The period from 1983-87 was, by the standards of Bo Schembecler’s Michigan program, a dry one. The Wolverines “only” made it to one Rose Bowl in that five-year stretch. In ‘87 they lost four games. Perhaps most galling was that in-state rival Michigan State had won the Big Ten in 1987. And at a time when Bo was 1-7 in Rose Bowls, the Spartans capped their run with a victory in Pasadena. The 1988 Michigan football team made amends for all of the above as they ran to a Rose Bowl win.
Michigan did it, first and foremost, with tough players in the trenches. Defensive tackle Mark Messner was an All-American and completed a career that made him the first player in Big Ten history to be named All-Conference four straight years. On the offensive front, John Vitale was the best center in the country and Mike Husar was an All-Big Ten guard.
Tight end Jeffrey Brown might not have been a factor in the passing game, but he was a solid blocker. The offensive front as a whole enabled running back Tony Boles to rush for over 1,400 yards and average better than five yards a pop. Leroy Hoard, a junior that would end up a second-round draft choice in the NFL, tacked on over 750 more and averaged nearly six per carry.
The Wolverines didn’t have to throw the ball much and they relied on a two-quarterback system with Michael Taylor and Demetrius Brown. Taylor was more efficient, while Brown made more big plays. The top three receivers, Greg McMurtry, John Kolesar and Chris Calloway all averaged better than 15 yards a catch. Michigan could stretch the field and even without passing a lot, they still ranked 19th in the country in points scored.
Linebacker J.J. Grant was the quarterback of a defense that ranked seventh nationally and the secondary was anchored by David Arnold and Tripp Wellborne, the latter intercepting five passes. Michigan opened the season ranked #11.
The opener was in prime-time at South Bend. Notre Dame was ranked #13. As befits a game between two rivals so closely ranked, the game went down to the wire. Michigan allowed a long punt return for a touchdown early and missed a 48-yard field goal at the gun in a 19-17 loss. As it turned out, both of these teams were a lot better than their preseason ranks suggested.
Miami was every bit as good as its #1 ranking and status as defending national champion suggested. The Wolverines hosted Hurricanes and had a 30-14 lead with just under eight minutes to go. A shocking collapse led to a 31-30 defeat.
If someone could have peered into the future and noted that Notre Dame and Miami would end up 1-2 in the final polls and that Michigan had come within a play of beating each one, it might have made Wolverine backers feel better about the 0-2 start. Then again, probably not much.
A 19-9 win over a decent Wake Forest team got some momentum back going into Big Ten play. Michigan started the conference schedule with a 62-14 blasting of lowly Wisconsin in Madison. It set up a home date with Michigan State.
Sparty was off to a slow start in non-conference play, but the same problem the year before hadn’t stopped them from winning the league. They had the Big Ten’s best receiver in Andre Rison. Michigan shut it all down with a 17-3 win.
Iowa had the league’s top quarterback in Chuck Hartlieb and a trip to Iowa City produced a tough battle that ended in a 17-17 tie. Michigan continued its run of facing the league’s top skill players when hosted Indiana and eventual Big Ten MVP, running back Anthony Thompson. The Hoosiers were a good team that won seven games and posted a bowl victory. Michigan thumped them 31-6. A 52-7 pounding of a bad Northwestern team followed, and then an unimpressive 22-7 win over an equally poor Minnesota squad.
Michigan was 5-0-1 and on top of the league standings. Michigan State and Illinois were both 4-1-1. The Illini were coming to Ann Arbor on November 12, the penultimate game of the season. The stakes were very simple—if the Wolverines won, they would clinch a share of the league title and the Rose Bowl bid. If the Illini won, it would set up a three-way situation where Illinois would have the inside track to Pasadena.
Illinois had a future NFL quarterback in Jeff George and their running back tandem of Keith Jones and Howard Griffith rivaled Boles and Hoard for the best duo in the conference. Michigan was facing injury problems—Boles was out and so was Grant. Taylor had been knocked out for the year and Brown was now the sole quarterback.
The Wolverines set an early tone by driving 53 yards for a touchdown on their opening possession, with a successful fake punt keeping the drive alive. Arnold intercepted a Jeff George pass on the ensuing possession to set up a field goal and a quick 10-zip lead. The Illini put together several good drives in the first half, but two died on the five-yard line and ended with field goals. Another ended with a lost fumble.
Michigan led 17-6 at the half and their superior strength in the trenches took over from there They pulled away with three second half touchdowns and the 38-9 win had them smelling the roses.
There was still the matter of wrapping up the Big Ten outright—Michigan State was in position to share the championship. Having to share with Sparty because of a loss to Ohio State would be the one thing that could detract from a Rose Bowl run in Ann Arbor. And even if this Buckeye team wasn’t very good—4-5-1 coming into the finale, this was still the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
When the Wolverines jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead in Columbus, it looked like an easy afternoon. The Buckeyes came roaring back and scored 24 unanswered points. Michigan still trailed 31-27 late in the fourth quarter when Kolesar took over. He first returned the kickoff 59 yards. Then he hauled in a 41-yard touchdown pass from Brown to seal the 34-31 win.
Michigan closed the year in the same poll position they had begun, at #11. But there was a big opportunity to move up against fifth-ranked USC in the Rose Bowl. The Trojans had started the season 10-0 and been in position to play for a national title before losing their finale to Notre Dame.
The Wolverines looked out of synch for the first half and out of their league, in a 14-3 hole. The second half was a different story. They used some finesse on the first drive of the second half. Kolesar ran a successful reverse and Brown scrambled for a 22-yard gain. A six-yard touchdown pass to Calloway got Michigan back in the game.
On the next drive, it was classic Wolverine power football. Hoard was the key to a 92-yard march that put Michigan ahead. But on each touchdown, they had gone for two and missed. The score was still just 15-14.
Michigan’s defense was taking over though and the offense got the ball back with 5:28 left in the game. Hoard sealed the game MVP honors on this drive. He ripped off a 61-yard run to get his team inside the USC 10-yard line. Then, on fourth-and-one, Bo went for the throat and Hoard powered into the end zone. At 22-14 with 1:57 left, a tie was all but sealed in this pre-overtime era. When linebacker John Milligan intercepted Peete with 50 seconds left, the win was in the books.
The 1988 Michigan football team might have lost twice, but the quality of those losses—to the two undisputed best teams in the nation—and the final #4 national ranking, give this team a good argument to take its place in history as Bo Schembecler’s best. In of itself, that’s an awfully good legacy. But the ‘88 Wolverines also began a five-year run where the program won or shared the Big Ten title each year and went to four Rose Bowls. They had re-established themselves at the top of the conference pecking order.