Michigan was the gold standard of Big Ten football in the 1980s. They had won the conference title in 1980 and 1982, along with several more major bowl trips in the late 1970s. The 1983 Michigan football team didn’t get back to Pasadena, but they were a Top 10 team and snagged the seventh major bowl bid in eight years for head coach Bo Schembechler.
The Wolverines had lost wide receiver Anthony Carter, as the Big Ten Player of the Year moved on to the NFL, but Michigan could always run the football. Rick Rodgers was the conference’s second-leading rusher, with just over 1,000 yards. Quarterback Steve Smith was a mediocre passer, but ran for 667 yards. There were two All-Americans on the offensive line, in Stepfan Humphries and Tom Dixon.
Schembechler’s team was ranked #10 to start the season and opened with two games against good Pac-10 teams from the state of Washington. The Wolverines edged Washington State 20-17 at home, but dropped a tough 25-24 decision at Washington to slip to #17 in the polls.
Another decent opponent in seven-win Wisconsin was up next and Michigan went to Madison to get a 38-21 win. The schedule then got softer and the Wolverines blasted through sub-.500 opponents in Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern by a combined 120-18 and got themselves back up to tenth in the national rankings.
A battle with #12 Iowa was nationally televised from Ann Arbor and it was worthy of the showcase. With the game tied 13-13, Michigan moved into field goal range and Bob Bergeron drilled a 45-yard field goal across his body from the hashmark to win on the final play.
Michigan and Illinois were the only teams perfect in Big Ten play, but the Wolverines lost the head-to-head game 16-6 on the final weekend of October. Illinois had a soft November schedule, so any hope for a Rose Bowl return was basically gone. But the Wolverines were still prominent on the radar of major bowl organizers.
They destroyed bad teams in Purdue and Minnesota, scoring a combined hundred points in the two games and it set up the season finale with Ohio State. It wasn’t winner-take-all for the Rose Bowl like it had been so often in the previous fifteen years. But it would have the next-best thing—the Sugar Bowl announced that the winner of the battle between 8-2 teams would get the invite to New Orleans.
Smith stepped up with his arm and hit Triando Markray on a 67-yard touchdown strike, part of building an early 10-0 lead. Ohio State came back and took the lead, but Michigan forced four turnovers and one of them set up a short touchdown run by Smith for a 17-14 edge early in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State drove to the Michigan 38-yard line and then called for a “fumble-rooskie” trick play, where the quarterback places the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman pulls around to pick it up and take off, since it’s technically a fumble. But in this case, it was more than a technicality. Defensive tackle Mike Hammerstein blew up the play, the ball began bouncing around and the Wolverines recovered.
Smith then led a 60-yard touchdown drive, accounting for 43 of the yards with either his arm or feet that all but sealed the game. The Buckeyes answered with a touchdown but a covered onside kick put the finishing touches on Michigan’s 24-21 win and their Sugar Bowl bid.
Auburn had won the SEC and was Michigan’s opponent. The Tigers were ranked #3. With the top two teams in the polls, Texas and Nebraska, both heavily favored in their bowl games, it was not anticipated that the Sugar Bowl would have national title implications.
But by the prime-time kickoff in New Orleans, everyone knew that Texas had lost. As the night unfolded, everyone became aware that Miami was in the process of shocking Nebraska. Auburn was in the mix for a national championship. And Michigan had the chance to be a spoiler.
The game was a defensive war. The Wolverines put up a touchdown midway through the first quarter, but would not score again. Penalties dogged Michigan the rest of the night, and Auburn slowly chipped their way back. The Tigers got two field goals. They reached the two-yard line with less than a minute left and kicked another field goal. Auburn won 9-7.
Miami ended up winning the vote over Auburn for the national championship and it’s probable that Michigan making the Tigers win so ugly played at least a part in that verdict. More important for the Wolverines, they still settled in at a solid #8 in the final polls. It might not have been a Rose Bowl year, but it was still a nice piece in the landscape that is Bo Schembechler’s legacy at Ann Arbor.