The Road To The 1979 Gator Bowl: Michigan & North Carolina

The 1979 Gator Bowl was one of the better matchups on the bowl undercard of that season. It featured Michigan and North Carolina, with the Wolverines looking to atone for a disappointing season and the Tar Heels looking to send a statement that they had arrived. Here’s a look back on how each team navigated the 1979 football season to reach Jacksonville…

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Michigan was coming off four straight major bowl appearances, the last three as the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl. All four times ended in losses, but Bo Schembecler’s program was one of the nation’s best.

The Wolverines were loaded defensively with All-Americans at end, in Curtis Greer, and linebacker with Ron Simpkins. In the defensive backfield, Mike Jolly led the way with four interceptions.

Michigan’s offense was led by a potent running game, with Butch Woolfork’s 990 yards ranking second among Big Ten running backs. Stanley Edwards and Lawrence Reid combined for over 1, 100 more. And while primary quarterback John Wangler was a classic dropback passer, Schembecler could call on B.J. Dickey to mix in a running threat behind center.

Tight end Doug Marsh was the primary target in the passing game, catching 33 passes for over 600 yards and becoming a second-round NFL draft pick the following spring. But the biggest splash came from a freshman in Anthony Carter. The most explosive receiver Schembecler ever hard, “A.C” only caught 17 passes, but they were good for over 27 yards a pop and gave the Michigan offense a new dimension.

The expectations were high as usual, especially with Ohio State seemingly in turmoil and transition following the firing of Woody Hayes after the 1978 season and bringing in Earle Bruce. Michigan was ranked #7 to start the season and opened the year up with a 49-7 thumping of Northwestern.

Ninth-ranked Notre Dame came to Ann Arbor next, and though the Irish would ultimately have a disappointing four-loss season, they didn’t suffer one of those losses here. Michigan trailed 12-10 and was in position to win, but a blocked field goal cost them to the win and dropped the Wolverines to #11 in the polls.

Victories over lowly Kansas and at mediocre Cal closed the non-conference schedule and Big Ten action resumes on October 6 at Michigan State. The Spartans would have gone to the Rose Bowl in 1978 had it not been for probation was coming off an NCAA title run in basketball the previous spring with Magic Johnson. “Little brother” was doing well and Michigan needed to make a stand.

A tough game was tied 7-7 late in the third quarter, when Dickey threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to Ralph Clayton for the lead and Michigan ultimately won 21-7. They followed that up with a 31-21 win at mediocre Minnesota and a 27-7 win over a terrible Illinois team. That moved the Wolverines back into the Top 10 and set up a visit from Indiana.

The Hoosiers were coached by future ESPN personality Lee Corso and were having their best season since a 1967 Rose Bowl run. The game was tied 21-21 with six seconds left and in the days prior to overtime, it looked like a tie—one that would feel like a defeat for the Wolverines if they couldn’t convert a desperation pass from the Indiana 45-yard line.

Anthony Carter made the most legendary play of his college career, running a deep post, splitting the Hoosier defenders and catching a touchdown pass to complete an improbable 27-21 win. When Michigan followed it up by blasting a subpar Wisconsin team 54-zip, they still controlled their destiny for the Rose Bowl.

It was a three-team race, with Purdue and Ohio State. The Buckeyes were doing quite well under Bruce and were undefeated. The Boilermakers only conference loss was to Ohio State. Michigan would play both teams to close the season.

The ending was disappointing. They lost 24-21 in West Lafayette and even though the Rose Bowl bid was still in their grasp against Ohio State, lost the rivalry game 18-15, allowing a crucial blocked punt in the second half. Michigan was out of the New Year’s Day picture for the first time since 1975 and accepted the Gator Bowl bid as the #14 team in the country.

North Carolina had enjoyed a good run of success under head coach Bill Dooley, who took the program to six bowl games in eight years before leaving to take the Virginia Tech job. Dick Crum replaced him in 1978 and went 5-6 his first year. Crum needed to get things back on track and he had an exceptionally gifted outside linebacker by the name of Lawrence Taylor to build around.

Crum also had one of the ACC’s better quarterbacks in Matt Kupec, who led the conference in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and touchdown passes. In a controlled passing game, Kupec targeted tight end Mike Chatham and running back Dough Pascal as his main targets. Pascal also ran for 835 yards as a part of a strong two-back attack that was led by 1,000-yard rusher Amos Lawrence.

There were no expectations in Chapel Hill, but UNC changed that with a strong start. They beat an eight-win South Carolina team 28-0 to start the year and two weeks later hosted Pitt. The Panthers were ranked #13 in the country and had a great defensive end in Hugh Green.

In a game played in intense heat, one that left Green cramping up in the second half, North Carolina controlled the ball on the ground with Lawrence and up-and-coming Kelvin Bryant. The Tar Heels won the game 17-7. It was Pitt’s only loss of the season and likely cost them a Sugar Bowl chance at top-ranked Alabama. North Carolina followed up the big win with blowout wins over bad teams in Cincinnati and Army, vaulting into the polls at #14.

A home date with Wake Forest brought the winning streak to an end. The Demon Deacons were on their way to an eight-win season and quarterback Jay Venuto would win ACC honors. They were led by head coach John Mackovic, a future coach of Illinois and Texas, and Wake beat North Carolina 24-19, dropping them to #19 in the polls.

The Tar Heels responded with a clutch win at a good North Carolina State team, who had a future NFL wide receiver in Mike Quick. UNC broke out to a 28-7 lead and was hanging on for dear life at 28-21 with the Wolfpack driving at midfield. Taylor then came up with a sack and forced a fumbled that UNC recovered. They scored a clinching touchdown and won 35-21.

Then the season hit a skid. North Carolina played three pretty good teams in succession, East Carolina, Maryland and Clemson. After a 24-24 tie to East Carolina, the Tar Heels lost to both ACC rivals, and took themselves out of the race for the conference championship that would end up with N.C. State. The 0-2-1 stretch also knocked them out of the rankings.

North Carolina recovered to scrape by mediocre Virginia 13-7 and then win at archrival Duke 37-16. The Heels were still unranked, but at 7-3-1 and heading for the Gator Bowl, then had an opportunity against a high-profile opponent.

The Gator Bowl was played on a Friday night between Christmas and New Year’s, and ABC’s top broadcasting team of Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles had the call. The game proved to be a worthy appetizer for the major bowls.

Michigan drove inside the 10-yard line in the first quarter, but was forced to settle for a field goal. Wangler came right back and hit Carter on a 53-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was missed, a point that would prove to be critical.

Even more critical was what happened on Michigan’s next possession. Deep in his own end, Wangler dropped back to pass and was sacked by Taylor. It wasn’t quite as ugly as a sack Taylor would make in 1985 for the New York Giants, when he ended the career of Washington Redskins’ quarterback Joe Theisman on Monday Night Football. But this one came close to having the same impact—Wangler tore up his knee, was gone for the game and faced a long road back.

North Carolina pulled to within 9-7 at half, and then got a 12-yard touchdown pass from Kupec to take a 14-9 lead after three quarters. A field goal early in the fourth quarter put the Tar Heels up 17-9.

Michigan’s chances of getting a win were close to gone, but they could still salvage a tie, as Dickey led a drive late in the game. With 1:28 left, he hit Carter on a 30-yard touchdown strike. But North Carolina stopped the two-point conversion and held on for the 17-15 win.

North Carolina moved back into the final rankings, finishing at #15. Michigan ended the year ranked #18. There were good times ahead for both programs. UNC grew into a solid ACC program under Crum. Wangler made it back for Michigan and even playing on mostly one leg, helped the Wolverines get back to the Rose Bowl, and finally win it in 1980.