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Charles Woodson or Roman Wilson: Who Did It Better?

Charles Woodson
© RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

It took years but Michigan legend Charles Woodson finally has some competition when it comes to iconic catches in Michigan Wolverine history. Woodson and Roman Wilson are two Michigan national champion players, with two outstanding catches, and two particularly memorable moments but does one stand out more than the other?  The two plays happened 26 years, two months and 16 days apart. Woodson’s catch is remembered every year in almost every pregame hype video. Does Wilson’s catch deserve that status as well, and is it possible the Wilson catch is even better?

No matter how old you are, if you are a Michigan fan you know who Woodson is and what he accomplished in Ann Arbor. Woodson is considered by most fans to be the greatest to have ever worn the winged helmet.  In his time at Michigan, Woodson made many great plays but one catch against Michigan State stands out. 


Wilson, on the other hand, has always seemed to fly under the radar, even though he made play after play at Michigan. Wilson never seemed to receive the accolades or attention he deserved in the media. That was until he made a remarkable reception against Alabama in the Rose Bowl to keep Michigan's national championship hopes alive.


Both players helped lead the Wolverines to national championships, both spent their entire college careers at Michigan and both will be remembered forever in Ann Arbor. In no way is this a comparison of Wilson to Woodson. That would not be fair.

Woodson won the Heisman Trophy and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Wilson is set to commence his rookie season in the NFL. Thus the focus of this article is to consider and compare two remarkable catches—one on offense and one on defense—and to discuss whether one constitutes the most memorable moment in Michigan history.   


The Plays

Air Woodson

Arguably one of the greatest interceptions ever, Woodson showcased his extraordinary ability by leaping high into the air to pick off a ball that Michigan State Spartans quarterback Todd Schultz attempted to throw out of bounds. It happened on Oct. 15, 1997, in East Lansing. 

The then-No. 5 Wolverines were on the road in a close contest against the then-No. 15 Spartans in the teams' annual backyard brawl. The play happened on a third-and-9, with the ball on the MSU 30 and 2:30 left in the third quarter. MSU was down 13-7. Their signal caller took the snap, dropped back and then rolled to his right. With no one open, he attempted to throw the ball away. However, Woodson was in the area, and he had NBA leaping ability. Schultz put the ball in the air, and as the ball was heading out of bounds, Woodson went airborne, grabbed it with one hand, came down and somehow managed to get one foot inbounds for the interception.  

As revealed by the above YouTube video of the play, the announcers were amazed. They resorted to hyperbole, noting that Woodson appeared to leap "15 feet in the air."


Wilson Saves the Day

On Jan. 1, at the granddaddy of them all, with the nation watching, Willson made a catch that saved the game, the season and ultimately paved the way to the national championship. Michigan was down 20-13 to Alabama with time running out. Wilson then stepped up to make the biggest catch in his Michigan career. 

With 2:19 left in the game, Michigan trailing and the ball at the Bama 34-yard line on a first-and-10., quarterback JJ McCarthy took the snap. Wilson cut across the field as McCarthy threw the ball. It was tipped by a defender at the line of scrimmage. Wilson went airborne with two Alabama defenders in coverage.


Wilson snagged McCarthy's deflected and elevated throw out of mid-air, came down with the ball and then, without missing a stride, made Freshman All-American and future Ohio State Buckeye Caleb Downs miss. He took the ball all the way down to the 5-yard line.  

Two plays later, Wilson took the ball into the end zone. Michigan tied the game and went on to win in overtime. 

The Moment

The Woodson and Wilson plays both took place in big games and at times when their team needed them to step up. Woodson's big play came against intrastate rival Michigan State, at Spartan Stadium, in a battle of top-25 teams. Wilson's play occurred in the clutch on one of the biggest stages in college football, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, during a College Football Playoff semifinal clash.   


Woodson's play came in a rivalry game, during the seventh game of the season. Wilson's play, on the other hand, came in a CFP game, with a spot in the national championship game on the line.

Wilson made his big play with approximately two minutes left in the fourth quarter when the Wolverines were down by seven. Woodson's play, by contrast, came in the third quarter, with the Wolverines up by six. Additionally, Woodson's play occurred on a third down. Thus, even if he did not make the remarkable interception, MSU would have most likely punted.

If Wilson did not make his acrobatic catch, one of the Crimson Tide defenders may have intercepted the pass, likely resulting in an Alabama victory. Given these circumstances, Wilson's catch can reasonably be viewed as more iconic and significant than Woodson’s undeniably brilliant interception. 

Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Roman Wilson (1) makes a catch as Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Malachi Moore (13) looks on during the second half in the 2024 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sport
© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Woodson's Unbelievable Athleticism

Both Woodson and Wilson had to get airborne to make their catches. Wilson came across the field, got air and pulled the ball in. Woodson's catch came near the sideline, and his leaping ability combined with his one-handed snare and followed by his tight-rope to come down in bounds, was breathtaking.

Wilson made a great play in the clutch, but the athleticism of Woodson's play is unrivaled. As the announcers commented at the time, “Folks you can watch football a long, long time before you see a play like that again.”  

The Final Debate

In the final analysis, both catches are iconic Wolverines plays. While Woodson's play is one of the most athletic plays ever, Wilson's play is one of the most clutch and meaningful in the history of Michigan football.

The debate becomes the moment the play happens more important than how athletic the play was made. In the 1997 game in which Woodson made his play, Michigan prevailed 23-7. So likely, even without the play, Michigan still would have been victorious. However, Michigan likely would have lost to Alabama and not gone on to the national championship had Wilson not made his clutch play. Woodson is a hero to many Wolverines fans. However, Wilson’s pivotal play in the Rose Bowl should be remembered as the most iconic catch in Michigan history.


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