1985 Michigan football came into the season looking for redemption from the most disappointing season of Bo Schembechler’s tenure in Ann Arbor. They went 6-5 in 1984 and then missed a chance at redemption when they lost the Holiday Bowl to undefeated BYU, the eventual national champion. After having gone to a major bowl in eight of the ten seasons prior to ’84, including five Rose Bowls, Bo wasn’t going to take this lying down.
He had few believers though, and the Wolverines opened the season unranked. The key to their revival would be defense. They had two All-Americans, defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein and Brad Cochran in the secondary, and collectively, the unit was one of the best in the country.
Schembechler produced his traditional strong running game, as Jamie Morris ran for over 1,000 yards, and Gerald White provided a good change of pace with over 500 more. There were quality receivers, starting with Paul Jokish, who caught 37 balls and his 18.4 yards-per-catch was third-best in the Big Ten. Tight end Eric Kattus was effective underneath, catching 38 passes for 582 yards.
Overseeing it all, was a quarterback that would go on to achieve some notoriety, both here, in the NFL and as a head coach in both college and the pros—that would be Jim Harbaugh. The current Michigan head coach was an underrated quarterback in his day. He wasn’t highly regarded, like conference rival Chuck Long at Iowa. But Harbaugh completed 64 percent of his passes, got 8.7 yards-per-attempt and posted an 18/6 TD-INT ratio.
The Wolverines opened the season at home with Notre Dame. It was the final year for Irish head coach Gerry Faust and ND would struggle to a 5-6 finish. They were ranked #13 when they came to Ann Arbor and Michigan won 20-12. The Wolverines then played another ranked team that would disappoint and finish 5-6, that being #15 South Carolina. The result here was a 34-3 win and Michigan was now up to #12 in the polls.
No one could ever accuse Schembechler of ducking non-conference competition. He lined up his third straight preseason Top 20 team in the Maryland Terrapins and this was a team that would stay good throughout the season, winning the ACC title and their only losses—outside of this game—were to Miami and Penn State, both of whom had title shots on New Year’s Night.
Harbaugh was efficient, going 16/20 for 196 yards, regularly finding Kattus. The tight end caught six passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns. The defense picked off Terps quarterback Stan Gelbaugh four times and Michigan posted a 20-0 shutout.
The Big Ten schedule was set to begin and the Wolverines were back in familiar territory as a Top 10 team. They blew out mediocre Wisconsin 33-6 and vaulted all the way to #3. A 31-0 rout at Michigan State, a good bowl-bound team with a 2,000-yard rusher in Lorenzo White, pushed Michigan to #2. It was time to go to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes were ranked #1 in the country and all of Big Ten Country was jacked up for this game. Long was a Heisman contender (he would finish an extremely close second to Auburn’s Bo Jackson). Michigan never got anything going offensively, but a couple big special teams play combined with great red-zone defense had them ahead 10-9. Then Long was able to mount a last-second drive and win with a field goal on the game’s final play. Michigan paid a very small price in the polls, only dropping to #4. But a Rose Bowl return was now a tough row to hoe.
Michigan bounced back and blew out a bad Indiana team, 47-15, but then played their worst offensive game of the season in a 3-3 tie to Illinois. The positive was that Ohio State had beaten Iowa, opening up the conference race. The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes were tied atop the league at 4-1, with the Wolverines and Illini in hot pursuit at 3-1-1.
The Michigan offense got unleashed the next two games, blowing out mediocre teams in Purdue and Minnesota by a combined 95-7. In the meantime, Iowa had blasted Illinois, narrowing the race to three teams. On the season’s final week the stakes were simple—if the Hawkeyes lost to Minnesota, then the Michigan-Ohio State winner would go to Pasadena. And even if Iowa won, the stakes for a major bowl invite were high.
Michigan and Ohio State were tied 10-10 at the half in Ann Arbor, but Harbaugh was playing brilliantly. He finished 16/19 for 230 yards and three touchdowns. The Wolverines clung to a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter and were on their own 23-yard line. Harbaugh found John Kolesar down the sidelines for a 77-yard touchdown pass that put the game out of reach. The 27-17 win moved Michigan to #5 in the polls.
The Fiesta Bowl was the reward and it was a marquee game. Nebraska was ranked #7 and the winner of this game could expect a national top five finish.
Michigan did not play well early in the game. Their passing game advantage with Harbaugh never materialized and the Cornhuskers pounded out over 300 yards rushing on the afternoon. By halftime, the Wolverines were in a 14-3 hole.
But in a stunning third quarter, Michigan made all the big plays. They blocked a punt to set up one score. They turned a couple turnovers into more easy points. Jamie Morris took off on an 88-yard touchdown run. A shocking 24-point third-quarter explosion gave the Wolverines a 27-14 lead.
Nebraska rallied, closed to within 27-23 and got close enough for a desperation pass into the end zone. But Michigan corner Garland Rivers picked it off with 28 seconds left to preserve the win.
Michigan was back. Harbaugh returned in 1986 and they went to the Rose Bowl. The momentum for that season started with the redemption tour of 1985 that led the Wolverines all the way to #2 in the final polls.