The 1981 Michigan football team entered the season on a high. They had concluded the 1980 season with nine straight wins and captured the Rose Bowl for the first time under head coach Bo Schembecler. They entered 1981 ranked #1 in the polls. But the season just didn’t go the way anyone in Ann Arbor was hoping.
Michigan was built on the powerful running attack that Schembecler loved. Butch Woolfolk ran for 1,459 yards and won the Big Ten rushing title. He also averaged 5.8 yards-per-attempt, the best in the conference. Nor did the running game stop with Woolfolk—Stan Edwards and Lawrence Ricks each ran for over 400 yards and averaged nearly five yards a pop. And the second-best rusher was actually quarterback Steve Smith, who rolled up 674 yards.
When you have that many quality runners, there has to be some blocking and the Wolverines were loaded up front. Kurt Becker was a consensus All-American at guard. Tackle Bubba Paris ended up enjoying a good career with Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers. Ed Muransky, the tackle on the opposite side, got some All-American mention. Michigan’s offensive line could knock anyone off the football.
Smith wasn’t renowned as a passer and he had his problems in some key games this season. The completion percentage of 46% was near the bottom of the Big Ten, but Smith made the most of the ones he did complete, with a solid 7.9 yards-per-attempt. And that’s because he had Anthony Carter.
Carter was perhaps the best wide receiver in the country, finishing the season as a consensus All-American and placing seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. He caught 50 passes for over 1,900 yards and single-handedly made the Michigan passing attack.
Michigan opened the season at Wisconsin, against a team they had beaten by a combined score of 176-0 in the last four meetings. This would be an improved Badger team though, one that would win seven games and vault into a bowl game. Their rise, and the Wolverine disappointment, began on a shocking afternoon in Camp Randall.
Smith had a horrible passing day, completing 3-for-18 for just 39 yards. And he threw as many to Wisconsin players as he did to his own, with three interceptions. Even so, when Woolfolk took off an 89-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, the game was tied 14-14 and Michigan could still assert themselves. Instead, they gave up a 71-yard screen pass for a touchdown and suffered a stunning 21-14 loss.
The Wolverines were replaced atop the polls by Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish were coming to Ann Arbor. Smith got going quickly when he threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Carter and the Wolverines led 7-0 at the half. They took over in the third quarter and built up a 25-0 lead before the Irish scored a meaningless touchdown.
This would be prove to be a mediocre Notre Dame, who ended the season 5-6, but for the time being the win was a big one to get Michigan back on track. They continued with a 21-16 home victory over a good Navy team that ended the short non-conference schedule.
Michigan’s offense rolled in road wins over sub-.500 teams Indiana and Michigan State, 38-17 and 38-20 respectively. The Wolverines were back to #5 in the polls and all their preseason aspirations were still within reach. Then they lost at home to Iowa 9-7 as the offense again sputtered.
The national championship was out of reach, but a 38-0 blowout of winless Northwestern and a 34-13 beatdown of an average Minnesota team had Michigan still poised to reach the Rose Bowl as October drew to a close. Ohio State led the way in the Big Ten with a 4-1 conference record, but Michigan was right behind at 4-2. Illinois and Wisconsin were also 4-2, with Iowa at 3-2. After twelve years of the conference being dominated by Michigan and Ohio State, it was a fresh dose of parity.
It made the November 7 home game with Illinois all the more important and all the more impressive when Michigan dropped 70 points in a blowout win. Ohio State was upset at Minnesota, so now the Wolverines and Badgers were in a tie for first, with the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes a half-game back.
Michigan moved into sole possession of first place a week later when they beat Purdue 28-10 and Iowa won at Wisconsin. Due to a scheduling oddity, the Wolverines controlled their own destiny for the Rose Bowl. Even though Michigan and Iowa were tied in the loss column and the Hawkeyes had the head-to-head win, the Wolverines would play one additional league game—they could finish 7-2 and trump Iowa’s potential 6-2.
It meant that this non-traditional Big Ten year would have one traditional aspect to its ending—Michigan was playing for a Rose Bowl bid when Ohio State came to Ann Arbor on November 21. And it was time for one more disappointment. Smith threw three interceptions, one in the red zone and another in the end zone and the Wolverines lost 14-9. Iowa went to Pasadena.
Michigan slipped to #15 in the polls and settled for a Bluebonnet Bowl date with UCLA. Ironically, the Bruins had also played themselves out of the Rose Bowl on November 21, in their case by losing to USC. Neither team was really happy to be in Houston on New Year’s Eve, but they made the most of it.
The Wolverine offense controlled the first quarter, driving inside the 10-yard line before settling for a field goal by future NFL kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh. Smith then went hit Carter for a 50-yard touchdown pass and a 10-0 lead.
The offense began to bog down over the next two quarters, with only a 47-yard field goal by Haji-Sheikh. The defense was holding its own though and Michigan led 13-7 going into the fourth quarter.
Finally, the floodgates opened. A short touchdown run by Woolfolk gave Michigan command. When UCLA answered by cutting the lead to 19-14, the Wolverines drove right back and got a nine-yard touchdown run from Smith. One more touchdown put it away and Michigan had a 33-14 win.
Unbeknownst to anyone in the Michigan program, they were under threat of losing their head coach. Schembecler was being courted by Texas A&M and he was invited to meet the boosters while he was down in Texas. The Aggies offered to nearly quadruple Bo’s salary. He turned it down and chose to stay a Michigan man.
And two major bowl bids were immediately around the corner—Michigan made it back to the Rose Bowl in 1982 and they got a Sugar Bowl spot in 1983.