The college football off-season provides a time for reflection, fruitless experimentation with other sports fandom and a chance to finally catch up on the show Atlanta.
2017 signaled the disappointing ending Michigan fans are all too familiar with this decade — another loss to Sparty, another loss to Ohio State and another off-season of presently unanswerable questions.
Can Harbaugh get it done at the highest level? Who do I need to sacrifice to beat Ohio State? What product does Don Brown’s pristine mustache require? Maybe not so much the latter two, but the first question has inundated all of our minds the last several months and will continue to do so throughout the summer.
However, one can become lost in their own neurosis with nothing to occupy their time except message boards and talking heads, but I want to offer an alternative. Embark on a digressive journey and take a break from arguing about recruiting (stars DO matter/ stars DON’T matter), attempting to predict every game, and just general Michigan anxiety; grab a beer, kick back and enjoy these reflections about some of Michigan’s most feared units over the years.
And with that, welcome to my nostalgia series.
Simply put, 1973 was one of the greatest, yet strangest years in film history. The Exorcist became the first horror movie nominated for Best Picture; Soylent Green and Westworld shocked the science fiction community; The Sting, Mean Streets and Serpico established precedents and depth for the evolving crime genre. In a year sandwiched between Godfather installments, ‘73 is often criminally overlooked.
Michigan football can relate, as one of its greatest, strangest and most overlooked seasons occurred the same year. The Wolverines completed the season undefeated for the first time since 1948, outscored opponents 330-68, tied rival Ohio State, controversially did not receive a bowl bid and finished ranked sixth in the AP Poll (if only Twitter had existed in 1973).
Arguably Michigan’s most dominant defense post-1950, the Wolverines allowed an average of 6.2 points per game and held opponents to a dim 2.4 yards per rush.
Until Ohio State, their closest game was a 14-0 victory over Navy in which Bo famously claimed that his team “played the worst game I’ve ever coached in Michigan Stadium.”
Besides “disappointing” shutouts, Michigan also held Stanford to their second lowest point total of the season (10) and the Wolverines avenged their 1972 Rose Bowl loss to the Cardinal.
Michigan’s season high point allowance came via Indiana in a lopsided 49-13 victory. It should be noted the Wolverines were up 42-0 in the second quarter before Lee Corso’s Hoosiers could salvage any semblance of dignity.
Michigan and Ohio State were both rolling, setting the stage for the best and most controversial game of 1973.
Michigan ranked fourth (10-0), Ohio State first (9-0); Rose Bowl and a possible National Championship berth on the line; a then college football record of 105,223 fans packed into Michigan Stadium; Bo vs. Woody; and the most heartbreaking non-loss in Michigan history.
You may remember this game for this exact moment:
After this classless act, the Buckeyes immediately began rolling. Ohio State had not been held to under 24 points all season and surged to a 10-0 halftime lead behind sophomore running back Archie Griffin AND the 1973 Heisman Trophy runner-up, Ohio State OFFENSIVE LINEMAN John Hicks.
However, momentum swiftly swung after Bo’s halftime defensive adjustments as the Buckeyes were overpowered 209-91 yards in the second half. Michigan stormed back to tie the game 10-10 late in the fourth with a chance to win.
With 2:23 remaining and the Wolverines driving near midfield, starting Michigan quarterback Dennis Franklin suffered a broken collarbone. Three plays later, Wolverine All-American kicker and Vietnam veteran Mike Lantry lined up the go-ahead 58-yard field goal.
(Barely) Wide left. Ohio State ball.
Without overtime rules and in the spirit of a tie being worse than a loss, Woody Hayes called Ohio State’s first pass of the game leading to a Michigan interception and possession with 52 seconds remaining. Bo didn’t trust his backup quarterback throwing the ball, so on third and five, with 28 seconds remaining, and the ball on the 28-yard line, Lantry once again lined up the go-ahead field goal.
Shanked. WIDE right. Tie game.
With Michigan and Ohio State tied atop the Big 10 standings, who should represent the conference in the Rose Bowl? The “tiebreaker” was a vote held by the conference’s athletic directors and Ohio State was narrowly voted as the Big 10’s representative (the Buckeyes went on to pummel USC 42-21 and finished ranked second in the country). At this time, only one school from the conference was allowed to participate in a bowl game, a rule that was (thanks to the outraged Bo Schembechler and Vice President) changed soon thereafter to allow multiple conference bowl participants.
In retrospect, the Big 10 had shackled itself with an archaic rule. The conference felt pressure to win the Rose Bowl, which it hadn’t done since 1969, and felt Michigan could not win without starting quarterback Dennis Franklin. I understand their decision, but I vehemently disagree because this defense was that special.
Michigan’s 1973 undefeated season is widely forgotten because of the controversy surrounding the Ohio State game and the Rose Bowl. Michigan was the best team in the country. Consensus All-Americans Dave Brown, Dave Gallagher and leading tackler Steve Strinko, were the cornerstones of this unbelievably dominant defense.
The Wolverines allowed only two rushing touchdowns all season (tied for the Michigan record), forced 44 fumbles (Michigan record), recorded three consecutive shutouts (tied for the Michigan record), and allowed zero first quarter points all season (Michigan record).
In a decade full of great Michigan defenses, don’t forget about the inexplicably strange exceptionalism of 1973.