The 1981 college football season was filled with chaos and no two conferences produced better races than the Pac-10 & Big Ten. It was Iowa and Washington who survived and met on New Year’s Day in Pasadena for the 1982 Rose Bowl. Here’s a look back on how the Hawkeyes & Huskies made their run for the roses…
Washington had become a serious player in the Pac-10 over the previous five years, with two Rose Bowl appearances, including 1980. But they were still seen as behind USC—and for good reason, as the Trojans continued to be the conference power. Washington opened the 1981 college football season ranked #15.
The Huskies weren’t bursting at the seams with talent. Steve Pelleur was a mediocre quarterback, who completed just 47 percent of his passes for a woeful 4.9 yards-per-attempt. No one ran for more than 623 yards and while the wide receiver tandem of Anthony Allen and Paul Skansi was respectable, it was far from explosive. Nor was the offensive line or defense stacked with All-American talent.
Washington did have an exceptional coach in Don James and they opened the season by making quick work of Pacific, Kansas State and Oregon, giving up just 20 points combined in the three games. Then, against a good Arizona State team with future NFL running back Gerald Riggs, they gave up 26 in one game, losing decisively and falling from the rankings.
There were two unimpressive escapes over bad teams, 27-26 over Cal and 14-7 at Texas Tech, sandwiched around a 56-7 blowout over horrid Oregon State. On the final Saturday of October, Stanford came north to Seattle.
The Cardinal were not a good team, winning only four games. But they had a couple of explosive players. Running back Darrin Nelson was the second-best back in the Pac-10, behind USC’s Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen and Nelson would have a productive NFL career. The Stanford quarterback did pretty well at the NFL level himself—junior John Elway was behind center. Washington won this game 42-31 and moved back into the polls at #16.
One week later, any hope of the Rose Bowl looked lost when Washington was crushed by UCLA 31-0. The Huskies were still 4-2 in the conference, but Arizona State, USC, UCLA and Washington State only had one loss apiece. Washington still had the chance to play USC and Washington State, but having just been demolished by UCLA there were certainly questions about the Huskies’ readiness to do that.
It was rainy and windy in Seattle when USC, ranked third in the nation came to town. Washington got a field goal for a 3-0 lead, but what proved to be more important was the opportunity it gave them on the kickoff. The Trojan return team allowed a live ball to go into the end zone and the Huskies jumped on it. The gift score was the only touchdown of the game for either team and Washington won 13-3.
There was hope when Rivalry Saturday came on November 21, but the Huskies needed help. They had to beat Washington State and hope that USC could knock off UCLA.
Washington trailed 7-3, but Washington State—who controlled their destiny for the Rose Bowl bid—lost quarterback Clete Casper to an injury. Pelleur threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Skanski to get the lead.
The Cougars were able to answer with a field goal, but without Casper, the turnovers were coming. Washington’s defense forced six turnovers. And as they took control of what would be a 23-10 win, the crowd was abuzz with the news that USC blocked a last-second field goal and beat UCLA 22-21. The Washington season hadn’t always been pretty, but they were going to their third Rose Bowl in six years.
Iowa was a dead program when Hayden Fry took over in 1979. No Rose Bowl appearances since 1958 and not even a winning season since 1961. Fry didn’t break either streak his first two years, going 9-13.
So when the Hawkeyes opened the 1981 season by upsetting seventh-ranked Nebraska 10-7 it came out of nowhere. When they lost at Iowa State the following week, it was just Iowa returning to earth. Then the Hawkeyes pulled another big non-conference upset, stunning sixth-ranked UCLA 20-7. This upset got Fry’s team into the rankings at #18. But who were these guys?
There was some good talent on defense, most notably defensive end Andre Tippett. He would make the NFL, convert to outside linebacker and become a Hall of Fame player for the New England Patriots. Iowa defensive back Lou King was a ballhawk, intercepting eight passes.
A balanced running attack, with Phil Blatcher and Eddie Phillips—who ranked fourth and sixth among Big Ten runners respectively—worked in tandem with the defense and with All-American punter Reggie Roby to control field position.
Iowa’s quarterback was Gordy Bohannon, who didn’t throw a lot, but he was reasonably effective. His 51 percent completion rate was acceptable by the standards of the time, and his 7.0 yards-per-attempt was pretty good.
So could this Hawkeye team sustain the magic during Big Ten play? Iowa started by crushing Northwestern 64-0—the Wildcats were awful to be sure, but that sort of beatdown was normally reserved for the Michigans and Ohio States, who had represented this league in Pasadena every year since 1967. Iowa then beat Indiana 42-28 and moved up to #12 in the polls.
A road trip to fifth-ranked Michigan was next and the formula of defense, punting and running the ball was able to get it done. The Wolverines made the game’s biggest error—a fumbled punt that set up a field goal. Iowa’s offense used clock-chewing drives to get two more field goals and they pulled out a 9-7 upset.
That was three wins against Top 10 teams with brand-name pedigrees, but games against Minnesota and Illinois didn’t go quite as well. The Hawks lost 12-10 and 24-7 respectively. The Illini, we should note, were a good team and joined the Hawkeyes and the Wisconsin Badgers as teams challenging Michigan-Ohio State hegemony in the conference. Iowa’s loss to Illinois was also on the road.
Iowa bounced back with a 33-7 home win over Purdue. There were two games left and the Big Ten race was complete chaos. Of the five contenders mentioned above, four were tied in the loss column with two defeats apiece and Illinois had three losses.
The Hawkeyes faced a must-win game in Wisconsin. Blatcher ran for a pair of early touchdowns and Iowa took a 17-0 lead. Fry turned the game over to his defense and Roby.
An ultra-conservative strategy meant the Hawkeyes only got seven first downs for the game. But Roby dominated, airing out seven punts that averaged nearly 54 yards a pop. Fry insisted the game they put in the defense’s hands and they delivered 17-7—with the UW touchdown coming only in the late moments.
Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan all had two losses, but due to unequal scheduling, the Wolverines played one more conference game and thereby had a half-game lead. Iowa needed to beat Michigan State and hope Ohio State beat Michigan.
If that happened, the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes would be co-champs. They had not played head-to-head, and the Big Ten’s next tiebreaker would be to simply send the team that had waited the longest since last going to Pasadena. Iowa owned this tiebreaker.
And they got what they wanted. Ohio State won 14-9, while Iowa easily rolled Michigan State 36-21. The improbable season of the 1981 Iowa Hawkeyes was going to end in the Rose Bowl.
Maybe it was asking too much for Iowa and Washington to take the drama of their respective conference races and extend it into this bowl game. The 1982 Rose Bowl belonged to the Huskies from the outset.
Don James unveiled a new weapon in freshman running back Jacques Robinson, who went off for 142 yards. It took a Washington a quarter to get rolling, but by halftime they were up 13-0 and then sealed the game with two fourth quarter touchdowns. Robinson became the first freshman to win Rose Bowl MVP honors and the 28-0 whitewash was the first shutout in the Granddaddy of Them All since 1953.
For Washington, the victory was validation of James’ program as a true rival to USC atop the Pac-10 and though it would take ten more years, the Huskies would eventually get a national championship. For Iowa, it was a sign they had arrived and they weren’t going away anytime soon.