Last Friday evening in Columbus, Ohio, while Woody Hayes and his Ohio State Buckeyes were watching yet another inspirational John Wayne movie—this time The Shootist—Bo Schembechler was tucking his Michigan Wolverines in for a long night's sleep. It is Bo's custom on these occasions to rap lightly at each player's door around 9 p.m. to make sure no one is doing anything outrageous, like ordering a garlic pizza or sneaking out the window for a night on the town. But when the night watchman came to one room he took the liberty of inviting himself in, sitting himself down and having a bedside chat with Greg Morton, a defensive tackle, and Calvin O'Neal, a middle linebacker. Schembechler wanted to give them something to dream about—namely, a victory over Ohio State.
Morton and O'Neal are both players of distinction, but even as fifth-year seniors, they had never seen their team defeat Ohio State. Michigan had been unbeaten before each of the previous four games with a chance to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl. But after losses in 1972, '74 and '75 and a tie in '73, it was the Buckeyes who went West for New Year's.
"Gentlemen," Bo began, "here we are again. You know how close we've come in the past, but something has always happened to stop us. Some people are even saying we've choked. Now we know that's not true. We've just made some mistakes we shouldn't have made. But tomorrow we're not going to make those mistakes because tomorrow we're going to win."
The following afternoon, before a record and hostile Ohio Stadium crowd of 88,250, that dream became a reality as Michigan did win, 22-0. It took the Wolverines two full quarters to get their offense in gear, but once under way they were relentless, driving to three touchdowns in the second half and being thwarted on their other two possessions by an interception after reaching the 16 and by the clock after getting to the 12. During the same 30 minutes the Buckeyes were minus seven yards net on the ground, throwing an interception, losing the ball on a fumble and never penetrating past the Michigan 38.
November 29, 1976
"Any team that can beat us that badly," said a gracious Woody Hayes afterward, "has got to be No. 1." And Hayes threw a special bouquet to Schembechler. Recalling that his old protégé had undergone open-heart surgery before the season began, Hayes boosted him for Coach of the Year. "It is almost unbelievable what he has done," said Woody. "It was the most courageous job in football this year."
Only three weeks ago courageous Bo and mighty Michigan were everybody's No. 1. But that was before a 16-14 loss to Purdue. Because Ohio State was unbeaten in the Big Ten (although losing to Missouri 22-21 and being tied by UCLA 10-10 outside the conference), the Wolverines needed a victory Saturday just to be co-champion. The Buckeyes had been in that position twice before in recent years and won. Now that Michigan has finally done the same, the Wolverines can take their half loaf to Pasadena to play USC, while the Buckeyes head to the Big Ten's unofficial runner-up berth in the Orange Bowl.
This is the eighth time in the last nine years that the Michigan-Ohio State game has divvied up the conference spoils, leaving nothing at all for the Little Eight. Until Saturday the Wolverines had won only two of the games, upsetting the Buckeyes in 1969, Bo's first year, and winning in 1971, when Ohio State was out of the running and the result did not matter as much. Michigan's repeated, almost predictable failures had some people thinking it might never beat Ohio State again. Even back home in Ann Arbor a clothing salesman admitted that his store's $14 short-sleeved sweater with the school insignia "might be half price after the game on Saturday."
Schembechler was thinking more positively. The close scores of the last four games (14-11, 10-10, 12-10 and 21-14) indicated that "We've never played badly and they've never dominated us. In fact, the score is the only thing that's really gone against us. I'm not going to sit back and say they've beaten the heck out of us, because they haven't. We've been playing well enough to win, so now we have to play well and win as well."
Publicly at least, Schembechler went around radiating the good disposition of a man who knew his number would be drawn in the next lottery. But then, Bo is smiling more these days. His heart attack seven years ago and the surgery last May have given him a better perspective on life. "I'm not as uptight as I used to be," he says. "I know that losing a football game is not the end of the world." Losing the Ohio State game can be something else, of course—the end of the universe, at the very least—so he fudged a little on his doctor's standing orders to watch his diet, get plenty of exercise and take a nap every noon. He is still gung ho, as one of his players put it, but as another said with relief, "He's also more relaxed, and this week—that made it better for all of us."
Hayes was putting in extra hours too, even passing up Patton on television the Sunday night before the game for a staff meeting. "We started thinking about this one after the Rose Bowl last January," he said. "This is the best team we'll face this year and we always point to beat the best team." The Buckeyes had already clinched at least a share of their fifth straight conference title, but they figured to be a touchdown underdog against the Wolverines. A Columbus sportswriter who dared to predict a Michigan victory was hung in effigy at a meeting of a local booster organization. Woody answered such defeatist talk by saying, "When you're an underdog you play from your heart. It involves your ability, determination and just damn meanness to go on every play." Well, if meanness is all it takes, Defensive Tackle Eddie Beamon promised, "We'll crush 'em."
These were hollow threats, though. Wolverine Quarterback Rick Leach and Wingback Jim Smith are a deadly (if infrequent) passing combination, and speedy Running Backs Rob Lytle, Russell Davis and Harlan Huckleby came into the game averaging roughly six yards a carry. Ohio State, on the other hand, had a fullback (Pete Johnson) with two bad ankles, a senior quarterback (Jim Pacenta) with only three career starts and a tailback (Jeff Logan) who was pretty good but was no Archie Griffin. "I had the feeling we could blow those guys out," said O'Neal when the game was over. "They just didn't seem to have the offensive threat they've had in the past."
In the first half, neither team did. It was conga football at its most absurd—one, two, three, kick!—everything the Ohio State-Michigan game usually is, only worse. The Buckeyes' Tom Skladany punted four times, and the Wolverines' John Anderson three before Michigan made the game's initial first down. When it finally was accomplished, on a nine-yard run by Lytle with 12 minutes gone, it seemed totally out of place. How quaint! The Buckeyes did not muster a 10-yard drive of their own until their sixth possession. Later in the half, though, they put together a serious march to the Michigan 10. Then, on a second down and eight, Pacenta faked a hand-off and, under extreme pressure from an unexpected blitz, looped a pass in the approximate direction of Tight End Greg Storer. Unfortunately, Storer was neither alone nor very close to the football, and one of two Wolverines accompanying him, Jim Pickens, picked the ball off. It was a horrible decision by Pacenta—most high school quarterbacks in Ohio would have taken the eight-yard loss—and an odd call by a coach who had said just two days before, with much pride, that "only rushing teams win the Big Ten title." Later, even Woody admitted, "I don't have an alibi. I just called a bad play. But I will always wonder what might have happened if we had been able to score." A fair guess is 22-3.
The scoreless first half did not dishearten Schembechler. "Coming into the game," he said later, "I felt there was no way they were going to stop us. Then at halftime I honestly didn't believe they'd score. I knew that our defense could hold them if we didn't give up the ball deep in our own territory. As for ourselves, I felt we could score if we just straightened out and started executing what we'd done all year."
Entering the game, Michigan ranked first nationally in rushing, scoring and yards gained per offensive play. It had a strong option attack featuring Leach, a sophomore on the path to greatness, and Lytle, a senior whom Schembechler considers "the best back I've ever coached." Whether operating as a tailback (as he did against Ohio State) or at fullback (as he did last year and much of this season), the 195-pound Lytle had been outstanding. He entered the game as the school's record ground-gainer (3,085 yards) and with the best yards-per-carry average (7.1) in the country. He is durable, too, never missing a single practice or game with an injury and admitting to two cracked ribs suffered before the season began only after they had knit.
However, despite the best efforts of Leach and Lytle, Ohio State contained the Michigan outside game in the first half. "We were getting some yardage on them inside," said Lytle, "but it was sporadic. In the second half they tried to shut off the middle more and it left the option and pitch open. But a lot of it was my fault, too. I kept looking for the big play even though it wasn't there. I just told myself in the second half that I'd better get my butt in gear."
On the first play of the third quarter Leach went right for nine yards. Three plays later Lytle went left for 15. Then it was Leach right for 20 and Lytle right for 11. Their speed was spreading Ohio State's defenders like a rubber band. Fullback Davis finally capped the 80-yard drive by slipping through right tackle from the three.
After the kick-off the Buckeyes waited three plays before unleashing their most potent weapon, Punter Skladany, who finished the day with a 52-yard average on eight kicks. But another of several fine returns by Smith gave the Wolverines the ball at their 48, and it took them only five minutes to score again. Lytle started the drive with a 16-yard burst around the right side, and Wing-back Smith kept it alive when he picked up 16 more to the Buckeye nine on a tricky reverse pitch to the left. Davis scored his second touchdown on another three-yard bolt off tackle. Schembechler had promised "another dull game just like the others," but after the touchdown he tried an unorthodox and risky twist. Realizing that a 14-14 tie would deny his team the Rose Bowl again, Schembechler ordered a two-point attempt. But not just any two-point play. No, on this one, added especially for the game, Michigan lined up in kicking formation and let the holder, Jerry Zuver, race the ball around right end for a 15-0 lead.
Zuver also played a decisive role when he intercepted a Pacenta pass and returned it 13 yards to the Buckeyes' 15. Three plays later Lytle scored from the three, his 15th touchdown this season.
Lytle finished with 165 yards in 29 carries as the Michigan offense bettered its 362-yard rushing average by four. The defense, led by Morton's 14 tackles, held Ohio State to 104 yards total offense, 225 yards below its average.
Although it was Michigan's fifth shutout of the year, it was the first time Ohio State had been blanked since a 10-0 loss to the Wolverines in 1964. In fact, as Bo himself was quick to point out, the Buckeyes did not score a touchdown against them at home two years ago either, kicking four field goals in their 12-10 victory. "You know, I got more and more confident about this game as the week went on," Schembechler said. "I would have been sick if we hadn't won. Now I can envision the Rose Bowl being for the national championship."
Now there's something to really dream about.