ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was a gorgeous, sun-kissed day seven years ago on a Labor Day Saturday as I made a short trip from a hotel near the Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Michigan Stadium on the opening weekend of the 2007 college football season.
None of the 109,218 fans that filled the largest sports stadium in the U.S., the players, coaches, support staffs, or any of the throngs of media that were there that afternoon had any idea that we were about to witness one of the most improbable sporting events in college history as unheralded Appalachian State stunned Michigan, 34-32.
For an entire summer I had been telling anyone who would listen that the fifth-ranked Wolverines would have their hands full with a talented and speedy Mountaineer squad that was coming off back-to-back national championships and would eventually become the first team in the Football Championship Subdivision to win three consecutive NCAA Division I titles.
But even I wasn’t fool-hearty enough to think I would be watching what Sports Illustrated would proclaim as an all-time upset in its following week’s edition, with App State receiver Dexter Jackson as the magazine’s cover boy.
Mountaineer safety Corey Lynch was on the cover of USA Today Sports Weekly, tabbed as a history maker and guard John Holt was later featured on the cover of the second edition of the McFarland Publishing bookCollege Football’s Most Memorable Games, raising his hands to the sky in celebration.
Several documentaries and other books have revisited this historic event.
As the Mountaineers reprise their visit to the Big House this Saturday, it still is hard to comprehend the improbability of what transpired on that historic afternoon. But the memories of the event are indelibly stamped in my memory banks.
For a writer who remembers games from over 30 years ago in vivid detail, the events of that weekend are even more indelibly stamped on my brain.
I don’t need the DVD from the Big Ten Network broadcast to remember Dexter Jackson zooming through the Michigan secondary for his first of two touchdowns, Armanti Edwards going airborne into the end zone for another score, or T.J. Corman’s spin move on the sideline drink the final ASU drive and CoCo Hillary breaking free in the middle of the field for a 24-yard reception to the Michigan five that set up Julian Rauch’s field goal in the final seconds.
I still can replay in my mind, Wolverine receiver Mario Manningham beating cornerback Justin Woazeah on a double move and hauling in a 46-yard pass from quarterback Chad Henne to give Michigan one final chance to pull out a win.
The iconic Mark Campbell photograph of Lynch blocking the final Michigan field goal attempt isn’t necessary for me. I watched the event unfold from the floor of Michigan Stadium, standing just outside the 30-yard box on the ASU sideline.
Lynch’s game-ending block of Jason Gingell’s 37-yard field goal attempt created one of the eeriest scenes I have ever encountered at any news event. The huge crowd had come its feet and erupted into a deafening roar in anticipation of a hard-fought Wolverine victory, but those cheers turned to pin-dropping quiet when the kick thumped into Lynch’s chest.
I was a few feet away when Lynch’s teammates mobbed the muscle-cramping, dog-tired hero on the field on the Michigan sideline, near the 10-yard line where he was tackled by Gingell as the game ended.
The scoreboard on the far end of the field read Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 as the massive crowd stood in stunned silence. All but a few thousand Mountaineer faithful who were screaming their lungs out in one corner of the stadium.
That small throng of App State supporters, players and coaches seemingly celebrated for what felt like hours before the busses were loaded and the Mountaineers started their journey to the airport and finally back home.
Those of us in Ann Arbor that day missed out the wild scene in Boone, where fans rushed to Kidd Brewer Stadium, dismantled the goal posts and paraded them a mile away to the front yard of Chancellor Kenneth Peacock.
There have been lots of goal-post removals and victory celebrations in Boone, before and since, but none have duplicated that party.
When Peacock and I greeted each other outside of the Michigan Stadium press box that morning, neither of us could have imagined such a scene transpiring back home in a few hours.
Fans were still lining Stadium Drive in droves when the Mountaineers finally made it back to campus late that evening after making a bus trip from the Tri-Cities airport to Boone.
Rauch remembered recently that it took nearly 45 minutes for the busses to travel from Stadium Drive to Owens Fieldhouse, several hundred feet away.
Mountaineer coach Jerry Moore, who was carried from the Big House on the shoulders of his players made the distinction before the contest that it wasn’t a “money” game, but an “opportunity” game.
Appalachian State was paid $400,000 for that opportunity and earned incalculable revenue after its upset win.
The Mountaineers will receive a cool $1 million for Saturday’s visit, but even another victory isn’t expected to have the financial, or publicity impact of that first Michigan encounter.
Media outlets throughout the country have been dissecting the App-Michigan upset at length on the verge of the team’s rematch.
This time around, for App State’s first entry into the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks, there is actually a betting line on the game. Michigan is listed by ESPN as a 35-point favorite.
In 2007, there were no Las Vegas odds on the Football Championship Subdivision-Bowl Championship Series matchup. A successful bet that day might have bankrupted a few bookies.
One of the many surrealistic moments for me during my first visit to Michigan Stadium came at halftime when nationally renowned columnist and author Mitch Albom pulled up a chair next to me in the press box to pick my brain.
After watching the Mountaineers dismantle the Wolverines for 30 minutes to take a 28-17 lead, Albom had a simple question.
“What is the greatest upset by an FCS team all-time?” Albom asked.
Just 30 minutes into play, Albom was already convinced he might be watching history being made — as was I — and wanted to be prepared.
I told him that my No. 1 win by an FCS team over a Football Bowl Subdivision squad was The Citadel’s 10-3 win over Arkansas in 1992 — a result that got Razerback coach Jack Crowe fired by Arkansas athletic director and former football coach Frank Broyles the next day.
App State’s win over Michigan topped that result by miles, even though Wolverine coach Lloyd Carr was sparred a firing ax that weekend.
It will be difficult for the Appalachian State-Michigan game to ever be topped on the list of FCS-over-FBS upsets, considering the Wolverines were ranked No. 5 in the nation at that time and went on to win the Florida Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day over Tim Tebow and Florida and the way that the result stirred the nation.
It is a moment that Lynch said he is reminded of almost every day by someone. And most of us who witnessed that scene along with Lynch relive it only slightly less often.
As a writer, I doubt that I’ll ever see another event that will quite live up to my trip to the Big House.