Squinting against the late-afternoon sun, Coach Hugh Daugherty stood on the sidelines of the Michigan State practice field at East Lansing last week and gravely watched his team work on a defense for the passes that the University of Michigan was expected to throw against them on Saturday. A reporter sidled up and asked a cautious question about Michigan's offense and about their magnificent end, Ron Kramer. Daugherty praised the Michigan attack and lauded Kramer. "But what you've got to remember," he added quietly, "is Michigan's defense. They keep the pressure right on you. And when they get an opening they really hurt you."
Daugherty had spoken better than he knew. Against hopped-up State last Saturday, Michigan's best offense was its defense. Making its own breaks, Michigan deftly turned an intercepted pass and a blocked kick into two touchdowns, dug in to stop two drives within its five-yard line, and won 14-7. For Daugherty, the loss was especially bitter. His Spartans went into the game as 13-point underdogs, came out with a solid lead in statistics that was meaningless, of course, but exasperating nonetheless.
State was the first Big Ten game for Michigan, and 97,000 fans packed every seat in mammoth Michigan University Stadium at Ann Arbor to see if Coach Bennie Oosterbaan's Wolverines were as good as the experts said. The day belonged to football. Before the game, in the bustling Student Union Building, only a handful of old grads and students bothered to watch the World Series on television. Outside, the trees were flecked with orange and yellow. Somewhere a pile of leaves was burning. Scattered about the campus were big hand-lettered signs reading: CREAM MOO U, a slighting reference to State's beginnings as a school of agriculture.
Walking along State Street to the stadium, Michigan students and their dates held hands and shouted genial challenges to every car with State banners that drove by. Over the years the students of the two schools have built up a restless rivalry. Usually the rivalry has led to pregame raids on each campus, but this year no statues were painted and no trophies disappeared from either Ann Arbor or East Lansing. Instead the Michigan students stayed home and whooped it up with a pep rally on Friday night that started innocuously enough with a few cheers and a bonfire and then suddenly exploded into a full-scale, shouting panty raid on the girls' dormitories.
October 9, 1955
But Saturday afternoon the panties were forgotten. Here was big-time college football at its best—two evenly-matched teams blocking and tackling with the rib-rattling ferocity that has made the Big Ten the most awesome conference in the nation. At Michigan, Coach Bennie Oosterbaan had built a team with enough power and speed to go into the season as the conference favorite, in part because of the presence of his kicker and pass-catcher, End Ron Kramer, who even the cautious Oosterbaan admits has virtually unlimited possibilities. For Michigan, Hugh Daugherty had State sky-high. "Our boys wanted to win this one more than any other," he said after the game. "We came down here expecting to win." As a sendoff, State's President John A. Hannah, a rabid football fan, dropped by the practice field to say a few words to the team.
When the 97,000 stood for the kick-off, State was wound spring-tight. Halfback Walt Kowalczyk grabbed Kramer's kick on the eight, found an opening on the right side of the charging Michigan team and darted to the State 37. Running out of the T and single wing behind an unbalanced line to the right, State ground out a first down and pushed into Michigan territory. Then, suddenly, with the ball on the Michigan 49, State made one of the two mistakes that lost the game. Spartan Quarterback Earl Morrall faded to pass, drifted to his left and threw. The ball was picked off in the flat by Michigan Halfback Tony Branoff, who sprinted down the sideline, then veered in to pick up a blocker and was caught from behind on the State 20.
Swiftly, Michigan capitalized on the interception. Fullback Lou Baldacci and Halfback Branoff took turns making yardage. State shifted into an eight-man line, but it was not enough. From the one, Branoff finally sliced inside Kramer to score. On the point after touchdown, Kramer carefully placed a yellow tee, waited for the snap with his head down and then stepped into the ball with a sharp, deft kick that was perfect. On the sidelines the Michigan cheerleaders bowed in homage.
Minutes later, the Spartans got a break in their turn but, unlike Michigan, they were unable to turn it into a touchdown. On third down Clarence Peaks, State's fine left halfback, dropped back a step before the ball was snapped and quick-kicked from his own 18. Michigan Halfback Terry Barr caught up with the ball on the 29-yard line and promptly was thrown back to the 27.
On the next play State recovered a Wolverine fumble. Quickly, State drove to the five, while half of the stadium exploded with delight. The Spartan band stood up and waved on its team. Then came the key defense play of the game: Peaks streaked for right end but never got there. Ron Kramer sliced into the State backfield and dumped him back on the nine for a four-yard loss. The roar from State's fans flicked off as though a switch had been thrown. State's band sat down. On the next play Quarterback Morrall dropped back to pass and then decided to run. For one tantalizing second it looked as though he would make it, but he was stopped on the three. Michigan took over on downs. At the half it was 7-0 Michigan.
Between halves the 97,000 watched the two magnificent bands toot and high-step each other to a draw and wondered if Michigan was ever going to throw a pass to Kramer and whether State would ever push past the three-yard line. Early in the third quarter State received its second big break. A hurried punt by Kramer wobbled out of bounds on the Michigan 39. Grimly, State set to work. The first-string back-field of Morrall, Planutis, Peaks and Kowalczyk carried the attack to the five. In front of the State bench Hugh Daugherty squatted and carefully reached for a blade of grass. Quarterback Morrall twice sneaked into the center of the Michigan line and got to the one-yard line. Then Planutis dove over right tackle and landed in the end zone. He rolled once, tossed the ball high over his shoulder and was swarmed under by backslapping teammates. Then he calmly converted to tie the score at 7-7.
Five minutes later the Michigan line forced the break that won the game. Back to punt for State, Earl Morrall juggled the ball and suddenly was hemmed in by three blue jerseys. His kick was blocked, was nearly caught on the fly by Kramer and ended up under the belly of Michigan's Captain Ed Meads on the MSC 21-yard line. Six plays later Quarterback Jim Maddock started a sneak from the one, then slid to his right and dove into the end zone with the winning touchdown. Kramer converted, and Michigan had taken a giant step toward the Big Ten championship. At the end of the game the Michigan stands were on their feet and chanting, "Rose Bowl...Rose Bowl...Rose Bowl...."
The 97,000 slowly filed out of the stadium to the brassy blare of The Victors, played by the Michigan band. They had seen a rugged ball game. Both teams blocked and tackled viciously. On the runback of one punt State blockers literally turned two Michigan linemen upside down. Spartan Halfback Peaks was hit so hard on another play he turned a somersault over the back of his tackler.
Throughout the game Bennie Oosterbaan stared dyspeptically at the field, restlessly pacing the grass in front of the Michigan bench. His face wore the same expression no matter what happened—blocked punts, intercepted passes, touchdowns by either team—despite the fact that he has reason to feel more at home in Michigan Stadium than any man in the world. Oosterbaan was captain of the Michigan team in 1927 that played the first game in the stadium and he's been at Michigan ever since, first as an assistant coach and since 1948 as head coach.
In the locker room after the game, Oosterbaan managed a weak smile. "They were tough," he said simply. Someone asked why Michigan had passed only twice and neither time to Superman Kramer. "We couldn't get out from behind the eight-ball," Oosterbaan answered. "Their quick kicks and our mistakes kept us back there all the time." Had Michigan planned to pass? "Hell, yes," said Oosterbaan.
Oosterbaan's team is fast, experienced and tough. His first two lines are nearly on a par, each averaging around 202 pounds a man, and his backfield is swift and powerful on the ground and has fair depth. But to date Oosterbaan has not uncovered a top-notch passer to exploit his fine set of receivers headed by Ron Kramer.
Kramer, a junior who stands six foot three inches, weighs 222 and has a pair of marvelous hands, is the complete athlete. In track he high-jumps six feet four. In basketball he averages 16 points a game. In football he is the key man of Michigan. He punts, kicks off, converts, runs the end around and, of course, catches any pass that's thrown in his general direction.
In fact, Kramer is so good that he is being compared with Oosterbaan himself, who was an All-America end for Michigan from '25 through '27. This week his growing reputation as the new wonderman of the Big Ten may well meet an even tougher test. Into Ann Arbor from the plains of West Point comes Earl Blaik's new Army team, which was attracting some superlatives of its own by soundly trouncing Penn State 35-6 while Michigan was barely squeaking past the Spartans. The Kramer partisans who were shouting so loudly for the Rose Bowl last Saturday afternoon seemed to have their sights set a couple of months too far in the future.