Bo Schembechler’s 1977 Michigan football team had high expectations. After a breakthrough year in 1976, where they ended a four-year absence from the Rose Bowl, the Wolverines were ranked #2 in the country. Michigan came close to meeting expectations—they returned to Pasadena and stayed in the national title race. But another Rose Bowl loss left a sour taste in their mouths.
The Wolverine defense was one of the nation’s best, anchored by All-American linebacker John Anderson. Ron Simpkins was a solid linebacker and made All-Big Ten. A lockdown secondary had three all-conference performers, including Derek Howard, Jim Pickens, and future San Francisco 49ers’ starter Dwight Hicks.
Schembecler’s offense, like most offenses in 1970s college football, were built on a heavy dose of the running game. And why not, when you have a pair of All-Americans on the offensive line? Center Walt Downing and guard Mark Donahue, along with all-conference tackle Mike Kenn, paved the way for Russell Davis to rush for 1,000 yards. Harlan Huckleby added over 700 more.
Rick Leach didn’t have to throw a lot, but he was competent when he did, and was the Big Ten’s all-conference quarterback. The Wolverine offense ranked a respectable 19th in the nation in points scored.
Michigan opened the season with a league game at lowly Illinois and got things started with a 37-9 win. When top-ranked Oklahoma struggled to get past Vanderbilt, the Wolverines were rewarded with the #1 spot in the polls.
What the voters had given, the voters would soon take away. Michigan played ho-hum games against mediocre teams in Duke and Navy. They won both, but the 21-9 and 14-7 results didn’t impress anyone, and the Wolverines were pushed back down to #3. It set the stage for a big home game with Texas A&M on October 1.
The Aggies were ranked fifth and would finish the season behind only undefeated Texas and Orange Bowl-bound Arkansas in the old Southwest Conference. Michigan took Texas A&M apart. Davis rushed for 110 yards and Leach had 216 all-purpose yards. Ron Simpkins was everywhere on defense, with 14 tackles and the linebacker helped punctuate the 41-3 win in the fourth quarter when he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown.
Michigan then beat a pretty good Michigan State team 24-14. The Wolverines buried #14 Wisconsin 56-0, and the Badgers plummeted to a sub-.500 record. Michigan was back to the top of the polls and controlled their fate for a national title.
One year earlier, the Wolverines had been in this same situation, and they were upset by Purdue. This time it was Minnesota that did the deed. The Gophers, the only conference team besides Michigan and Ohio State to make a bowl game, pulled a 16-0 upset in the Twin Cities and the Wolverines fell to #6.
Schembecler’s team came back strong, rolling through Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue and scoring 63 points in each of the latter two games. Michigan was set to host Ohio State in the season-ending finale. The Buckeyes had a share of the conference crown already sewn up, but the Wolverines would take the other half and the tiebreaker with a win.
Michigan won with red-zone execution. In the first three quarters-plus, Ohio State got down inside the 20 three times, but came away with just two field goals. Michigan got touchdowns on its trips and led 14-6 when the Buckeyes launched one more drive. They had 1st-and-goal on the Michigan 8-yard line and the Wolverines needed one more red zone stop.
A tie was as good as a loss for Michigan, and Anderson came up with the big play. He forced a fumble, the Wolverines recovered, and the 14-6 win was secure. They had been outgained 352-196 but were going to the Rose Bowl ranked fourth in the nation.
By the time the traditional late-afternoon kickoff arrived, the national title picture had been thrown into chaos. Top-ranked Texas, the only unbeaten team in the country, had been crushed by Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Michigan was a part of a group of one-loss teams that could stake a claim with a decisive win.
Moreover, Schembechler had yet to win a major bowl game in a tenure that began in 1969. The great head coach had lost three Rose Bowls and an Orange Bowl in that timeframe. With the opponent this year being a seemingly pedestrian four-loss Washington team, Bo appeared primed to get that breakthrough bowl victory.
But the Huskies were hot and their quarterback—a guy named Warren Moon—was better than anyone anticipated. Washington came out ready to play and Michigan did not. The Wolverines dug themselves a 27-7 hole in the fourth quarter.
They fought back, scoring twice and then driving inside the 10-yard line late in the game. But a turnover ended that drive and the next one. Michigan lost 27-20. They would end the season ranked #9 in the country.
1977 still marked a year where Michigan solidified what was turning into a consistent edge in their great rivalry with Ohio State. It was a trend that would continue in 1978 when the Wolverines won another Big Ten crown. But they had to wait until 1980 for Bo to get that elusive Rose Bowl victory.