An Orange Bowl that began with five straight punts ended in a flurry of frantic scoring and a heart-thumping finish tonight as No. 8 Michigan twice rallied from 14-point deficits to overtake fifth-ranked Alabama, 35-34, in overtime at Pro Player Stadium.
The 66th Orange Bowl was decided by one devastating miss of an extra point by Alabama senior Ryan Pflugner. His overtime attempt to tie the score veered right of the upright, touching off a joyous celebration for a Michigan team that finished its third straight 10-victory season.
"If you're lesser caliber men, you've got a lot of chances to quit," said Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr. "They never quit. . . . But it was a shame anyone had to lose a game like this. When you win a game like this, it's as good as anything in coaching."
Michigan prevailed despite the block of what would have been a game-winning 36-yard field goal by its own kicker, Hayden Epstein, as time expired in regulation. His attempt was knocked down by high-leaping safety Phillip Weeks, forcing the overtime.
Michigan wasted little time after winning the toss and starting at the Alabama 25. On its first play, quarterback Tom Brady found tight end Shawn Thompson a step ahead of linebacker Adam Cox and lofted a pass Thompson caught at the 15 and carried in for the score.
This time, Epstein was straight and true with his extra point, and now Alabama had to match the seven points from 25 yards to keep the game going.
"I told Hayden not to worry about that miss [of the field goal at the end of regulation]," Carr said. "I told him he was going to get another chance."
The Tide almost got it done. On second and six from the 21, quarterback Andrew Zow executed a gorgeous play-fake to running back Shaun Alexander, then hit freshman wide receiver Antonio Carter in the end zone for a score that got the Tide to within a point. Then came the miss from a kicker who had connected on 21 of 25 extra points this season.
"I knew I didn't hit it really good," Pflugner said. "But I didn't know I missed it until I looked up."
Asked what he thought when he saw he'd missed, he said, "I just lost the Orange Bowl."
"I never expected the game to end like this," said Michigan linebacker Ian Gold. "This is the greatest ending ever."
The teams combined for an Orange Bowl record 35 points in the third quarter of a game that included a Michigan fumble on first-and-goal at the Alabama 1 just as the Wolverines were threatening to take the lead for the first time early in the fourth quarter.
Still, the Michigan defense ultimately prevailed, finally finding a way to contain Alexander, the great running back and Southeastern Conference player of the year, over the final quarter.
But Alabama had no defensive answer for Brady, a senior playing in his last game who completed 34 of 46 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns, three going to sophomore receiver David Terrell of Richmond.
Alexander finished with 161 yards in 25 carries, scoring on runs of 5, 6 and 50 yards for the Tide. Terrell had 10 catches for 150 yards.
Defense dominated early. Alabama finally was able to jump-start its offense when Alexander took a handoff and went 32 yards down the left sideline to the Michigan 44. Alexander completed the drive he started so nicely with a five-yard touchdown run through the right side for a 7-0 Alabama lead with 9:48 remaining in the first half. Watts had directed a seven-play 76-yard drive, all on the ground.
Alabama's defense continued to stymie Michigan, forcing a fifth punt. Freddie Milons returned the kick 23 yards, then was hit out of bounds by punter Hayden Epstein, adding another 15 yards and giving the Tide grand field position at the Michigan 31.
Zow's 22-yard pass to flanker Tim Bowens carried to the Michigan 9. Two plays later, Alexander had his second touchdown on a six-yard run for a 14-0 lead with 6:51 remaining in the first half.
Michigan got decent field position again late in the second quarter after a 36-yard punt gave them the ball at the Alabama 44.
The Wolverines did not waste the opportunity. On second and seven, Brady had plenty of time to survey the field, then fired a perfect pass to Terrell, running a post pattern a step ahead of Alabama defender Spencer Marcus. He caught the ball in full stride at the 3 and ran untouched into the end zone for a score that came with 58 seconds left in the half and cut the Alabama lead to 14-7.
Alabama was forced to punt on its first possession of the second half and Michigan again got good field position at its own 41. On third and eight from the 43, Brady caught Alabama in a blitz, leaving Terrell one-on-one with cornerback Milo Lewis. It was no contest, with Terrell catching Brady's pass in full stride at the Alabama 45 and dashing into the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown that tied the game at 14 with 13:03 left in the third period.
The lead did not last long, again because of Alexander. On third and one at the 50, Alexander broke four tackles near the line of scrimmage, then outraced Michigan defenders to the goal line for a 50-yard touchdown, his third of the night. Alexander also went over the 100-yard rushing mark, the eighth time he's done that this season, and the score allowed Alabama to reclaim its lead, 21-14, with 11 minutes left in the third quarter.
When the Tide held Michigan on its next series, Alabama used another big play to pad the lead. Epstein's punt went to Milons at his own 38, and aided by two crushing blocks, he snaked back across the field and ran 62 yards for a touchdown and a 28-14 Alabama lead.
On first down at the Alabama 20, Brady hit Terrell with a quick out, and he sidestepped Lewis and ran into the end zone for his third scoring pass, tying an Orange Bowl record. That cut the lead to 28-21 with 5:42 remaining in the third quarter.
A dropped Alabama pass on third down forced another Tide punt, and again Michigan came surging back. Running back Anthony Thomas, stifled most the night, went off left tackle through a huge hole and into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown, allowing the Wolverines to tie the game at 28 with 1:01 left in the third period.