensive line outweighed Notre Dame’s defensive line by an average of 35 pounds per man, or that Wolverine running back Ricky Powers already had 117 yards, or that the seventh-ranked Irish might mount yet another fourth-quarter comeback. Moeller wanted what Notre Dame and the 106,138 fans at Michigan Stadium never expected.

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He wanted a pass. To split end Desmond Howard. Now.

At least, that’s the official version.

Well, he got it, although nobody, including Moeller, Irish Coach Lou Holtz, the two safeties covering Howard, lineman Greg Skrepenak and Grbac expected the catch would be made.

“Oh, . . .,” said Skrepenak, as he followed the flight of the ball, “he threw it over his head.”

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“Oh, great,” thought Grbac, “he’s never going to get there.”

Even Holtz felt moderately comfortable with his chances, what with two Irish defensive backs assigned to the speedy Howard.

“I really didn’t think they would throw, but we couldn’t have been in better coverage,” Holtz said.

But out of nowhere came Howard, who extended every inch of his 5-foot-9, 176-pound body and caught the 25-yard pass near the back of the end zone. It was his second touchdown of the game, but unlike the other one--a 29-yard reverse--this touchdown will become part of Michigan football folklore.

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“I heard the silence of the crowd, I grabbed it and heard the roar,” Howard said. “It was like music to my ears.”

The Irish (1-1) tried to return the favor, but no such luck. They had the ball for one ill-fated drive and then never saw the ball again, except when Powers was slashing past them for five- and seven-yard gains. He finished with 164 yards and a touchdown of his own.

“Michigan played about as perfect a game as they can play,” Holtz said.

Holtz would know. He watched as Michigan gained 233 yards on the ground, compared to the un-Notre Dame-like 78. He saw the Wolverines double the Irish in time of possession, 40:40-19:20. And he viewed the end of a Notre Dame winning streak against Michigan that had stretched to four games.

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The Wolverines could count, too. They had been reminded of the streak for weeks, so much so that Moeller even started thinking about the supposed jinx.

“It’s like, ‘Is there a Santa Claus or isn’t there?’ ” Moeller said.

If there is, Michigan received two nice presents when Grbac and Howard, teammates in high school, arrived on the Ann Arbor campus four years ago.

Grbac was 20 for 22 for 195 yards and one touchdown--but what a touchdown pass it was. Howard had six receptions for 74 yards.

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Howard has six of Michigan’s eight touchdowns this season. At game’s end, he stood on the field and cherished the victory. He started yelling, “Yeah! Yeah! It feels great! We finally did it!”

Grbac was no less emotional.

“After I threw that touchdown pass (to Howard) I was almost crying.” he said.

At last check, no one was absolutely sure how the play came to be. Moeller said he called it from the sideline. Michigan guard Matt Elliott said it was Grbac’s call at the line of scrimmage. Grbac said he called the play in the huddle.

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And this from Skrepenak: “I didn’t know if he wanted to go for the gusto or the one yard.”

What possessed Moeller to approve such a thing?

“I was confident in our defense that even if we didn’t make it, we could hold them,” he said. “And would I call it over again? Yes, I would.”

Once was enough for Notre Dame.

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