Column: Ghosts at the Big House

Michigan survived with an ugly win against Akron last week, but the nightmare of Appalachian State hasn't been exorcised
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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.

Their fight song didn’t make a very strong argument, either: “Hi-Hi-yike-us. No-body like us. We are the Mountaineers! Always a-winning. Always a-grinning. Always a-feeling fine. You bet, hey. Go Apps!”

“The Victors,” it was not.

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.

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 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 road game in five years. Did they really think they’d break that streak in the nation’s biggest stadium, against the only BCS team with a 16-game home winning streak?

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, 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. If they had capitalized on any of those opportunities, they could have taken the lead, or set themselves up to win the game at the end. Instead, 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.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” was published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

One Comment

  1. By Mark Koroi
    September 20, 2013 at 11:44 am | permalink

    More specifically, the Zips had a 27-road loss streak coming into the game and identical 1-11 records during 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons.

    The game had to be a tremendous morale booster for the Zips, even in defeat.