1979 Michigan Football: A Temporary Step Back

The 1979 Michigan football team came into the season on a good roll.  The Wolverines had gone to four straight major bowls, the last three as the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl. All four times ended in losses, but Bo Schembecler’s Michigan program was one of the nation’s best.


The Wolverines were loaded defensively with All-Americans at end, in Curtis Greer, and linebacker with Ron Simpkins. In the defensive backfield, Mike Jolly led the way with four interceptions.

Michigan’s offense was led by a potent running game, with Butch Woolfolk’s 990 yards ranking second among Big Ten running backs. Stanley Edwards and Lawrence Reid combined for over 1, 100 more. And while primary quarterback John Wangler was a classic dropback passer, Schembecler could call on B.J. Dickey to mix in a running threat behind center.

Tight end Doug Marsh was the primary target in the passing game, catching 33 passes for over 600 yards and becoming a second-round NFL draft pick the following spring. But the biggest splash came from a freshman in Anthony Carter. The most explosive receiver Schembecler ever had, “A.C” only caught 17 passes, but they were good for over 27 yards a pop and gave the Michigan offense a new dimension.

The expectations were high as usual, especially with Ohio State seemingly in turmoil and transition following the firing of Woody Hayes after the 1978 season and bringing in Earle Bruce. Michigan was ranked #7 to start the season and opened the year up with a 49-7 thumping of Northwestern.

Ninth-ranked Notre Dame came to Ann Arbor next. Even though the Irish would ultimately have a disappointing four-loss season, they didn’t suffer one of those losses here. Michigan trailed 12-10 and was in position to win, but a blocked field goal sent them to defeat and dropped the Wolverines to #11 in the polls.

Victories over lowly Kansas and at mediocre Cal closed the non-conference schedule and Big Ten action resumed on October 6 at Michigan State. The Spartans would have gone to the Rose Bowl in 1978 had it not been for probation, and were coming off an NCAA title run in basketball the previous spring with Magic Johnson. “Little brother” was doing well and Michigan needed to make a stand.

A tough game was tied 7-7 late in the third quarter, when Dickey threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Ralph Clayton for the lead and Michigan ultimately won 21-7. They followed that up with a 31-21 win at mediocre Minnesota and a 27-7 win over a terrible Illinois team. That moved the Wolverines back into the Top 10 and set up a visit from Indiana.

The Hoosiers were coached by future ESPN personality Lee Corso and were having their best season since a 1967 Rose Bowl run. The game was tied 21-21 with six seconds left and in the days prior to overtime, it looked like a tie—one that would feel like a defeat for the Wolverines if they couldn’t convert a desperation pass from the Indiana 45-yard line.

Anthony Carter made the most legendary play of his college career, running a deep post, splitting the Hoosier defenders and catching a touchdown pass to complete an improbable 27-21 win. When Michigan followed it up by blasting a subpar Wisconsin team 54-zip, they still controlled their destiny for the Rose Bowl.

It was a three-team race, with Purdue and Ohio State. The Buckeyes were doing quite well under Bruce and were undefeated. The Boilermakers only conference loss was to Ohio State. Michigan would play both teams to close the season.

The ending was disappointing. They lost 24-21 in West Lafayette and even though the Rose Bowl bid was still in their grasp against Ohio State, lost the rivalry game 18-15, allowing a crucial blocked punt in the second half. Michigan was out of the New Year’s Day picture for the first time since 1975 and accepted the Gator Bowl bid as the #14 team in the country.

The Gator Bowl was played on a Friday night between Christmas and New Year’s, and ABC’s top broadcasting team of Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles had the call. The game proved to be a worthy appetizer for the major bowls.

Michigan drove inside the 10-yard line in the first quarter, but was forced to settle for a field goal. Wangler came right back and hit Carter on a 53-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was missed, a point that would prove to be critical.

Even more critical was what happened on Michigan’s next possession. Deep in his own end, Wangler dropped back to pass and was sacked by Taylor. It wasn’t quite as ugly as a sack Taylor would make in 1985 for the New York Giants, when he ended the career of Washington Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theisman on Monday Night Football. But this one came close to having the same impact—Wangler tore up his knee, was gone for the game and faced a long road back.

North Carolina pulled to within 9-7 at half, and then got a 12-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-9 lead after three quarters. A field goal early in the fourth quarter put the Tar Heels up 17-9.

Michigan’s chances of getting a win were close to gone, but they could still salvage a tie, as Dickey led a drive late in the game. With 1:28 left, he hit Carter on a 30-yard touchdown strike. But North Carolina stopped the two-point conversion and held on for the 17-15 win.

Michigan ended the year ranked #18. By Ann Arbor standards, no one was going to celebrate the season—not with four losses. But there were good times in the immediate future. Wangler made it all the way back. Even playing mostly on one leg, he helped the Wolverines get back to the Rose Bowl, and finally win it in 1980.