In chilly, damp Ann Arbor last Saturday afternoon Texas A&M seemed in a dandy position to upset Michigan. The Aggies had trounced highly rated Texas Tech in Lubbock the week before to become the fifth-ranked team in the national polls. They had an improving defense and, more impressively, enough offensive weapons to make NATO envious: David Walker, a heady senior quarterback; Curtis Dickey, the leading all-purpose runner in America (172.3 yards a game); Tony Franklin, who was averaging three field goals a game and was a threat to kick the ball through the uprights and all the way to Kalamazoo; and George Woodard, a massive fullback who blasts into the line with the impact of a boulder hurtling down a steep slope.
Moreover, the Wolverines, ranked No. 1 the first two weeks of the season, had been so unimpressive in beating Duke 21-9 and Navy 14-7 that the pollsters had demoted them to third. Why, against Navy it appeared Michigan's best executed play was something called "delay of game."
Yet, before a "regional" TV audience that covered most of the country and an in-person crowd of 104,802 (the third largest in Michigan Stadium history), the Wolverines survived a first-half game of giveaway and came back in the last 30 minutes to batter A&M 41-3.
Rumor has it that the conservative coaches at schools like Michigan won't even let the players pass the potatoes at training table; they must slide the platters instead. But, while A&M was repeatedly firing the 272-pound Woodard into the line, Michigan Quarterback Rick Leach passed 18 times, almost one-third of the Wolverines' offensive plays. Never mind that Leach only connected on six. By the long-established standards of Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, 18 passes constitute a mad aerial display.
October 9, 1977
"Against A&M you've got to be ready to throw," said Schembechler after the game. Then, tongue in cheek, "Just like every game, we came out throwing.
"I'm not a conservative guy. I wish you people would understand that. We have the most dangerous offense there is—lateral passes. Now, today we just threw forward passes."
Leach, the junior who has been doing the passing, both lateral and forward, ever since his first game as a freshman, was born to play for Michigan. In fact, he was born in the University of Michigan Hospital. His father, Richard Sr., and his Uncle Bob were baseball lettermen at Michigan and played on the Wolverines' first NCAA championship team in 1953.
Rick himself is one of the finest all-round athletes to come out of Flint, Mich. He played on the national championship Connie Mack baseball team in 1974, was first-team all-state in football, baseball and basketball and turned down a big bonus from the Philadelphia Phillies to go to Michigan.
In Ann Arbor he has continued to be Merriwellian, leading the baseball team two straight years in hitting (.345 and .316), throwing out runners from center field with his strong arm and performing such feats as playing in a spring football game, then playing in the second game of a baseball doubleheader and driving in the game-winning run.
Leach's parents sit behind the Michigan bench at every home game, and so does his 72-year-old grandmother, who is a deaf mute (Rick is fluent in sign language). What they have seen in three years of Leach's field generalship is a gradual expansion of Michigan's offensive arsenal.
Schembechler, despite the conservative approach he learned as a player and assistant coach under Woody Hayes, knows at least as much about offense as A&M Coach Emory Bellard, co-inventor of the wishbone. Michigan led the nation in scoring last year with its I formation and Leach threw 13 touchdown passes, tying the school single-season record. In fact, going into the A&M game, the Wolverines had scored at least six points in 109 straight games, dating back to two seasons before Schembechler arrived. But this season the offense had been sputtering.
Still, the two schools, which had not met since 1970 when Michigan beat A&M 14-10, seemed to match up fairly well. Leach versus Walker, both lefties, both experts at the option. Wolverine Tailback Harlan Huckleby, a speedster averaging 114.3 yards per game to rival Dickey's 108.3. Fullback Russell Davis, averaging 5.3 yards a carry to Woodard's 4.9. But A&M had a vast edge in place-kicking with Franklin.
"We can't play A&M even and win, because of their kicker," Schembechler said. "We've got to be superior. You don't get returns and you don't get field position. He's the greatest kicker in football." Schembechler so feared Franklin's bare right foot that even though Michigan won the pregame coin flip, it elected to kick off.
"I had been thinking about that all week," said Schembechler. "I didn't want to receive the ball and have that guy kick it into the end zone with no return. Then we're at the 20 and if we don't move the ball we punt and they get it at midfield. Then they get three points. I've got confidence in my offense, but on a wet, windy day I think this was the right move."
In retrospect, Schembechler's analysis is hard to fault, but in the first period there were those who wondered if Michigan was ever going to want the ball this day. With the wind at his back, Leach constantly was overthrowing his receivers in the first quarter and the Wolverine running backs weren't going anywhere against the rugged A&M line.
But for those who appreciate the finer points of football—like barefooted field-goal kicking, Woody Hayes-like tantrums directed at the officials, fumbles perfectly timed to heighten the drama—the game was a joy. Mind you, these two teams still can't play giveaway with the likes of Oklahoma, but their fumble coordinators should be congratulated nevertheless.
In Michigan's second series, Huckleby took a pitchout right and made four yards. Michigan was called for holding, and Schembechler blew his top, leading to a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. The combined penalties cost the Wolverines 27 yards, putting them back on their 11. Schembechler said later that the official had refused to tell him what the penalty was for, and that's why he lost his temper. After the Duke game two weeks before, he had accused the Big Ten officials of standing around "like goons" while the Atlantic Coast Conference officials robbed his team. For that, Schembechler had been reprimanded by Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke.
Late in the first quarter a fumble by Michigan's Davis on his own 27 led to A&M's only score. The Aggies had a fourth and one on the Michigan seven and decided not to go for the first down, even with Woodard. In went Franklin, the only kicker A&M has ever recruited, the man who once kicked a 65-yard field goal, the man who kicks 225 field goals a week in three days of practice. He calmly booted—er, footed—a 24-yarder to give A&M a 3-0 lead. It was his last chance to show his stuff because after that the Aggies only twice had the ball in Michigan territory.
In the second quarter Davis fumbled once again, on his own 36, but a few plays later Walker made a bad pitchout, Michigan's Ron Simpkins recovered at his own 19 and Leach led the Wolverines on an 81-yard march, helped along by two face-mask penalties. Davis took the occasion to redeem himself for his earlier fumbles, capping the drive with a four-yard scoring run. Gregg Willner added the extra point, and Michigan led 7-3 at the half.
During the intermission Woodard's 23 first-half line plunges drew as much comment from press-box wits as Leach's futile but persistent passing.
"I never thought I'd see a coach more conservative than Bo," said one.
"They should call him Emory Dullard," said another.
The sloppily played but tight game broke open midway through the third quarter, when Michigan Linebacker Dom Tedesco recovered a Woodard fumble on the A&M 40. Five plays later Davis went in from the one-foot line for Michigan's second touchdown. But Holder Curt Stephenson fumbled the snap, tried to run and was smothered under a pile of Aggies. Michigan 13-3.
It was Stephenson's turn to make up for a mistake 17 plays later. The Wolverines' walk-on wide receiver got loose in the end zone and caught a Leach floater for a 35-yard touchdown play. Winner's PAT made it 20-3.
Now A&M was giving the ball away, and Michigan was capitalizing on its opportunities. Huckleby scored from eight yards out a few plays after Dwight Hicks intercepted a Walker pass. Simpkins blocked an A&M punt, and Jim Pickens picked it up at the goal line and carried it in. Defensive Back Mike Jolly intercepted a pass from freshman Mike Mosley at the 50 and ran it all the way back for the final TD.
Mainly because Walker couldn't get anything going, A&M had been humiliated. He had passed effectively the week before against Texas Tech, but finished the day in Ann Arbor with one completion and an interception for nine attempts. He also had been dropped for minus 14 yards rushing. Dickey was held to just 45 yards in 15 carries. Woodard carried 39 times for 153 yards but most of them were meaningless.
"We did not want Dickey beating us with a big play," said Schembechler. "We knew the big guy would make yards on the inside, and he did. But Dickey did not get outside on the pitches."
"In the first half we had opportunities and didn't do anything with them," said Bellard. "I thought we were no worse than even in the first half. But Michigan came out in the second half and beat us every way you can beat a football team—offensively, defensively and in the kicking game. They have been No. 1 and should be ranked pretty highly."
"I'd just as soon not be No. 1," said Schembechler. "It's a pain in the neck. No. 1, No. 1, No. 1. It's only been four games. Who cares?"
For one, Michigan Linebacker/Punter Anderson, who helped keep A&M in the hole by averaging 43.2 yards on nine kicks. "This was a super important game," he said. "It told us, hey, we're here, we can play with the best of 'em."