The Road To The 1981 Rose Bowl: Michigan & Washington

Michigan football coach Bo Schembecler had reached the Rose Bowl five times in his first eleven years at the helm of the Wolverine program and gone home with a loss on occasion. Bo’s 1980 team got him back for another chance at a win in Pasadena. And on New Year’s Day, in the 1981 Rose Bowl, Schembecler got his victory, beating the Washington Huskies. Here’s a look back on how both Michigan and Washington made it to Pasadena.

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Schembecler’s teams were renowned for how often they ran the football, but compared to other teams that made major bowl games following the 1980 college football season, Michigan was on the high end of pass attempts. There was a reason for that—with Anthony Carter, Schembecler had one of the best receivers in the country. Carter caught 57 balls for 818 yards and 14 touchdowns, while making All-American.

That’s not to say Bo lost sight of the running game. Butch Woolfolk ran for over 1,000 yards. Stan Edwards added over 900 more, and Lawrence Ricks rushed for 850 yards, as the trio ranked 4-5-6 in the Big Ten in rushing. George Lilja, the center, was the best of the offensive lineman, getting honorable mention in the All-American voting.

The numbers for quarterback John Wangler weren’t great, but “Johnny Wangs”, as his coach affectionately called him in his autobiography, had a special leadership quality. He came back from an injured leg and was often a virtual one-legged quarterback, but he made plays and was a winner.

Michigan opened the season ranked #12, sliding relatively under the radar, as rival Ohio State was the preseason #1. The start of the season was tough for the Wolverines. They were unimpressive in a 17-10 win over Northwestern. Then two crushing losses followed.

Wangler had led a comeback at Notre Dame, bringing Michigan from 14-0 down to lead 27-26 in the waning minutes. The Wolverines lost when Irish kicker Harry Oliver hit a 51-yard field goal into the wind. One week later, Michigan came home to face South Carolina and soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winning running back George Rogers. The Wolverines dropped a tough 17-14 decision and were unranked when the ensuing polls came out.

Michigan rebounded with a 38-13 win over a bad Cal team. Schembecler’s crew still hadn’t lost a conference game, and they won five straight Big Ten contests. After a tough 27-23 decision over a three-win Michigan State team, the Wolverines found their mojo. They crushed Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin in rapid succession, the latter two with shutouts.

The defense didn’t produce any All-Americans but they were peaking at the right time, and their best moments would come against Purdue and Ohio State. The Boilermakers were still in a three-way mix for the Rose Bowl bid when they came to Ann Arbor on November 15, and they had the nation’s first-string All-American quarterback in Mark Hermann. Michigan hung a 16-0 shutout on Purdue.

Ohio State had lost a game and was ranked #5 when Michigan arrived in Columbus to play for the Big Ten championship the following week. The Buckeyes still had respect and were a four-point favorite, slightly outside the field goal window oddsmakers give for homefield advantage. Michigan was still perceived as narrowly inferior to its rival.

The game was tied 3-3 into the second half, when Wangler put together a drive and finished it with 13-yard touchdown pass to Carter. Even though Michigan missed a key extra point, the defense made it stand up. Ohio State reached the 18-yard line, but Michigan held, a field goal was missed, the Buckeyes never got close again and the game ended 9-3.

Michigan had come from the heartbreak of September to a top five national ranking by the time they arrived at the Rose Bowl.

Washington had reached the Rose Bowl three years earlier and been one of the teams to inflict problems on Schembecler. After a brief step back while USC reclaimed control of the Pac-10, the Huskies had won nine games in 1979 and were poised to return to the top of their conference.

They had a balanced passing attack. Tom Flick completed 60 percent of his passes for a respectable 7.8 yards-per attempt. Aaron Williams was the big-play threat at receiver, with his 21.2 yards-per-catch leading the explosive Pac-10. Paul Skansi was a reliable possession receiver and David Bayle was a threat at tight end.

Washington’s running game wasn’t great, but with 760 yards, Kyle Stevens ran effectively enough to prevent defenses from focusing too much on the pass. Expectations for this team weren’t soaring nationally, but they still ranked 20th to start the year.

Don James’ team came quickly out of the gate, with blowout wins over Air Force and Northwester and nudged up to #13. But the Huskies completely mailed it in with a 34-10 home loss to Oregon and they justifiably fell out of the polls.

Road victories over Oklahoma State in a close one and Oregon State in a rout set up a trip to Stanford on October 18. The Cardinal had a sophomore quarterback named John Elway and had already gone to Oklahoma and beaten the powerful Sooners by seventeen points.

Elway would win the Pac-10 MVP award, but this was Flick’s moment. He threw a pair of a first-quarter touchdown passes to Williams and had Washington out to a 24-7 lead. Elway led Stanford back to tie the game, but Flick got the last word, as the Huskies got a field goal and prevailed 27-24.

Washington couldn’t handle prosperity, losing to Navy 24-10, although it least it wasn’t a conference opponent. The Huskies shut out Arizona State 25-0 and buried Arizona 45-22. In spite of Washington’s toe stubs, they were 4-1 in the league and just a half-game behind USC as the two teams prepared to meet in the Los Angeles Coliseum on November 15.

It was time for a changing of the guard in the conference, and Washington won the game 20-10. They still weren’t home free—USC was a half-game back and Oregon was a game behind and had the tiebreaker on the Huskies. But all Washington needed to do was take care of Washington State in the Apple Cup game. That they did, with a 30-23 win and for the second time in four years, their ticket was punched to Pasadena.

When Michigan and Washington met, it seemed like this would be another bad day for Bo. The Huskies drove to the one-yard line on their second drive before Michigan came up with a fourth down stop. Washington didn’t stop moving the ball in the first half, accumulating 269 yards. But Michigan didn’t stop making the critical play on defense and the Huskies only had six points for all that activity.

The momentum turned after halftime. Woolfolk began to take over on the ground, finishing with 182 rushing yards. Wangler got Carter worked into the offense. The defense completely flipped the script on Washington, holding them to 23 total yards in the second half. The Wolverines pulled away to a 23-6 win.

Schembecler would never be the master of Pasadena, losing three of his remaining four trips out west. But he was finally off the schneid in the 1981 Rose Bowl.