Every week, the Big Ten Blog will break down one classic game from the Big Ten's long, storied history. Today, we're going back over 60 years to one of the biggest abominations of college football ever, a game that featured snow drifts on the field and a horrific wind chill. Michigan and Ohio State fans simply call it: The Snow Bowl.
Football in the '50s was fundamentally different than it is today. Then, it was a matter of angles and choreography: pre-snap shifts were done in unison, creases between defensive linemen were exploited in ways that would be impossible today, and nothing was as devastating as a sweep, with every lineman pulling or otherwise moving the point of attack laterally. Precision, in all cases, was key.
And the thing about precision is this: the more necessary it is and the more moving parts are involved, the easier it is to just destroy everything that's possible by throwing a wrench into the gears. A wrench, that is, or in the case of single-wing football, the worst weather for a football game in memory.
It was not an ordinary situation in Columbus on November 25, 1950. It's not every day that the football field is covered in half a foot of snow, with temperatures in the teens and dropping among 30-mile-an-hour winds. No, this weather was quite extraordinary, and quite horrible.
Michigan came into the annual showdown nursing a 3-1-1 Western Conference record and Ohio State at 4-1, both needing a win and a little bit of help to secure a trip to Pasadena. Illinois had given both schools their only conference losses of the season to that point, and the Illini were facing a strong but relatively unheralded Northwestern team that same day.
In Ohio Stadium, volunteers shoveled the field off before the game, only to see it covered back up by snow within moments. It was a futile battle—volunteers couldn't even get the tarp off half the field—but 60 minutes of fruitless effort is basically half of football anyway, so it belonged there that day.
The conditions were so intolerable that Ohio State didn't even take tickets that day; if you were seriously going to sit outside in that weather for three hours, well, you could just go for it.
Michigan set the tone for the game by punting on its very first play from scrimmage. Tactically, it was wise. Again, quite extraordinary, and quite horrible.
Ohio State halfback Vic Janowicz would win the Heisman this season, and for good reason: Janowicz was basically 1939 Heisman winner Nile Kinnick without the oratorical skills. He ran, passed, received, kicked, punted and was even something of an ambassador for Polish-Americans at a time when that particular ethnic subsect wasn't getting a whole lot of breaks or respect in American society.
Said Janowicz about the weather that day: “It was like a nightmare. My hands were numb (and blue). I had no feeling in them and I don’t know how I hung onto the ball. It was terrible. You knew what you wanted to do, but you couldn’t do it.”
Janowicz would in fact break multiple Ohio State records on this day, ones that—barring a catastrophic change to football—will never be broken. According to the Ohio State record book (.PDF warning), Janowicz punted 21 times—that is not a typo—and he had four of them blocked*. Two of those blocks led to Michigan's only points of the game, a safety and a recovered block in the end zone. That's it.
Michigan's offensive output wasn't just bad, it was probably the worst ever seen in a winning effort. According to Ohio State record books, Michigan recorded just 27 yards of total offense (all rushing) and zero first downs in the entire game. Both are, obviously, Ohio State records.
Michigan actually punted 24 times in its winning effort. Read that sentence again. It is a sentence that SEC fans will probably relish reading from now until the end of time. Michigan punted 24 times against Ohio State in one game and won. It's OK to laugh. You should.
The Big Ten has seen its share of horrid football since the Snow Bowl. Northwestern and Illinois battled to a 0-0 draw in 1978, and Penn State and Iowa waged war on fans' eyeballs by participating in a 6-4 barn-restorer (or whatever the opposite of a barnburner would be) in 2004.
But those teams at least got first downs.
At any rate, sixth-ranked Illinois was tripped up by Northwestern in their game that day, so even with a season record of 5-3-1, Michigan was at least rewarded with a trip to the Rose Bowl after this debacle. There, under sunny skies and weather conditions where everybody involved had full circulation in their hands, the Wolverines knocked off previously unbeaten California, 14-6.
No word on whether the players wept and wept when they returned home to snowy Ann Arbor from Pasadena. I would have.
*Note: this leads to the endlessly amusing situation in the OSU record book where there's a section for most punts blocked in a single game. It goes like this:
1. 4, Vic Janowicz, Michigan, 1950
2. 1, (39 tied)
And that is my favorite Ohio State record of all time.