Bo Schembecler’s Michigan program entered the season with a good bit of momentum on their side. The legendary “Ten-Year War” between Bo and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes was nearing the end and the tide was moving in the Wolverines direction. They had won two consecutive Big Ten titles. The 1978 Michigan football team was aiming to make it three straight trips to Pasadena and maybe…just maybe—to finally get their coach his first Rose Bowl win.
Michigan was led by quarterback Rick Leach. A two-sport athlete who eventually made the major leagues in baseball, Leach was an excellent college quarterback. His 17 TD/6 INT ratio was very good by the standards of the era. He also ran for 683 yards, third-best on the team. At season’s end he was named Big Ten MVP and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
A Bo Schembecler team was never going to be too focused on the quarterback though. The Wolverines had a solid backfield combo of the quick Harlan Huckleby and the powerful Russell Davis. They combined to rush for nearly 1,500 yards behind an offensive line led by All-Conference tackle Jon Giesler. Defensively, Michigan had an All-Big Ten performer at each level—Curtis Greer up front, Ron Simpkins at linebacker and Mike Jolly in the secondary.
Michigan was ranked #6 in the preseason polls and opened at home with a 31-0 rout of lowly Illinois. That set up a visit to South Bend. The Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry was being renewed in 1978 and beginning a long tradition of this being the first really big game of every fresh college football season.
The Irish were the defending national champions and had Joe Montana at quarterback. Leach did not play well in the first half, completing only 3/14 passes. But Notre Dame didn’t take advantage and the Wolverines only trailed 14-7. And they turned it around after intermission. An interception set up the tying touchdown. Leach threw a 40-yard TD pass to give his team the lead and they went on to win 28-14.
Michigan came home to conclude the non-conference part of the schedule. They blasted Duke 52-0 and then had surprising trouble with mediocre Arizona, but won 21-17. It was time to resume Big Ten play as Michigan State came to Ann Arbor in mid-October.
The Spartans were a contender—in fact, more than a contender as events would prove. They had a prolific offense, and the best set of receivers in the conference. Tight end Mark Brammer, along with receiver Ed Byrd were first-team All-Big Ten. So was another wideout, who made a name for himself in another sport—Kirk Gibson would eventually be hero to the entire state for his role on the 1984 Detroit Tigers, and he spent one year as a Tiger teammate of Leach’s. Right now, he was Michigan’s enemy.
Michigan State left town with a 24-15 win. The only solace Michigan fans could take was that Sparty was on probation, and thus ineligible for the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten was top-heavy in those days and a four-game stretch against Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Northwestern produced four straight blowouts. The season’s decisive hour had arrived, with a home game against Purdue followed by the year-ending brawl with Ohio State in Columbus.
Purdue had knocked off both Michigan State and Ohio State, but had not played well the week before at Wisconsin, settling for a surprise 24-24 tie. The Boilermakers had a good defensive line that was anchored by Keena Turner, soon to be a San Francisco 49ers hero in one of the great goal line stands in NFL history.
The key moment of the game came early—Purdue quarterback Mark Herrman took a hit on the second series and suffered a pinched nerve in his neck. Michigan’s defense took over from there and while the Boiler defense tried to hang in, it was too much to ask. The Wolverines won 24-6.
Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State now had one conference loss apiece with the Boilermakers a half-game back. Had Purdue beaten Wisconsin, they would still have been in the Rose Bowl picture. Had Michigan State not been on probation, they would have most definitely been in the Rose Bowl picture. Instead, the Michigan-Ohio State game would be winner-take-all for the Pasadena trip for the 10th straight year.
The Wolverines were hit with a good dose of adversity, even though this was not a vintage Buckeye team, and had already lost twice. Michigan led 7-3, but Leach pulled a hamstring. He stayed in the game, but with the quarterback lame and Huckleby already out with an injury, Schembecler’s team was up against it.
The defense and Leach came through—the Buckeyes never scored again and the quarterback turned in a gutty effort and led a 69-yard touchdown drive that wrapped up the 14-3 win. Michigan shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State, but Sparty’s sanctions sent the Wolverines to Pasadena.
Michigan was ranked #5 in the country, paired up with #3 USC. The Wolverines and Trojans joined Alabama and Oklahoma as one-loss teams hoping for a shot at the national title. Shortly after the Rose Bowl kicked off, it was announced that the Crimson Tide had knocked off unbeaten Penn State in the Sugar Bowl earlier in the day.
Realistically, this narrowed the championship race to ‘Bama and USC, but NBC play-by-play man Curt Gowdy alluded to at least the possibility that maybe Michigan could inherit USC’s support if they won.
The Rose Bowl matchup will be forever remembered by what happened on the goal line in the second quarter. USC was leading 10-3 and ready to add on, with the ball on the 3-yard line. Trojan running back Charles White got the ball, went into the middle and leapt over the top, trying to make it all the way. He fumbled the ball at least a yard prior to breaking the plane. The play was ruled a touchdown.
It became known as “The Phantom Touchdown” and it represented the margin of victory in what would end up a 17-10 final. The controversy probably forced USC to share the national title with Alabama (even though the Trojans had beaten the Crimson Tide outright in September) instead of winning it outright.
But that was little consolation to Michigan and to its great head coach, who had the most disturbing chapter yet added to their Pasadena Chronicles. It would take two more years for Schembecler to finally get that elusive Rose Bowl win.