ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Tate Forcier kept getting stopped for interviews, then hugs from well wishers, then a handshake with a defeated Jimmy Clausen. By the time he broke free, he sprinted to the northwest corner of Michigan Stadium where his teammates had gathered in front of the student section to sing a rousing rendition of "Hail to the Victors."
He was too late. The song was about done, the moment over and for the first time Saturday the true freshman was a step too slow, a moment too late. For once he hadn't led his Wolverines in anything.
Forcier started this party by delivering a come-from-behind, final-seconds 38-34 victory over Notre Dame. Inside an overwrought bowl of maize, with deep Midwestern shadows being drawn, the 19-year-old had run for one touchdown and thrown for two more, including the game-winner with 11 seconds left. He'd swung the momentum of this massive program from what now, to what if?
"Everybody kept saying, 'A freshman can't do it,'" he said, smiling. "Well, I did it."
What the cool, confident San Diego native did was send a program desperate for good news and better wins into delirium; Michigan Stadium nearly coming apart at its mid-renovation seams as this six-figure crowd rocked and roared with a couple years of pent-up emotion.
What he did was push the focus on his coach, Rich Rodriguez, away from contract battles and newspaper investigations. Instead Forcier and the Wolverines offered the valiant victory that gave everyone confidence that this coaching hire would work, that national prominence was returning fast, that Michigan was Michigan again.
What he did was snatch this signature win from Charlie Weis and his band of stars, call into question some late-game Irish play calling and keep everybody on edge in South Bend.
Forcier had attended Notre Dame's camp for years, but Weis didn't want him as a recruit, he didn't think he was "a perfect fit for us."
Well, he was just perfect enough to beat them.
Weis will be blamed for throwing twice – including one low-percentage bomb – late in the fourth quarter when he could've been forcing Michigan to burn timeouts ["you have two choices – you run the ball just to make them use their timeouts or you try and win the game," he said in defense.]
Yet you can't completely blame him for taking a pass on Forcier. The kid is not the pro-style, big-armed QB that Weis favors. Forcier has a slight frame that makes a mockery of his listed size of 6-1, 188. He'd be no one's first choice if he stumbled on a law quad pickup game.
He kept switching high schools, his teammates call him "goofy" and the way he plays could be described as compulsive gambling – except he keeps winning. While some saw an undersized and overconfident recruit, Rodriguez watched film and saw a total package. He told Forcier during the recruiting process that he'd be his starter come September. Forcier was just crazy enough to say it back.
So here it was, September, and Forcier showed that same speed and deception while busting a 31-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter. Here it was, the big rivalry game, and Forcier displayed that same knack for throwing darts while on the move, including that lonely moment game-winner to Greg Mathews.
It wasn't just the playmaking though that had sold Rodriguez. It was that poise and personality to do it immediately. This was a kid who could show up and potentially save his program, could start from snap one, could do it in the most intense of situations – scoreboard-trailing, time-ticking, Notre Dame-chasing, ABC-broadcasting – with 110,278 fans standing, holding their breath.
"That's why we signed him," Rodriguez said. "Some guys when everything is going crazy around them you can see them change their personality. Tate is just the opposite."
It turns out not even Rodriguez could've imagined how perfect Forcier would be for Michigan, how oblivious he would be to the circus surrounding him, how he could be so loose before the game he was more concerned about whether his teeth were brushed than the fact menacing defenders such as Brian Smith and Darius Flemming were waiting to knock them out.
Everything at Michigan had been so heated of late. Rodriguez arrived and produced wave after wave of uncomfortable moments – from contract squabbles back at West Virginia, to losses to Toledo, to potential rules violations involving practice limits.
A program that had cruised along for decades was splintering. Rodriguez himself complained about conflicting factions, about how he might not be given enough time for his proven blueprint to work. He even broke down while defending himself at a press conference.
An old coal miner in the stands Saturday was nearly in tears over seeing the weight of the Big House lift off his son's shoulders. Vince Rodriguez had a simple dream for his three boys: never experience the fear he did the first time he descended into the black of Federal No. 1, to pound out a paycheck from Eastern Association Coal Corp.
"Anything but the coal mines," Vince Rodriguez said.
The last thing Vince thought he'd see is one of his boys deal with a different kind of pressure as a rich and famous college football coach.
"He doesn't sleep right," Vince said. "He doesn't eat right. It's rough on him. It's rough on his family. [The win] takes all the pressure off of him."
Vince could stand to attend just a single game last year. He skipped last week's opener too.
"It's harder on his mother," Vince said of Arleen Rodriguez, who didn't attend the Notre Dame game. "I can turn away. She can't."
And amidst all the anger and angst, all the pressure and prestige, amidst even his own fourth-quarter interception that set up Notre Dame's lead-seizing drive, the undersized, overconfident Forcier noticed nothing.
"I just kept playing," he said, shrugging his slight shoulders, like there could be any other option.