All season long Bo Schembechler had been looking for a test. He wanted his top-ranked, unbeaten, unmolested Michigan football team to prove just how good it was—and how good it could be. For eight long weeks he had watched the Wolverines roll to one lopsided win after another. Cakewalks all of them: 352 points for our side, 58 points and multiple abrasions for theirs. It seemed that Schembechler would have to wait until the Ohio State game, as always, for the ultimate challenge.
At least it seemed that way until last Saturday afternoon in Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium, once famed as a Notre Dame burial ground. With three straight losses and a 3-5 record, the Boilermakers did not appear to be much of a threat. They were fast losing their reputation as spoilers and, some said, were on the verge of losing their coach, Alex Agase. But throughout the game, as Purdue raised one knotty question after another, Michigan kept coming up with the wrong answer. And when it was over, the Wolverines, you might say, flunked the test 16-14.
The game was decided by two field goals, one the Boilermakers made and one the Wolverines didn't. There were four minutes, 20 seconds remaining when Rock Supan's 23-yarder put Purdue ahead. Still time for Michigan to score again. In fact, as Quarterback Rick Leach brought the Wolverines down the field, they seemed in no particular hurry. Four first downs got them to the Purdue 23, but after three running plays the ball was only on the 19. Bob Wood was waved onto the field with 14 seconds left.
Last year Wood set a Michigan record with 11 field goals. This season he was six for eight. His 37-yard attempt would lend a dramatic touch to the mettle-testing victory Schembechler wanted. So here it was: snap, spot, kick...long enough...but off to the left. No good. There was jubilation in Ross-Ade Stadium but none on the bench of the former No. 1 team in the nation.
November 15, 1976
"We got down there at the end and we should have scored," Schembechler said later, "but when you depend on winning on a forward pass or a field goal, you're in trouble."
Schembechler's bias against passes and field goals is understandable. He has seldom tried the one and seldom needed the other. And field goals made, missed and passed up, remember, have kept him out of three of the last four Rose Bowls.
Alex Agase certainly wasn't kicking about Supan's field goal. Most of the time Supan is a free safety. In fact, his 11 tackles Saturday led the Boilermaker defense. Supan did a little placekicking in high school but he did not become the Purdue kicker until the fifth game of this season, against Wisconsin. He beat the Badgers with a 20-yarder (not bad for on-the-job training) and was 4 for 7 coming into the game.
When Supan lined up to kick his winning field goal, he figured it was his fault the Boilermakers were trailing in the first place. His extra-point attempt following Purdue's second touchdown had been blocked, perhaps because he had lined up the ball off center. "After I missed it I said to myself, 'Please give me an extra chance.' " And when the opportunity to make amends came, the sophomore said, he was not nervous at all. "I didn't have time to get nervous," he said. "I just went out and kicked the ball, and the feeling I had was the best of my life."
There is no telling exactly what the Wolverines felt. They had not lost to Purdue in 10 years or to any Big Ten team except Ohio State since 1969. "It hurts a lot more to lose when you win a lot like we do," said Schembechler. "We don't accept it—we shouldn't accept it—because we should have won. No defeat is good."
For Purdue, victory was plenty good. It is no secret that Agase's job is in danger, and even after the game Athletic Director George King would only say, "I haven't made a decision. At the end of the season we'll sit down and talk about the future."
Lately the atmosphere around Purdue has resembled that at Republican headquarters. In losing to Michigan State 45-13 the week before, even Agase admitted, "We lost our respect." But he encouraged his players to go out against the Wolverines and "get your respect back." Mission accomplished. "They couldn't have had a better team in the country to do that against," Agase said late Saturday afternoon.
You have to respect a team that out-gains the nation's leading offensive machine 360 yards to 335 and comes from behind twice to win. Michigan scored first, driving 58 yards after the Boilermakers fumbled on the game's opening series. Leach rolled left for eight yards, and the Wolverines, who had outscored their last two opponents 80-0, seemed on their way to another rout.
It was not to be. Purdue marched resolutely downfield, only to give up the ball at the Michigan 10. And when the Wolverines' Russell Davis fumbled at his 48, the Boilermakers stormed back. It only took four plays: Quarterback Mark Vitali's 20-yard pass to Ray Smith, a five-yard swing around left end by Scott Dierking, a 19-yard burst by John Skibinski and a four-yard run by Dierking.
Purdue's FOOLs (Fraternity of Offensive Linemen) had never blocked better, particularly on Purdue's fourth possession of the half, when the Boilermakers went 54 yards for the touchdown that put them ahead 13-7. Dierking scored that one, too, barreling the final 25 yards on a draw. "I stepped left at first," he said, "but when I saw their linemen slanting that way, I cut back. With a slanting team like theirs, you can't have any slow-developing plays. You have to be quick out of the backfield, and we were."
The Boilermakers took more than a lead into the locker room at halftime: they carried the confidence that they could win. "We just went crazy in there," Dierking said. "We knew it could be, because we knew we could run on 'em."
It helped that Dierking was back in top form for the first time in four games. He was Purdue's leading ground gainer the past two years and had had some big games this season before suffering tendon damage against Wisconsin. He finished the afternoon with 162 yards rushing and a feeling of vindication for Agase. "I felt like I was playing for him today," Dierking said. "He got a lot of bad-mouthing around campus and in the papers this week. I think we deserved it, but the ribbing he took made me feel bad. I'd do anything for him."
Dierking was not out there alone, though. When the Wolverines took the second-half kickoff and drove to a first down on the Purdue four-yard line, the Boilermaker defenders stiffened and recovered a fourth-down fumble. The Purdue offense could do no better than punt, however, and back the Wolverines came. After four straight running plays by Harlan Huckleby gained 13 yards, Leach connected with Jim Smith for a 64-yard scoring pass. With his boys back in front 14-13, Schembechler was having nothing bad to say about passes quite yet.
In the fourth quarter the Wolverines lost a chance to put the game away—and helped set up Purdue's drive for the winning field goal—when Rob Lytle fumbled on first down at the Boilermaker 29. As Vitali, Skibinski and Dierking brought Purdue upfield, Supan waited for the opportunity to redeem himself. And when that opportunity did come, Supan was up to it.
Whether or not the Wolverines can regain the No. 1 spot they held for so many weeks will depend on their ability to rebound—and a little help from someone else. Assuming a victory over Illinois this week, Michigan must then beat Ohio State in Columbus, thus qualifying for the Rose Bowl, where they can knock off the Pac-8 representative, UCLA or USC. At the same time they need someone—perhaps Penn State or a bowl opponent—to beat Pittsburgh, the new No. 1. It's a tough combination, but certainly no tougher than playing Purdue turned out to be.