For five years, the Michigan Wolverines dominated the Big Ten. They won outright conference titles in 1988, 1989 and 1991 The 1992 Michigan football team made it four crowns in five years and capped it off with a Rose Bowl win.
Running the football is what this program has been historically built on and the ‘92 edition was no different. Michigan had two second-time All-Americans at the guard position, with Steve Everitt and Joe Cocozzo. Rob Doherty at tackle was an all-conference performer. They cleared the way for the explosive Tyrone Wheatley, who rushed for 1,357 yards, averaged better than seven a pop and won the Big Ten MVP award.
This Michigan team could also move it through the air. Even though ‘91 Heisman winner Desmond Howard had moved on, leaving a big hole at wide receiver, the Wolverines had two good quarterbacks. Elvis Grbac was the primary starter and Todd Collins got noteworthy time as the backup. Each would go on to the NFL and each would start playoff games in the pros. In 1992, Grbac’s 65% completion rate was second in the Big Ten, while his 8.2 yards-per-attempt led the conference.
The primary target was junior wide receiver Derrick Alexander, an eventual first round NFL draft pick, who caught 50 balls. Tony McGee was a reliable tight end. Michigan had a good second option in the backfield, as Jesse Johnson rushed for nearly 800 yards and was able to give Wheatley a breather.
Defensively, the Wolverines had top players at all three levels. They were led by the Big Ten’s best defensive lineman in Chris Hutchison. Steve Morrison was second-team all-conference at the linebacker spot and Corwin Brown was 1st-team All-Big Ten at corner. Expectations were appropriately high in the preseason, with Michigan ranked #6 in the first polls.
The traditional season opening game against Notre Dame was in South Bend. This was a good Irish team that would finish the season in the Top 5. Michigan outplayed them, building a 17-7 lead into the third quarter. But Grbac’s tendency to mistakes were costly. He was intercepted twice, helping ND tie the game. With the score 17-17 and Michigan in sure position for a winning field goal, Grbac threw his third pick of the day. Overtime did not exist in college football until 1996, so this one ended up in a tie.
Michigan bounced back by thumping bad teams in Oklahoma State and Houston, moving them to #4 in the polls when Big Ten play began.
The offense unloaded on Iowa in a 52-28 blowout win to start the league schedule. The Wolverines hosted in-state rival Michigan State, who had a two-pronged rushing attack with Tico Duckett and Craig Thomas. Michigan shut them down and won 35-10. Indiana had a future NFL quarterback in Trent Green. Michigan shut him down and won 31-3. They crushed lowly Minnesota 63-13. The Wolverines finally played a shaky game at Purdue, but still survived 24-17. A 40-17 pounding of Northwestern moved them back to #3 in the polls.
This was not a good year for the Big Ten, with only three teams finishing the year with winning records. The other two were Illinois and Ohio State, who were left on the schedule. A home date with the Illini resulted in another tie game, this one 22-22 and it ended whatever outside national championship hopes the Wolverines still harbored.
The Rose Bowl bid was already in hand, but there was still the matter of going to Columbus. The Buckeyes had a quarterback named Kirk Herbstreit, who would one day become the media face of college football with ESPN. Michigan clung to a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter. But the regular season would end the same way it opened—a blown lead and yet another tie game. Herbstreit threw a tying touchdown pass with just over four minutes to play. It nearly got worse—Alexander fumbled a punt deep in Wolverine territory with 1:09 left, but they were able to recover. The game ended 13-13.
It was certainly one of the most unusual undefeated campaigns in modern college football history, with an 8-0-3 record sending Michigan to Pasadena. Critics could reasonably point out that the Wolverines had only played three good teams and failed to beat any of them. Supporters could reasonably point out that no one had proven they could beat this Michigan team. A Rose Bowl battle with ninth-ranked Washington would decide how the 1992 Michigan football squad would be remembered.
Grbac threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to McGee in the first quarter and Wheatley took off on a 56-yard scoring jaunt in the second quarter to build a 17-7 lead. But leads had been dangerous for Michigan all year and this game was no different. Washington was ahead 21-17 by halftime.
Wheatley came out in the third quarter and ripped off an 88-yard touchdown run to get the lead back, but the Huskies responded with ten unanswered points. Wheatley, who would end up with 235 yards on the day, ran in from 24 yards out and this game was tied 31-31 going into the fourth quarter.
A fourth tie would have been an all-too-fitting finish to this season and the game went into the latter half of the fourth quarter still knotted at 31. But Michigan finally had the last word. Grbac tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to McGee with a little over five minutes left. The Wolverines had a 38-31 win and now their undefeated season would carry some historical punch. They ended up #5 in the final polls.
The Rose Bowl win was the peak of Michigan’s great five-year run of 1988-92. It was also the high point of head coach Gary Moelller’s career. He was forced out after an embarrassing public intoxication incident in 1995 and replaced with assistant Lloyd Carr.
Michigan a brief step back and it would be five years before they made it back to Pasadena. But that was worth the wait—in 1997, Michigan won another Rose Bowl—and this one would seal a national championship.