1991 marked the second year of a new era in Big Ten football, one where neither Bo Schembechler or Woody Hayes was on the sidelines. That didn’t stop the standings from having a pretty familiar look. Here’s a look back on the highlights of the 1991 Big Ten football season…
EXCELLENCE IN ANN ARBOR
Michigan opened the season by beating Notre Dame for the first time in five years. Even though the Wolverines lost decisively to top-ranked Florida State, Michigan was still the odds-on favorite to win the conference championship when league play began in October.
The Wolverines rolled through the Big Ten schedule undefeated. The biggest conference win was the first, a home game with ninth-ranked Iowa. Michigan held a 19-18 lead after a first half marked by offense and bad special teams play. The Wolverines took over on the ground after intermission and pulled away to a 43-24 win. This game proved to have settled the Rose Bowl bid, with neither Michigan nor Iowa losing the rest of the way.
No season in Ann Arbor can be complete without a win over Ohio State though, and Michigan took care of that in front of the home fans. The Rose Bowl bid was already clinched, but Wolverine wide receiver Desmond Howard locked up something else—the Heisman Trophy. Howard scored two touchdowns. One was a leaping catch between two defenders. The other was a 93-yard punt return where he made the Heisman “pose” in the end zone.
Howard wasn’t the only great individual player. Linebacker Erick Anderson won the Butkus Award and made two signature plays that may have saved the Notre Dame game. Greg Skrepenak was an All-American at offensive tackle. And Elvis Grbac, whose college career seemed to go on forever, was a reliable quarterback who could generate big plays and still play high-percentage football.
HAYDEN FRY’S LAST GOOD TEAM
Hayden Fry had rebuilt the Iowa program from the ashes and gone to three Rose Bowls over the previous ten years. This decade wasn’t as kind to the great coach and a gradual descent bottomed out by 1999. But the 1991 edition was still a vintage Fry team.
In fact, they were probably better than his Rose Bowl teams of 1981 and 1990. The ’91 Hawks won every regular season game except the one at Michigan. Defensive end Leroy Smith shared Defensive Player of the Year honors. Mike Saunders was a 1,000-yard rusher. And Matt Rodgers was an excellent and underrated college quarterback. Rodgers’ 65% completion rate was very good by the standards of the era and it didn’t stop him from generating better than eight yards per attempt.
The biggest regular season win was a home game against Ohio State that took place against the backdrop of tragedy. An on-campus shooting had claimed six lives. Iowa took the field in all black helmets as a tribute to the deceased and their loved ones.
Then they played a solid football game in their honor. Rodgers threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alan Cross and Iowa led 13-9 at the half. Rodgers hit Danan Hughes with a 50-yard strike that set up a field goal. The defense sacked Ohio State quarterback Kent Graham four times and the result was a 16-9 win in a game that proved to decide second place.
BILL MALLORY’S BEST
Another coach who built a program from nothing was Indiana’s Bill Mallory. The Hoosiers never reached the heights that Iowa got to under Fry, but Indiana under Mallory was always competitive, usually in bowls and a consistently good sports appetizer for the people of Bloomington before Bob Knight got the basketball team rolling.
The ’91 Hoosers were led by running back Vaughn Dunbar. A local product from Fort Wayne, Dunbar ran for over 1,800 yards, easily won the Big Ten rushing title and was a first-team All-American. Indiana’s final 6-4-1 regular season record is deceptive. The losses were to Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State and the Hoosiers were competitive with the Wolverines and Buckeyes.
Indiana got a bowl win, a 24-0 shutout of Baylor in the Copper Bowl. The victory capped Mallory’s best season in Bloomington and remains the last team the Hoosier program to win a postseason game. And that part about being the sports appetizer? They kept everyone entertained until Knight made his last run to a Final Four the following March.
TROY VINCENT EMERGES
Troy Vincent has had a splendid career in football. He’s currently Executive VP Of Football Operations in the NFL, the league’s second-most powerful man behind Roger Goodell. As an NFL player, he went to five Pro Bowls in a long career at cornerback for multiple teams. It was 1991 that Vincent emerged nationally on the college level.
Playing at Wisconsin, Vincent shared Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors with Iowa’s Smith. Vincent would be a top 10 pick in the ensuing spring’s NFL draft. Vincent was the best player on a Badger team that jumped from 1-10 to 5-6 and showed that Barry Alvarez’s rebuild, now in its second year, might be going somewhere.
BOWL GAME DUDS
Indiana was the only team to get a bowl win. Michigan lost the Rose Bowl to Washington 34-14—although this was an exceptional Huskie team, one that would share the national championship with Miami. The Wolverines still finished sixth in the final polls.
More disappointing was Iowa. Let’s start with the bowl placement. In spite of being ranked #7 at the end of the regular season, with a 10-1 record and a fan base that travels in droves, they were overlooked by the major bowls. The Hawkeyes ended up in the Holiday Bowl against Ty Detmer’s BYU. Then a missed extra point proved costly for Iowa in a 13-13 tie. At least the Hawks still held on to a final #10 ranking.
And the ugliest performance came from Illinois, who met up with UCLA in the Sun Bowl and lost 6-3. The Illini might just want to avoid the Bruins in bowl games. The 1983 Illinois team was crushed by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. And in 2011, the two schools met in the Kraft Hunger Bowl with both of their head coaches already fired. The Illini lost that one too.