Michigan had gone 38-3-3 the previous four regular seasons but never reached the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten did not allow runner-ups to go to bowls prior to 1975, so the previous year’s Orange Bowl—a loss to national champion Oklahoma—was the only postseason appearance for head coach Bo Schembechler since 1971. The only games the Wolverines were losing in that stretch came to Ohio State. But when you’re at Michigan—especially in the 1970s—that was also the only game that mattered. The 1976 Michigan football team not only got over the hump, but their triumph marked a decided shift in the Big Ten’s historic rivalry.
The ’76 Wolverines were dominant on both sides of the football. The Schembechler era would be defined by a punishing ground game and this edition was no different. The offensive line had All-Americans in guard Mark Donahue and tackle Bill Dufek. Walt Downing was an all-Big center. That line paved the way for Rob Lytle to rush for over 1,400 yards and lead the Big Ten in carries, total yards, and yards-per-attempt. Harlan Huckleby added over 900 yards.
Rick Leach was a versatile quarterback. He added to the running game and also completed 50 percent of his passes—which was respectable by the standards of the mid-1970s. Leach also averaged 9.6 yards-per-attempt, which was outstanding. The key to that was Jim Smith. Getting All-American mention for both his receiving and return skills, Smith’s 24 catches averaged an astonishing 27.6 yards-per-catch. The Leach-to-Smith combo could make defenses pay when they stacked the box.
All-American linebacker Calvin O’Neal anchored the defense, and Greg Morton was an all-conference performer in the trenches. The average final score of Michigan games in 1976 was 36-8—they ranked first in the nation offensively and second on defense.
Expectations were high and Michigan opened the year ranked #2 in the nation. The Big Ten was known as “The Big Two” and “The Little Eight” in those days, recognizing that the Wolverines and Buckeyes were the only programs capable of serious contention. The middle was a mass of mediocrity with seven teams losing five or six games, and only Minnesota finishing with a winning record. Moreover, Michigan had not yet started its season-opening series with Notre Dame, so there was no one there to challenge them for much of the year.
The season began at home against Wisconsin with some shaky defense, but the offense was potent enough to win 40-27. Moreover, #1 Nebraska had played to a tie, so the Wolverines quickly moved to the top of the national polls.
The defense got their game together the following week when a respectable Stanford team came to Ann Arbor. Michigan dropped a 51-0 beatdown. They hosted Navy the following week and rolled up a 70-14 final. Wake Forest completed the non-conference schedule by coming in and taking a 31-zip pasting.
Michigan hosted in-state rival Michigan State and racked up a 42-10 victory. They went to Northwestern, the one truly awful team in this conference and posted a 38-7 W. A road trip to Indiana, who was coached by Lee Corso, was a 35-0 whitewash.
Minnesota, with a quarterback by the name of Tony Dungy, came to Ann Arbor on October 30. The rain was falling steadily, and temperatures were cold. After one quarter, the Gophers were hanging in, trailing 7-0. That’s when Michigan took over. Leach did it with his legs, running for 114 yards on just ten carries. He only threw the ball four times, but he completed all four for 40 more yards. Homecoming turned into a 45-0 shellacking.
The Wolverines were riding high when they went to Purdue. There was no reason to expect problems in West Lafayette. But the UM defense gave up 162 yards rushing to future NFL running back Scott Dierking, trailed 16-14 and then missed a 37-yard field goal as time expired.
Michigan bounced back to beat Illinois 38-7, which set up the final parlay of the visit to Columbus, and what the Wolverines hoped would be the long-sought trip to Pasadena. They were #4 in the national polls. UCLA and USC were in the 2-3 spots, while Pitt was ranked #1.
On November 20, the Michigan-Ohio State game would be followed by USC-UCLA. These games were both winner-take-all for the Rose Bowl. Thus, the Wolverines could control their destiny to move to #2 if they could win out. But they needed help. Pitt would have to either lose next week against Penn State, or lose the Sugar Bowl, where the Panthers were headed.
Ohio State had lost a non-conference game to Missouri and played UCLA to a tie, so the Buckeyes were out of the national picture. But for the first half, they fought Michigan to a draw and then started a drive late in the second quarter. An interception in the end zone preserved the scoreless tie as the Wolverines went to the locker room.
It was the third quarter when the tide turned in this game and in the Bo Schembechler-Woody Hayes rivalry as a whole. Michigan went on two long scoring drives of 80 and 52 yards, and they held the ball for over 11 minutes in that decisive third period. The defense, already playing well, stepped up its game even further. Ohio State was going nowhere. The final score was 22-0.
USC beat UCLA, so the Trojans and Wolverines were now 2-3 and hoping that Pitt would stumble. There would be no such luck there. The Panthers won their own rivalry game with the Nittany Lions, and then easily won the Sugar Bowl in the early afternoon slot on New Year’s Day. By the time Rose Bowl kicked off, Michigan and USC knew they were playing for #2.
The Wolverines had some early momentum. The Trojans’ great running back, Ricky Bell, was knocked out on the game’s second play. Lytle scored on a short rushing touchdown. But the extra point was blocked and that started a momentum shift to USC. The Trojans took a 7-6 lead. That score held until late in the fourth quarter when USC scored again to make it 14-6.
With no overtime in college football, the best Michigan could do was tie, and that made a noble run at it, driving down near the USC 20-yard line and facing a 2nd-and-4. But three straight incomplete passes ended the bid.
Michigan would still finish #3 in the final polls. More important, they had beaten Ohio State. The Wolverines did the same each of the next two years and went to the Rose Bowl each time. Getting that victory in Pasadena proved a little more elusive, but in 1980, Michigan finally capped off a Big Ten championship year with a Rose Bowl victory. It was the culmination of a change in fortune that started in 1976.