College Football: The 11 Best Defenses to Play in Rose Bowls from 1959-2009

BabyTateSenior Writer IAugust 3, 2009

The offensive game brings in the big ratings and crowds, but fans often reserve their fondest memories for the defenses who provided the greatest thrills and success.

The Granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl Game, is a fitting stage to judge some of the best defenses seen in this country over the past 50 years.

Taking into consideration the collective season totals of yards given up, points given up, turnovers caused, and performances during their college career, a list can be created.

The game has changed over the years, but everything is relative to the time it existed.  

A last proviso should be added: These are reflections from personal observation during the period listed.

We present the 11 Best Defenses to grace the field in Pasadena over the past half-century.

11. 2001 Miami Hurricanes, 12-0, National Champion

One of the star-studded outfits in recent history, the powerful Hurricanes were a collection of talent that held three opponents scoreless. Only four teams managed to post double digits against this engine of destruction.

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Miami surrendered only 9.8 points a game on the way to a 37-14 annihilation of Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to cap a BCS Title season.

Obviously, a worthy entry to the 11 best defenses of the past 50 years.

10. 1963 Illinois Fighting Illini, 8-1-1, Big Ten Champion

Taking no prisoners during the season, the Illini were anchored by superstar Dick Butkus and showed no mercy on their foes.

Known for intimidating their Big Ten opponents during the season, Illinois allowed only four teams to score in double digits against them.

After a 17-7 Rose Bowl win over Jim Owens' Washington Huskies, the statistics revealed a Big Ten Champion defense that gave up only 9.6 points a game.

9. 1991 Washington Huskies, 12-0, Shared National Championship

A statistical match for the scoring defense of Dick Butkus' Illini with 9.6 a game, this Husky team surrounded the ball, caused fumbles, and pressured the quarterback better than virtually any team in the past quarter-century.

With all that being said, Husky coach Don James had to settle for a shared national title with the Miami Hurricanes.

It is doubtful he had any problem with that.

Please understand that James was the first of the great quarterbacks to play at Miami and set the stage for those who followed at the school known as "Quarterback U."

8. 1997 Michigan Wolverines, 12-0, Shared National Championship

Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson provided star power to this outstanding unit.

The Wolverines jumped on their Big Ten opponents early and often with this ball-hawking defense and ground control offense.

Surrendering only 9.5 points a game, the Wolverines needed all of their skill to stop a late charge by Washington State and their heralded quarterback, Ryan Leaf, in the Rose Bowl.

7. 2008 Southern California Trojans, 12-1, Pac-10 Champions

Originally considered one of the finest squads to ever be assembled, the '08 edition of the Trojans fielded an outstanding defensive unit.

Surrendering only nine points a game while shutting out three teams and holding five others to single digits, these Trojans may not have their history written yet.

There will be several members of the '08 unit available in '09, so their best days may yet be in front of them.

6. 1962 Southern California Trojans, 11-0, National Champion

Certainly deserving of a place here with a defense that gave up only 8.4 points a game, this group of Trojans is among the most elite overall teams in the history of college football.

Only two regular season teams managed to get into double digits against this great defense known as "The Wall of Troy."

Of the 92 points scored against them during the year, 37 were from the arm of Ron Vanderkelen and his Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl.

5. 1967 Southern California Trojans, 10-1, National Champion

Not as talented overall as the supreme '62 edition of the Trojans, these men of Troy get the edge over their older brethren from a defensive standpoint.

USC's 1967 football team relied upon a bruising defense to turn the ball over and get it into the hands of their great running back, O.J. Simpson.

During the year Southern California gave up only 7.9 points a game against the most brutal and challenging schedule in the history of the game.

Only four squads managed to reach double digits as the Trojans mowed down the prior year's dual National Champions of Notre Dame and Michigan State, both on the road, along with No. 1-ranked UCLA and Texas.

Along with superstar Tim Rossovich, the Trojan defense featured hard-hitting defensive back Pat Cashman and 6'8" end Bill Hayhoe.

The ruthless Trojan defense throttled Indiana 14-3 in Pasadena that season.

4. 1961 Minnesota Golden Gophers, 8-2, Big Ten Rose Bowl Representative

This team featured arguably the finest defensive player of the article, Bobby Bell.

The '61 Gophers were all about revenge.

They had come to the Rose Bowl the year before, having already been proclaimed National Champions.

They were handled by Jim Owens' Washington Huskies in a shocking upset, 17-7.

By doing so, they became the only team to win the National Championship with two losses until LSU's 2007 squad.

The Gophers considered themselves an elite running team (see pictured above).

Giving up only 7.8 points per game during the season, the Gophers smashed UCLA 21-3 in Pasadena behind the great defensive play of Bell and Carl Eller.

3. 1965 Michigan State Spartans, 10-1, Shared National Championship

If Bobby Bell were not on this list, big George Webster of the Spartans would give Butkus a run for his money as the best defensive player listed.

Teaming with 6'8", 290-pound Bubba Smith and hard-hitting Charley "The Mad Dog" Thornhill, the Spartans roared through the season undefeated and gave up only 6.9 points a game.

The best laid plans, you know how it goes.

UCLA upset the Spartans 14-12 in the Rose Bowl by stopping a two-point conversion near the game's end. 

2. 1971 Michigan Wolverines, 11-1, Big Ten Champions

Let's say this firmly and with conviction: This Wolverine team just might be the finest team ever to not win the National Championship.

On a mission of destruction under the great coach Bo Schembechler, the Maize and Blue tore through the season undefeated and untied while surrendering only 6.9 points a game defensively.

Michigan's defense was so effective, only three teams scored in double digits against them, and they shut out three teams as well.

But in the Rose Bowl, the great Wolverine juggernaut fell to an unheralded Stanford team led by the late quarterback Don Bunce, 13-12.

And so it goes.

1. 1973 Ohio State Buckeyes, 10-0-1, Big Ten Champions

It is astonishing to realize this terrifying team did not win the national championship.

A 10-10 tie in the season finale with the also undefeated Michigan Wolverines cost this Buckeye group its shot at the national title.

Of some consolation is the recognition that this team is the finest defense to appear in the Rose Bowl over the past 50 years.

Anchored by a host of All-Americans, the Buckeyes gave up 64 points all season, an average of 5.8 a game, while generating 37.5 offensively. That's a cool spread of nearly 32 points a game.

The '73 Bucks shut out four teams and allowed only three to score double digits.

Woody Hayes celebrated a 42-21 crushing of Southern California in the Rose Bowl while his unbeaten nemesis, Michigan, sat at home under the old Big Ten policy of only one team to a bowl from the league each season.

Now, was anyone left out? Of course they were.

Let's give a top honorable mention to the 1959 and '60 Washington Husky defenses of the late, great Jim Owens.

A further honorable mention goes to the sensational 1969 "Wild Bunch" of Southern California and the awesome 1996 Ohio State group under coach John Cooper.

Finally, a tip of the hat to the expertly talented 1972 Southern California and 1975 Ohio State defenses—both were awesome to behold.

A salute to the great Rose Bowl defenses of the past 50 years.


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