The 1986 Michigan Wolverines had a lot of momentum coming into the season, after finishing #2 in the nation in 1985. But it had been 1982 since they reached the Rose Bowl, and that was an eternity in the era of Bo Schembecler, who had guided the program to Pasadena seven times since 1969. The 1986 Michigan team didn’t quite reach the same poll heights as their immediate predecessor, but they got back to the Rose Bowl and did it in memorable fashion.
Jim Harbaugh was in his senior year and the quarterback put up a big season. He threw for over 2,700 yards and led the Big Ten. He did it with efficiency, generating a conference-best 9.9 yards-per-attempt. He was named Big Ten MVP and finished third in the Heisman voting.
Schembecler’s first love was the running game though, and he had the combination of brute force in All-American offensive tackle Jimbo Elliot, and shifty speed, in running back Jamie Morris. Morris ran for over 1,000 yards at 5.2 yards a pop. He also caught 33 passes, joining Gerald White as a multi-dimensional threat out of the backfield. White’s 38 catches led the team as the Wolverines showed an offensive diversity that was rare.
The defense, one of the best in the country in 1985, had some retooling to do, but they were still awfully good in 1986 and the best player was defensive back Garland Rivers. Michigan opened the season ranked second in the nation and the first game would be in South Bend.
Media attention honed in on Michigan-Notre Dame with greater intensity than usual. Even though the Irish had been on relatively hard times recently, they had a new coach named Lou Holtz. And this game made it clear that the rivalry was back on.
The Wolverines barely survived. They got two turnovers when the Irish were on the doorstep of the end zone, couldn’t stop the passing game, needed a missed extra point to cling to a 24-23 lead and a shanked field goal to ultimately preserve the win. One week later they turned in a pedestrian performance against a poor Oregon State team and were down to #5 in the polls.
Florida State was coming to Ann Arbor next. Though the Seminoles were a good program under Bobby Bowden they were still a year away from becoming the elite power that would be near the top of the rankings year after year. Michigan was able to edge out a 20-18 win and move to #4.
Big Ten play opened on the first Saturday of October, and the Wolverines settled in, rolling past a bad Wisconsin team 34-17 and then beating up mediocre Michigan State 27-6. Michigan was still #4 in the country and set to host #8 Iowa in the first key game of the conference race.
One year earlier, these teams had played a memorable game in Iowa City. Ranked 1-2 in the polls, the battle went down to the last play before a field goal beat Michigan 12-10. It was the game that proved to settle the Rose Bowl bid and this one had the potential to do the same.
The Wolverines were sloppy and turned the ball over four times. But after trailing 10-3 at the half, Harbaugh was able to rally the troops for two consecutive touchdowns. Early in the fourth quarter, Iowa pulled back even 17-17. The game appeared to be moving towards a tie when the Hawkeyes fumbled. Michigan kicker Mike Gillette drilled a game-winning field goal with five seconds left. The Wolverines were still undefeated.
A 38-14 rout at mediocre Indiana followed, and then the Wolverines destroyed subpar Illinois 69-13. On this same day, Ohio State knocked off Iowa, clearing the way for a traditional Michigan-Ohio State season finale to settle the Rose Bowl bid.
The Wolverines were also thinking national championship, but they needed some help. Miami and Penn State held the top two spots on the polls and a bidding war had started between the Fiesta & Citrus Bowls over who would host their potential showdown. Michigan threatened to put a monkey wrench in the mix on November 8. They won easily at Purdue while Penn State struggled. Voters elevated the Wolverines to the #2 spot.
Michigan’s national title path was still a difficult one. They couldn’t play Miami themselves and even if Penn State was at #3, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have vaulted Michigan after beating the #1 team on the field. But there were some interesting bowl politics at play.
Miami preferred, all things being equal, to go to the Orange Bowl. They could play at home and play Oklahoma, who was ranked #4, was the defending national champion and had a colorful star in linebacker Brian Bosworth. The Hurricanes also knew they could beat the Sooners, having done so in September. But if Penn State was ranked #2, the public pressure on Miami to set up a 1 vs 2 battle would be too intense.
What does this have to do with Michigan? It means that if they kept winning, looked good doing it, and stayed at #2, they could hope for Miami to go to the Orange Bowl and lose to Oklahoma. Under that scenario, Michigan almost certainly elevates to #1.
None of the scenarios saw Michigan losing anytime prior to November 22 in Columbus. But the Minnesota Golden Gophers had other ideas. Fighting for a bowl bid, and armed with the Big Ten’s leading rusher in Darrell Thompson, the Gophers upset the applecart. Michigan struggled much of the game and trailed 17-10. They scored with 2:26 to play and curiously opted to kick the PAT—there was nothing to lose, the game at Ohio State would be for the Rose Bowl regardless. But a tie would be a fatal to the national title cause.
And they didn’t even get a tie. The defense surrendered a 31-yard run to speedy quarterback Ricky Foggie and Minnesota got a game-winning field goal. Michigan fell to #6, the Miami-Penn State showdown was back on and the Wolverines regrouped to focus on the Rose Bowl prize.
Harbaugh was outspoken the week leading up to the game (there’s a shock), and he guaranteed a win against the seventh-ranked team in the nation on their own turf. Then he went out and backed up his words.
Michigan fell behind 14-3, but their offensive line began to gradually take control of the game. Morris rolled up 210 yards, 150 of them in the second half. Harbaugh went 19/29 for 261 yards. The Wolverines took a 26-17 lead in the fourth quarter and were driving for more. Then a momentum turn went the wrong way and nearly cost them the game.
The drive stalled and the field goal was blocked. Ohio State had future NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter at wide receiver and he caught his second touchdown pass of the game shortly after. The lead down to two points, Michigan was unable to kill the clock and Ohio State got into field position. But a field goal attempt with 1:06 left went wide. Harbaugh’s guarantee had stood up. Michigan was going back to the Rose Bowl, this time to face Arizona State.
There was still one minor matter to clean up, a December 6 trip to Hawaii that meant nothing. Michigan won it 27-10 and were ranked fourth in the nation when New Year’s Day arrived.
The Wolverines came out blazing. Their first drive ended with Morris scampering 18 yards for a touchdown and after lining up for the extra point, a fake resulted in a two-point conversion. Harbaugh threw a 24-yard touchdown pass before the first quarter was out.
But this game would be the mirror image of Ohio State. This time it was Michigan who would lose control of the trenches after taking the early lead. Morris ended up with only 47 yards, while Arizona State gained 188 on the ground. Michigan never scored again. By the start of the fourth quarter they were behind 19-15 and though they always had a chance, it never seemed like they were ready to break through.
The final was 22-15, but there was one positive long-term effect. Arizona State head coach John Cooper apparently caught the eye of the people in Columbus. By 1988 he was the Ohio State head coach and would become notorious in Buckeye Nation for his inability to beat Michigan. Maybe Wolverine fans should see this Rose Bowl loss as an investment rather than a defeat.
Above all, Wolverine fans should see the 1986 Michigan football team as one of the many memorable ones the program has produced over the decades.