Four Games That Shaped Big Ten Football In The 1980s

For those of us who were young in the 1980s in the Midwest, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was the one who cast a long shadow over Big Ten football. Woody Hayes’ career had come to an end at Ohio State following the 1978 season, so Bo was the big dog that everyone was chasing. Bo’s Wolverines went to five Rose Bowls, a Fiesta Bowl and a Sugar Bowl in that decade.

With the Big Ten not playing football this fall, memories are what will have to get us through to whatever the next era holds in sports. Here are four Big Ten games, all involving Michigan, that are stamped on my memory and helped shape how those of us of a certain age came to perceive the conference landscape.

November 22, 1980: Michigan 9 Ohio State 3
Earle Bruce had made an early statement about what he could do as a head coach in 1979 when he led Ohio State to an undefeated season. The Buckeyes were ranked #5 and at home. Michigan, after a couple heartbreaking losses in September, had turned their season around. The two rivals were both unbeaten in conference play and the Rose Bowl bid was on the line in Columbus.

Ohio State was a four-point favorite, slightly outside the field goal window oddsmakers customarily give to the home team. They were perceived as narrowly better than Michigan. The game was a tough physical battle and no one could get in the end zone. It was 3-3 into the second half.

Finally, the Wolverines broke through. All-American wide receiver Anthony Carter caught a 13-yard touchdown pass. Even though Michigan missed the key extra point, the defense made sure it didn’t matter. A 9-3 win sent the Wolverines to Pasadena, where something unprecedented happened—Bo won a Rose Bowl.

September 12, 1981: Wisconsin 21 Michigan 14
The Wolverines were ranked #1 in the country to start the season and they came to Madison to play their opening game. As one who grew up in southeastern Wisconsin, I can tell you Camp Randall has always had an air of excitement around it on a home football Saturday, even when the Badgers weren’t any good. But it’s nothing like it is today. So nobody was on upset alert.

The game was tied 14-14 in the third quarter when Badger quarterback Jess Cole flipped a simple screen pass to running back John Williams, who took it 71 yards for a touchdown. The 21-14 final stood up, with UW defensive back Matt Vanden Boom intercepting three passes.

The Wisconsin-Michigan game was one of three big upsets that formed the 1981 college football season and that 1981 season was a seminal moment in the arc of college football history. That’s why this game is covered in my book, Great 1980s Sports Moments, with complete explanations of the context.

October 19, 1985: Iowa 12 Michigan 10
The atmosphere was electric. Not just in Iowa City and Ann Arbor, but throughout the Midwest. Iowa was #1 in the country. Michigan was #2. If you were at all interested in sports and lived in Big Ten Country, it was impossible to not be aware of this game.

Iowa was a team of great expectation, having started the season at #4 in the polls and aiming for a second Rose Bowl trip in five years. Michigan was after a comeback year, having suffered through Schembechler’s worst season in 1984.

The battle in Iowa City lived up to the hype. Iowa got a bad break early when a touchdown catch was ruled incomplete. It’s a call that would have been overturned today, but no such recourse existed in 1985. The Hawkeyes settled for three rather than seven points. That was poised to be the difference when Michigan clung to a 10-9 lead. Then Hawkeye quarterback Chuck Long converted three third-down throws and set up a last-play field goal from Rob Houghtlin to win it.

November 22, 1986: Michigan 26 Ohio State 24
Michigan had played themselves out of the national championship race a week earlier with a shocking loss at home to Minnesota. Ohio State had lost early non-conference games to Alabama and Washington, but had won out since. The Buckeyes had a share of the league title assured, but if the Wolverines could win in Columbus they would pick up the championship’s better half—the one that had the Rose Bowl bid.

Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback for Michigan and—now read this slowly, because I know it will come as a shock—he was very outspoken before the game about how the Wolverines were going to win. And he went on the football field and backed it up, going 19/29 for 216 yards.

But Ohio State played well, taking an early 14-3 lead. It was the Wolverine offensive line, clearing the way for little Jamie Morris to run for 210 yards—150 of them in the second half–that turned the tide. Michigan took a 26-24 lead late in the game. The Buckeyes got a chance at a game-winning field goal with just over a minute left. But the kick went wide. Michigan survived.