Jan 3, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes fans attempt to spell the word O-H-I-O. Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Was Michigan's 1969 upset over Ohio State the rivalry's best ever?

The stage was set for the 1969 Michigan-Ohio State game long before the opening kickoff.

It was precisely a year earlier, when in the final moments of the 1968 game, Buckeye coach Woody Hayes made one of the biggest blunders of his illustrious career.

The Buckeyes had scored their final touchdown to take a 50-14 lead over a devastated Michigan team. Instead of simply kicking the extra point, Woody decided to go for two.

While the attempt was unsuccessful, it didn’t sit well with the Wolverines, who had suffered through hard times during much of the 50s and 60s.

Bump Elliott was set to retire as the Michigan coach, and new athletic director Don Canham shocked the Michigan faithful by hiring a relative unknown from Miami of Ohio to coach the Wolverines.

Bo Schembechler, who played and coached under Hayes, took over for Elliott at the outset of the 1969 season.

Bo brought a work ethic to Michigan which hadn’t been seen in years. In fact, only 75 players remained in the Michigan camp when the season started, down from nearly 125.

To slow the revolt, Bo brought a sign into the locker room that read: Those who Stay will be Champions!

Beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten championship were two of Bo’s chief goals. Paying Woody back for going for two was the third.

The 1969 game was expected to be an easy Ohio State victory. The Buckeyes were defending national champions and were also working on a 22-game winning streak dating back to 1967.   The Wolverines, despite having a 7-2 record, were 17-point home dogs.  A win would guarantee Michigan a trip to the Rose Bowl because both teams would have 6-1 records and Ohio State was ineligible because of the Big Ten’s no-repeat rule.

Canham hadn’t been in his job long enough to install his innovative marketing ideas which would help to sell out the stadium on a regular basis.  So Canham and Schembechler drove to Columbus and unloaded 30,000 tickets to eager Buckeye fans.Bo_Schembechler_(1975)

Everyone knew the Buckeyes were good. On offense, Rex Kern ran the triple-option to perfection, and the defense, according to some, was second only to the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings

Schembechler had no trouble motivating his troops.  Throughout practice that week, Michigan players wore the No. 50 on their practice jerseys, and little placards with the 1968 score of 50-14 decorated the locker room.

One of the most compelling accounts of “The Game of the Century” was written by Bo himself, along with Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom. 

“Bo” was published by Warner Books. (You can obtain a copy from amazon.com).

Coach Schembechler sensed he had a built in advantage.

“I had worked at Ohio State  for six years under Woody,” Bo wrote. “I had played for Woody before that. I knew the way Woody worked, the way Woody taught, and I molded Michigan after his example—with one twist: his goal was to beat everybody.

“Our goal was to beat him.”

The Wolverine players totally bought in after crushing Iowa 51-6, seven days before the showdown.” BEAT THE BUCKS! BEAT THE BUCKS,” chanted the Wolverines.

“Look at this!” (Bo) screamed to (assistant coach) Jerry Hanlon over the raucous noise. That bleeping Ohio State better be good—or we’ll kill them.” 

An example of “Woody-Bo shenanigans” occurred during warmups, when Woody had his troops line up on the north end of the field, which is normally the home team’s end. Bo, himself, was forced to move Woody’s Buckeyes to the south end. This little skirmish was the beginning of what would become the The Year War, a decade long period while Bo edged Woody 5-4-1.

On the game’s first play, Kern quieted the NCAA record crowd of 103,588 by running off tackle for 25 yards down to the Michigan 30. But the Wolverines settled in and stopped Ohio State on fourth down at the Michigan 20.

Ohio State was back in business moments later, and Jim Otis scored from one-yard out thanks to a Larry Zelina 25-yard punt return. The extra point, however, was no good.

The Wolverines proved they were no patsies as they scored moments later. Fullback Garvie Craw took a handoff from Don Moorhead and scored from three yards out. The extra point was good, and Ohio State trailed for the first time that season.

Ohio State scored next on a 22-yard pass from Kern to tight end Jan White. The extra point was good, and the Buckeyes led 13-7.  Michigan was offside, however, so Hayes took the penalty and decided to go for two.  Kern was then sacked in the backfield so the scoreboard read: Ohio State 12, Michigan 7.

It might be hard to believe, But Ohio State’s offense was finished for the day. Michigan scored 17 unanswered points during the remainder of the half on short runs by Craw and Moorhead, in addition to a 25-yard field goal by Tim Killian.

While it was a disappointing day for Ohio State, Michigan avenged Woody’s field management the year before. The Wolverines also earned a trip to the Rose Bowl and a share of the Big Ten title with the Buckeyes.

The real winners were the two schools. The 1969 Michigan-Ohio State game added another exciting chapter to one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. ♦

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Written by GBMWolverine Staff – Joel Greer

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