Every once in a long while, a college football game comes along nobody will ever forget. These contests often have a long-lasting impact on the sport itself as well as the players and coaches who were a part of it. The 1969 edition of the legendary Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is one of those unforgettable battles.
Today, this game is known for igniting "The Ten Year War," a nickname for the series between head coaches Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes.
If everything had gone according to plan, Hayes and the top-ranked Buckeyes would have been back-to-back national champions, winners of three straight games over the Wolverines and the top candidate to be named the team of the century.
No team had scored more than 21 points against the Ohio State during the 1969 campaign. Nobody had even put a scare into the Buckeyes, who had won every game by at least 27 points. In fact, Ohio State never trailed for a single second that season. To everyone outside of Ann Arbor, the Scarlet and Grey appeared to be unbeatable.
"This game was against a team that Woody admittedly said was the best team he ever had," Schembechler said in an ESPN Classic documentary about the game. "All of the knowledgeable sportswriters around the country called it the greatest team of all-time. It was generally thought the only team that could compete with them were the powerful Minnesota Vikings."
Michigan did not exactly have the makings of an NFL team. Only two Wolverines on the '69 roster were All-Americans, while the Buckeyes boasted five of their own.
What the Wolverines did have, however, was a coach who knew Hayes inside and out, motivation and unflappable confidence.
Schembechler, then in his first year at the helm of the Michigan football program, played for Hayes at Miami (Ohio) from 1949-50. Two seasons later, Schembechler became an assistant coach on Hayes' staff at Ohio State. The Barberton, Ohio, native went on to take assistant positions at three other programs, before returning to Hayes' side from 1958-62.
The motivational tool Schembechler made use of all week long was the No. 50. The Buckeyes drubbed the Wolverines, 50-14, at Ohio Stadium the year before. Hayes added insult to injury and went for two after scoring a late touchdown, because he "couldn't go for three."
Such had been the reality for the Maize and Blue during this period of the rivalry. Between 1952-68, Ohio State boasted a 12-5 record against Michigan. Some of the Buckeyes, like former All-American safety Ted Provost (1967-69), felt "The Game" had lost some of its luster.
"We beat them bad in 1967 and 1968. It hadn't really been a big game for the few years before that," Provost said during a phone interview. "So the rivalry was not that big to me at the time."
To ensure the players were motivated by their shortcoming in 1968, Schembechler made the entire scout team wear the No. 50 for the entire week leading up to the game. According to former running back and wide receiver Glenn Doughty, the tactic worked to perfection.
"I think everyone from that team just remembers that we had momentum going into that game. Bo was just an awesome leader relative to just getting you fired up," Dougthy said. "Even though they were rated No. 1, we had something for them."
All of the momentum and confidence Doughty spoke of reached an unbelievable high in the locker room just prior to the game.
Chants were yelled, lockers were beaten and there was absolutely zero intimidation displayed by any of the Wolverines. To this day, Doughty has not seen anything like it.
I played professionally for eight years and I never have seen or felt the energy level that was in the locker room just before we went out to play that game. It’s amazing how many of us remember that locker room scene prior to the game…I’ll tell you one thing, there was no intimidation whatsoever relative to Ohio State. None. Not that game. Not even close. They were in trouble.
In front of 103,588 fans, a stadium record at the time, Michigan pulled out a rabbit out of the hat with a 24-12 victory over the heavily favored Buckeyes. It was the first time in 22 games anyone had managed to beat Ohio State.
The win also allowed the Wolverines to clinch their first Big Ten title since 1964, sending them to the Rose Bowl.
Running back Garvie Craw scored two touchdowns, and quarterback Don Moorhead added another rushing score for the Wolverines. Ted Killian added a field goal for good measure. All of the scoring for both teams took place in the first half.
"The first half was Michigan's," Richard Dirlam, a proud alum (1958) and season-ticket holder for 42 years. "Every time you'd stand up and everyone was hollering all the time, because then it started to look like (Michigan) had a chance to win."
The closing 30 minutes of action were dominated by the defenses. Missed field goals and stalled drives plagued Michigan and Ohio State in the second half. The Buckeyes were also hindered by four interceptions, three of which were picked off by Barry Pierson. Overall, Ohio State finished the game with six interceptions and one fumble. A letdown to say the least.
"I think there was a little letdown. We couldn't go to a bowl game (because of the Big Ten's no repeat rule)...I know we weren't at the top of our game," Provost said sadly. "It was pretty much a disappointment. Obviously, we weren't ready to play."
Michigan's stunning win helped change the rivalry entirely. Schembechler turned the Wolverines into a force to be reckoned with once again, which put them on par with Hayes' Buckeyes every year.
For the next 13 seasons, either Michigan, or Ohio State clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title. The Game became more meaningful than ever during this time considering the fact the two programs clinched the title outright nine of those years.
"Those games became dramatic and they started making history for the next several years," Doughty said. "In terms of just the intensity, the expectation at the end of the game was we were either going to the Rose Bowl, or we were going back home. That made it even more significant."
Without the Wolverines' stunning upset 44 years ago, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry would be nowhere near as intense, or as prominent as it is today.
"The rivalry really took off. It was just a game before that," Dirlam, who watched the win from the 30-yard line of the Big House, said. "After that, it was something special...There had to be one game that was the defining game. That was it."
If there is one thing Wolverine and Buckeye fans can agree on, it is that the 1969 contest changed the outlook everyone had on the rivalry forever.
Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam.
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