The 1990 Michigan football team marked the dawn of a new era in the long history of the proud program. After the last two decades in charge, the legendary Bo Schembecler stepped aside and offensive coordinator Gary Moeller was elevated.
Coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl trips, Michigan football was at its peak. It took longer than the faithful would have liked in 1990 to get started, but Moeller eventually got the Wolverines back to championship level.
The Michigan offense was well-balanced and explosive. Desmond Howard had a 1,000-yard receiving year and set the stage for his Heisman run of 1991. Jon Vaughn rushed for over 1,300 yards and was first-team All-Big Ten. Ricky Powers and Jarrod Bunch were reliable changes of pace in the backfield, combining for over 1,200 yards. And the traditionally powerful Wolverine offensive line was led by All-Conference picks in Dean Dingman, Tom Dohring and Greg Skrepenak.
Quarterback was never considered a strength in the Michigan program, and in the world of 1990, Elvis Grbac was as good as it got for the maize-and-blue. Grbac’s stats of 58% completions, 7.2 yards-per-attempt and 21-10 TD/INT ratio were good by the standards of the time.
The defense wasn’t quite as deep in individual names, but they still had an All-American safety in Tripp Welborne and Lance Dottin picked off five passes. And collectively, the defense was good enough to rank 18th in the nation in points allowed.
A prime-time visit to Notre Dame for the opener set the tone for the season’s first half. Michigan coughed up a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter and lost 28-24. The Wolverines righted the ship with wins over UCLA, Maryland and Wisconsin and in the historically chaotic season that was 1990, managed to get to the top of the polls by mid-October with one loss.
More heartbreak followed. Trailing 28-21 at Michigan State, the Wolverines drove for a late touchdown and the pre-overtime era of college football, went for two to win it. Howard ran a slant-in and was open, but stumbled. Michigan fans insist he was held and the bad blood still lingers over this game today.
One week later, Iowa got their first win in Ann Arbor since 1981, driving 85 yards late in the game for a 24-23 win. Michigan was 3-3 and while they were only three plays from 6-0, it didn’t stop the wolves from howling at Moeller’s door when Michigan came to Indiana on the final weekend of October.
The Hoosiers were a consistent bowl team in this era and well-coached under Bill Mallory. The Wolverines dismantled them 45-19 and found their footing for the stretch run. They blew out a bad Purdue team and then came up with big wins over Illinois and Minnesota, both of whom were contending in a packed Big Ten race.
A third straight Rose Bowl appearance wasn’t on the table when Michigan went to Columbus for the season-ending battle with Ohio State. But in the event of an Iowa loss, a Wolverine win would achieve the parlay of denying the Buckeyes a trip to Pasadena and also secure at least a piece of the league championship for themselves.
Michigan and Ohio State were locked in a 13-13 tie with 1:47 left. A tie did the Buckeyes no good, so they went for it on their own 29-yard line. Michigan’s defense made the stop and they got a field goal on the last play to win it. Later in the day, Iowa fell at Minnesota. The Big Ten race ended up with four teams tied for first and while it was Iowa that got the Rose Bowl trip, Michigan still got a trophy.
They were also up to #12 in the polls and met up with 15th-ranked Ole Miss in the Hall of Fame Bowl (today’s Outback Bowl). Grbac hit Howard with a 63-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and tossed a seven-yard TD pass to Bunch in the second quarter. It was 14-3 at half and the Wolverines blew it open in the third quarter, en route to a 35-3 win and a final ranking of #7.
The three losses and not making the Rose Bowl were a disappointment in the moment, but the importance of the quad-championship in the Big Ten grew in the coming years. Michigan reasserted themselves and won outright league titles in 1991 and 1992. The late surge of 1990 Michigan football ensured that this era would go into the history books with five consecutive championship seasons in the Big Ten. And Moeller had the program in good hands.