When two titans of college football in the Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes collide, there are bound to be some endings that can be debated for eternity, and the 1973 matchup between the two programs may be at the top of that list.
Both Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes had their teams playing at the highest level heading into their most important game of the year, The Game, at The Big House as the No. 4 Wolverines hosted the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Ohio State had one of the top defenses in the land allowing only 33 points in their first nine regular-season games, 13 of which came in their previous 55-13 beatdown of Iowa. They had sat at the top of the polls for seven straight weeks heading into Ann Arbor and were the favorites on this day, and to win the National Championship for the 1973 season (back then, the National Champion was crowned before Bowl season by the UPI Coaches’ Poll and after the bowl games by the AP Poll).
Meanwhile, the Wolverines, led by Dennis Franklin, the first black quarterback at Michigan, had rolled through their schedule to an undefeated season, but in slightly less convincing fashion. The team dominated two Pac-8 teams in Stanford and Oregon but defeated Navy early in the season by just 14 points. Their offense ranked No. 16 in the country by the end of the season and they boasted the No. 2 defense behind only Ohio State.
Naturally, the 1973 edition of The Game wound up being a barn burner. Ohio State attempted only four passes on a wet November day and Michigan accumulated only 90 passing yards.
It started ugly for the Wolverines as Ohio State jumped to a 10-0 lead at halftime as Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffen surpassed 100 rushing yards in the first half.
Coming off what I’m sure was a rousing halftime speech by Coach Schembechler, the tides began to turn in a scoreless third quarter as the Wolverines started to put some drives together and made some defensive adjustments to shut down the Ohio State offense by stacking the box with eight defenders - five down linemen and three linebackers.
Woody Hayes continued to refuse to throw the football in the poor weather, and the Ohio State offense was halted to minimal yardage in the second half.
More time on the field for the Buckeye defense caused players to tire down attempting to tackle fullback Ed Shuttlesworth. An early third-quarter field goal put the Wolverines on the board and made it a one-possession ballgame, 10-3.
The Wolverines took over again and marched right back down the field on a 35-yard pass from Franklin to tight end Paul Seal into the redzone. However, the No. 1 defense in the country shut the Wolverines down inside the 10-yard line. On fourth down and inches to go, Schembechler made a game-changing decision to go for it and converted on a Franklin faked a handoff to Shuttlesworth, fooling the Buckeye defense, and found his way untouched into the endzone to tie the game.
You might think that was the biggest play of the game, but you’re wrong. After Michigan missed field goals from 58-yards and 44-yards within their next few possessions, they took over again and looked to score the game-winning touchdown with little time left.
Less than three minutes to go, Franklin completed a pass for a couple of yards to Shuttlesworth bu the Michigan quarterback was thwacked by Ohio State linebacker Van Ness DeCree breaking his collarbone.
The drive was quickly thwarted by the Buckeye defense and the game ended in a tie, one of just six times it occurred in the 115-game rivalry of the two sides.
Now without a quarterback, and without a victory against the Buckeyes which nearly perennially decided who was going to the Rose Bowl, the Wolverines’ fate was upon the hands of the Big Ten.
In the early years of the Big Ten’s contract with the Rose Bowl, the conference was highly against sending the same team to the Rose Bowl in consecutive years. In fact, in just over 25 years of Rose Bowl appearances for the Big Ten, only one program had back-to-back bids: Minnesota in 1963 and 1964. They even implemented a rule (rectified in 1971) that a team couldn’t go to the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons.
Another blunder by the Big Ten was that only one team from the conference was allowed to play in Bowl games in the early 70’s and that was the Rose Bowl, so if you didn’t make it to Pasadena, your season was effectively over.
Michigan thought they would be a shoo-in after the tie as Ohio State had gone to “The Granddaddy of Them All” the year prior and lost embarrassingly to the USC Trojans, 42-17. That same Trojan team ran through the PAC-8 in 1973 and would be competing in the Rose Bowl once again.
The Big Ten had lost the past four Rose Bowls and were nervous that without their starting quarterback, Michigan would make it five straight losses. So, the Athletic Directors from the other eight Big Ten programs voted a day after the Michigan-Ohio State tie to determine who would represent the conference on the national stage.
According to Big Ten Network’s ‘Tiebreaker’ documentary, Ohio State won the vote 5-3 as presumably Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois chose the Buckeyes. Iowa, Minnesota, and Indiana supported the Wolverines.
The Michigan program was fuming as they felt they played better out of the two programs as they finished the second half on a 10-0 run and brought the Ohio State offense to a standstill. If it weren’t for the missed field goals and the injury to Franklin, the Wolverines may have won the game and punched their ticket to California, possibly winning a National Championship in the process.
As for the Buckeyes, they squandered their chance in the second half of “The Game” to win the National Championship and fell to No. 4 in the AP Poll. Despite a convincing 42-21 victory over the Trojans in the Rose Bowl, they finished No. 2 in the AP Poll behind the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
No. 2 Notre Dame topped No. 1 Alabama (who won the UPI Coaches’ Poll National Championship) 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl to earn the final No. 1 spot in the 1973 AP Poll.