Michigan was coming off a disappointing year in 1981, one where they were ranked #1 in preseason, but an early upset loss at Wisconsin foreshadowed a tough campaign. The 1982 Michigan football team would be a little more vintage and got to the Rose Bowl for the fifth time in seven years.
Head coach Bo Schembechler had an elite receiver on hand in Anthony Carter, who would be Big Ten Player of the Year with 844 yards receiving and his 19.6 yards-per-catch constantly made secondaries anxious.
Carter’s presence opened up the classic Schembechler running game. Lawrence Ricks ran for nearly 1,400 yards. Quarterback Steve Smith was a better runner than passer, being the second-leading rusher on the team and a tough, physical player.
Michigan opened the year with a 20-9 revenge win over bowl-bound Wisconsin and moved from #12 in the preseason poll up to #10. But then they went to Notre Dame and lost the first prime-time game ever played in South Bend. The 23-17 defeat came in spite of a fluke touchdown going the Wolverines’ way and to an opponent that would only finish 6-4-1.
Another loss followed, this one at home to UCLA. The Bruins were a good team, one that Michigan had not seen the last of and the Wolverines lost 31-27 when their final drive ended on the UCLA eight-yard line.
Michigan might have been 1-2 and out of the national title picture, but none of the losses were in conference. Big Ten play began and the Wolverines got back on track by beating subpar Indiana and lowly Michigan State, albeit not in blowout fashion.
On October 16, Michigan went to play Iowa, who had stepped up and broken the lock on the Rose Bowl bid in 1981, the first time since 1967 a team other than the Wolverines or Buckeyes reached Pasadena. This year’s Iowa team under Hayden Fry would win seven games.
The Michigan-Iowa game was scoreless in the second quarter when the Wolverines blocked a punt for a safety. Kicker Ali Haji-Sheik, a future pro with a good long-range leg, hit from 44 yards. Smith threw an 11-yard touchdown pass and it was 12-0 at halftime. Soon it was 29-0 and only a late Hawkeye touchdown kept it from being a shutout.
This win sent the message to the rest of the Big Ten that Michigan was back and a 49-14 blowout of Northwestern a week later got the Wolverines back in the national rankings. They thumped Minnesota at home, 52-14, to set up a battle at Illinois, the last real test for the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten was a four-team race, with Michigan at 6-0, Ohio State and Iowa at 4-1 and Illinois sitting on 5-2. The Wolverines had a loss to give with Iowa and a scheduling oddity meant that Michigan would play one more game then Ohio State—which meant that simply winning the next two games before going to Columbus would ensure Michigan could do no worse than finish a half-game ahead of the Buckeyes.
This act of scheduling idiocy, along with the fact that the next game was home with lowly Purdue, meant that the November 6 game at Champaign was realistically for the Big Ten crown. It was 10-10 at half, but the leg of Haji-Sheik delivered from 45 & 47 yards for the only points of the second half.
The Wolverine defense came up with a goal-line stand to preserve the 16-10 win and the take-care-of-business 52-21 blowout of Purdue had the waft of roses again moving through Ann Arbor.
I know that partisans of Michigan and Ohio State never see their rivalry game as anything less than huge, but for those without a dog in the fight, Michigan’s 24-14 loss at the Shoe meant zilch. They were going to the Rose Bowl and would get a rematch with UCLA.
For the first half, the Rose Bowl seemed to promise the same excitement that the September game in Ann Arbor provided. UCLA led 10-7 at intermission, but the Bruin defense was beginning to assert itself. Smith was eventually knocked out by a vicious, but clean hit on his shoulder. Michigan turned the ball over four times and lost 24-14 in a game that didn’t feel that close by the time it was over.
After this Big Ten title run, Michigan stepped back briefly and missed out on the Rose Bowl each of the next three years. But Bo would be back and from 1986-89, the legendary head coach closed his career with three more trips west.