In this most unconventional of college football seasons, even last Saturday's hallowed showdown between Ohio State and Michigan marked a break with tradition. As has been the case in 15 of the last 22 meetings between these two teams, a trip to the Rose Bowl was at stake. Yet, in keeping with the season's odd twists and turns, the journey to Pasadena would depend also on the outcome of another game whose traditions are usually of interest only to those Midwesterners familiar with a bronze trophy in the form of a pig named Floyd of Rosedale.
The day presented three possibilities: Ohio State would go to the Rose Bowl as the Big Ten's representative if it beat Michigan—but only if Iowa lost to or tied Minnesota in their annual battle for Floyd; a Michigan win or an Iowa win would send Iowa to Pasadena no matter who did what to whom elsewhere; but if Iowa lost to Minnesota and Ohio State tied Michigan, then Illinois would spend New Year's Day in Southern California.
Michigan, the Big Ten champion three of the last four years, would not be playing in the Rose Bowl under any circumstances, a fact that in no way dampened the Wolverines' delight in their 16-13 win over the Buckeyes, which was sealed by J.D. Carlson's 37-yard field goal with three seconds left. Minnesota's 31-24 defeat of Iowa 2½ hours later not only meant that the Hawkeyes would be backing into the Rose Bowl, but it also created the first four-way tie in conference history, with Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois all finishing with 6-2 league records. In defeat, Ohio State fell to fifth place in the Big Ten and from the brink of the Rose Bowl to the lap of the lowly Liberty Bowl. "The Liberty Bowl folks will be gracious hosts," said Buckeye center Dan Beatty, "but schools like Ohio State expect to be in particular bowls," that is, those named after commodities—sugar, cotton, oranges, roses—not concepts.
If this year's grudge match lacked some of the marquee value of Michigan-Ohio State games of yore, it wasn't just because it failed to decide the conference championship outright, as it has 29 times since 1935. In addition, for the first time in four decades, neither Woody Hayes, the former Buckeye coach, nor Bo Schembechler, who retired after last season as coach of the Wolverines, paced the sidelines.
December 3, 1990
With those two gone, the rich lore of the rivalry was all but forgotten amid the unseemly scramble for the Big Ten crown. Consider Great Moment in Buckeye-Wolverine History No. 1: The 1950 Snow Bowl, won by Michigan, 9-3, was played in a half foot of the white stuff and featured 45 punts and 68 yards of total offense. Michigan got no first downs and scored the winning touchdown on a blocked punt with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. Stung by criticism of his decision to punt, Buckeye coach Wesley Fesler quit and was replaced by the 38-year-old Hayes.
Great Moment No. 2: In 1968 during practice for the Michigan game, a bad pass by Buckeye backup quarterback Ron Maciejowski precipitated one of the most awesome Hayes tantrums of all time. "He threw his watch on the ground and crunched it with his heel," Maciejowski recalls. "He threw his glasses on the ground and crushed them, too. He tore his baseball cap in half. He tore his T-shirt. He tried snapping the rope his whistle was on, but it wouldn't break." Hayes's piece de resistance: He punched himself in his left eye. "Bloodied his own eye," says Maciejowski, still marveling at the vehemence of the act. Finally, Hayes screamed, "You don't understand how important this game is!"
After that, the Buckeyes understood. They beat Michigan 50-14 and went on to win the national championship.
This year's game lacked those sorts of histrionics, but not the drama. Carlson's winning field goal was set up by a primal confrontation over two feet of sod. With 1:47 remaining, Ohio State faced a fourth-and-half-a-yard situation on its own 30. Knowing that a tie would deny his team a chance at the Rose Bowl, coach John Cooper decided to go for the win.
The play the Ohio State braintrust came up with was Base 4, an option to the right. Quarterback Greg Frey rode fullback Scottie Graham into the line, kept the ball and ran smack into the back of his right tackle, Mick Shoaf, who had been propelled into the backfield by Wolverine defensive tackle Chris Hutchinson. Forced to turn upheld, Frey was confronted with a maize-and-blue tidal wave—and the knowledge that his record as a starter against Michigan was about to dip to 0-3. The first defender to reach him was nosetackle T.J. Osman, who had been blocked onto his back by Beatty but filled the hole by scuttling on his back like a crab, from which awkward position he wrapped up Frey's legs.
"There are the heroes, right there," said Michigan coach Gary Moeller, pointing to the locker room stalls of the defensive linemen. Reporters asked Osman and Hutchinson to recount their roles on the key fourth-down play. Hutchinson was also asked to explain why he was wearing Buckeye-red Bill Blass designer briefs. "I was running late this morning and just grabbed them," he explained. "Guess I wasn't thinking."
At first glance, it might appear that, upon taking the reins from Schembechler, Moeller had steered Michigan straight down into the middle of the Big Ten pack. But the Wolverines' three defeats in 11 games have come by a total of six points, earning them the distinction of being the nation's best three-loss team. Moeller, who played center and linebacker for Hayes from 1960 to '62, served Schembechler as an assistant for 18 seasons (interrupted by an unhappy three-year stint as head coach at Illinois) before succeeding him last December. Since then, he has put his own stamp on this team. As wideout Desmond Howard's 57 catches and quarterback Elvis Grbac's 17 touchdown throws this season attest, Moeller is not afflicted with Schembechler's—or Hayes's—fundamental mistrust of the forward pass.
Michigan will settle for the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day, but Moeller was not bemoaning his team's fortunes. Toweling off after Saturday's win, he asked a reporter for the Minnesota-Iowa score. Informed that the Golden Gophers were en route to an upset, an expression of boyish hopefulness broke through his usually gruff demeanor. "We can still share the title, you know," he said. "Iowa will still go to the Rose Bowl, but at least we'll have a bunch of guys walking around with championship rings." And so they will.