Happy Anniversary: Toledo's win at Michigan endures 10 years later

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    University of Toledo players are congratulated by fans after the Rockets beat Michigan in 2008.

    Blade/Dave Zapotosky

  • Sometimes, you get your cake and eat it, too.

    Sometimes, you win the War and the battle.

    Have you noticed the calendar?

    It was 10 years ago Thursday that Toledo turned the Big House into its home, following one mostly bloodless border victory — as captured by Ohio in the Toledo War in 1836 — with another.

    I’m still not sure which was bigger.

    In Toledo’s 13-10 upset of Michigan, two forgettable teams produced an unforgettable Saturday.

    A Saturday, for the record, that spilled well into Sunday, from Dorr Street to ... State Street.

    A quick story about the conquering heroes from Toledo that night: After returning to campus following the noon game, the Rockets — get this — took the celebration back to Ann Arbor.

    Star safety Barry Church remembers attending an off-campus gathering in Toledo, then, in what younger readers might call an all-time boss move, he and a half-dozen teammates turned their sights north.

    The Wolverines track team was throwing a big party, and the Toledo players had mutual friends headed that way. So up they went, too. Soon enough, Church found himself in a house full of Michigan students.

    “We were getting boos everywhere,” the current Jacksonville Jaguar said with a laugh. “It was fun going up there after winning. Their football players were there, too. [They] were like, ‘What the heck are you guys doing up here? You got lucky, we were overlooking you, who’s Toledo?’

    “But we had all types of bragging rights that day because we came up there and beat their ass.”

    A decade later, the legend has only grown.

    The Rockets have enjoyed many marquee nonconference wins, their pelts including Purdue, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Arkansas, to name a few. But when fans last year voted the victory over a three-win Michigan team the greatest in more than a century of Toledo football, everyone understood it entirely.

    For a university that too often feels like a guest in its own divided backyard, the afternoon meant everything.

    “To play a lower role than Ohio State or Michigan, I never thought that was necessary,” former Rockets coach Tom Amstutz said. “I thought the community and students had something great right here they could be proud of. ... That was a real good day for Toledo.”

    Looking back, it remains best to not try to make sense of the afternoon.

    Michigan (2-3) and Toledo (1-4) met for the first time that October day as two programs crashing in the night, one side wheezing under its square-peg new coach, the other even lower. Consider: the Rockets — on the way to their third straight losing season — fell 31-0 to Ball State the week before and would fall 38-7 to Northern Illinois the next week.

    Whether the team with the winged helmets and 11 national titles was down or not, a Toledo victory over Michigan — MICHIGAN — felt as unlikely as the Browns winning the Super Bowl in between winless seasons. The hometown university opened as a 17-point underdog.

    And yet ...

    The Rockets believed.

    Rich Rodriguez spent the week calling his Michigan players “soft.” Amstutz lifted his up, audibling out of practice one day to a team cookout at his Sylvania home.

    “I thought we had a team that was more talented and better than we had been showing,” Amstutz said. “After the Ball State game, I remember watching the Michigan film that night and saying, ‘We have a chance to beat this team.’”

    What told him so?

    “I thought we had enough personnel,” he said. “Athletically, we had kids who could run and keep up with Michigan. Second, I liked our quarterback (junior Aaron Opelt) better than their quarterback (Steven Threet). Third, I just thought something good was going to come for our team.”

    And so it did.

    Toledo fans may remember the rest. Opelt slinging 50 passes. Nick Moore catching a school-record 20 of them for 162 yards. Safety Tyrrell Herbert racing end zone to end zone — his 100-yard interception return the first of three picks by an inspired, big-play defense. Alex Steigerwald bouncing a career-long, go-ahead 48-yard field goal off and over the crossbar early in the fourth quarter. Michigan counterpart K.C. Lopata yanking a game-tying 26-yard field goal wide left in the final seconds.

    “The stars aligned,” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said.

    When it was over, and the Rockets had become the first MAC team to defeat college football’s winningest program, the party of a lifetime was on. Amstutz fought back tears as he watched his players celebrate with their corner pocket of gold-clad supporters, the joy piercing a sold-out stadium otherwise so quiet you could hear the mice.

    “Couldn’t believe it,” said Opelt, a Fremont native who had idolized fellow Ross grad Charles Woodson and dreamed of one day playing at the Big House, too.

    Did he win in those fantasies?

    “I must have,” he said, “because this is a dream come true.”

    Sure, the rest of the year was a nightmare, misery ultimately loving company. Rodriguez — who said he was “extremely disappointed and embarrassed” by the defeat — earned as many votes of confidence as victories in the worst season in modern Michigan history. The Rockets, meanwhile, finished 3-9, leading Amstutz to resign.

    But then what did we tell you about trying to make sense of things?

    A decade later, the second Saturday of October 2008 endures in Toledo as a magical snapshot in time.

    “Living in Ohio, I’m reminded of the game quite a bit,” said Opelt, now a salesman at Crown Battery in Fremont. “It was an awesome experience.”

    Sometimes, you don’t ask questions. You just savor the memory.

    And brag about it until the end of time. 

    Ask any of Church’s teammates in the NFL the last nine years, including this season in Jacksonville. 

    “A couple players on our team are from Michigan and I'll always talk stuff,” he said. “I’m 1-0 forever against Michigan. Toledo always.”

    Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.