Now that the Tressel era of the OSU-Michigan rivalry is in full bloom, it may seem as if a victory in The Big Game is a foregone conclusion. Certainly the sweater-vested one has done his best to make Ohio State fans complacent when facing their arch-rival. Those who lived through the Cooper era remember when the situation was the exact opposite. And to that group, the current renaissance of success in the rivalry is unprecedented. But there was a time in the early 70's when the Buckeyes did not taste defeat against UM for 4 years running. The culmination of that period was a game that, even for this storied rivalry, is one of the best and most memorable of all time.
Ohio State had entered the 1975 season hoping to exorcise the demons that plagued them the previous season. The 1974 team was a great one, but they suffered a pair of heart-breaking losses that put the damper on an otherwise outstanding season. A quick game-clock and poor officiating had cost them a game at Michigan State when the striped men ruled OSU's game-ending touchdown did not beat the gun. And in the Rose Bowl, victory slipped away when an untimely penalty pushed the team back so that a potential game-winning field goal came up short.
One game in which the 1974 team didn't fall short was against Michigan. Tom Klaban kicked 4 field goals that day and Michigan's Mike Lantry missed in the closing seconds to preserve the OSU victory. For Michigan fans, it was a familiar sight. In 1973, Ohio State and Michigan battled to a 10-10 tie. Lantry had two chances to be the hero by making a game-winning FG, but instead he was the goat for missing both. The two teams tied for the Big Ten championship and so the league's athletic directors got together for a secret vote to determine which team would go to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State won the vote, probably because Michigan QB Dennis Franklin had been injured in the OSU game and the AD's thought that the Buckeyes would have a better chance of winning. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler was outraged, as were most Wolverine fans, but OSU trounced USC in the Rose Bowl behind Sophomore RB Archie Griffin, Sophomore QB Cornelius Greene, and Freshman fullback Pete Johnson.
The presence of Griffin, Greene, and Johnson on the 1975 team made the OSU offense one of the most feared in the nation. WR's Lenny Willis and Brian Baschnagel were also impressive, but it was in the running game that the Buckeyes made most of their noise. The defense was talented, but inexperienced. And the difficult early-season schedule (At Michigan State, Penn State at home, At UCLA) would test that potential weakness significantly. But the defenders jelled quickly and became a fearsome unit in their own right. The grudge match at East Lansing was all OSU, as the Buckeyes took out their frustrations from the previous season in a 21-0 victory. They made it two straight by holding Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions without a TD for a 17-9 win. And the prime-time road game at #13 UCLA turned into a laugher, with OSU running away by a score of 41-20. That victory proved that the Buckeyes were no fluke, and they assumed the #1 ranking afterward.
Michigan's main issue entering the season was how to slowly break in highly-regarded freshman QB Rick Leach. Leach, who was a baseball prodigy as well as a football star, was a great all-around athlete who could run and throw with equal acumen. Schembechler had a great defense returning and had 2 outstanding runners in halfback Gordon Bell and fullback Rob Lytle. So he mostly ran the ball and rarely took a chance on throwing with his young QB. The offensive line was green but it didn't take long for them to learn the simple UM running plays. During the season, both Bell and Lytle went over 1000 yards rushing. In Michigan's 21-15 victory over Illinois the week before the OSU game, Leach threw only 2 passes.
Ohio State ran through the Big Ten schedule undefeated and was still #1 entering the rivalry game. Griffin, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, had gone over 100 yards every game, extending his all-time NCAA record streak to 31 games. Pete Johnson was also having a great season, rushing for nearly 1000 yards and leading the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns. Michigan was 8-0-2, with the two ties coming in non-conference play early in the season. Both teams were undefeated in Big Ten play and so once again the game would decide the league championship and Rose Bowl representative.
OSU got off to a great start in the game, taking advantage of a short Michigan punt and the resulting field position. Coach Woody Hayes went for it on 4th down twice on the series, sending Pete Johnson plowing through the line for 1st downs on both occasions. On 3rd down from the 7-yard line, Hayes surprised UM by calling a pass to the fullback and Johnson crashed through for the touchdown. But after that, the Ohio State offense struggled against Michigan's veteran defense. Plagued by interceptions and a Griffin fumble, the Buckeyes would go more than 2 quarters without even getting a first down.
But Michigan was having offensive troubles of their own. Leach struggled to pass against OSU's outstanding defensive backs. The team fared only slightly better on the ground, but two fumbles killed promising drives. It also hurt that punter John Anderson was having a miserable day, repeatedly giving OSU good field position. But the Wolverines finally broke through right before halftime on a halfback option pass from Bell to WR Jim Smith. The 3rd quarter was scoreless, but UM scored midway through the 4th quarter on a 1-yard option run by Leach. The huge crowd of over 105,000 in Michigan stadium went crazy and it seemed like the end for the Buckeyes' undefeated season. But then an appeal to the Divine set the stage for an OSU comeback.
With only 7 minutes left in the game and 80 yards to pay-dirt, Greene gathered his offense together and asked everyone to hold hands. He then offered up a prayer that the team would be strong and that everyone would play their best. Afterward, the team got moving. On 3rd and 10, Greene hit Baschnagel down the right sideline for 17 yards and a first down, their first since early in the 2nd quarter. On the next play, Green fired a pass to a diving Lenny Willis for another first down at the Michigan 49. Greene then threw again for Willis and connected for another first down at the UM 31. On the next play, Woody crossed up the Wolverine defense by running Griffin, and he carried it 11 yards down to the Michigan 20. On the next play, Greene carried on a keeper for 12 more yards to the 8. Three Johnson carries got the ball to the 1, but it was now 4th down. For the third time in the game, Hayes went for it and sent Johnson plowing through the UM line for the TD. The game was tied and there were only 3 minutes left on the clock.
At this point, the normally-conservative Schembechler might have been tempted to settle for a tie. But the championship was on the line, and Michigan lost all the tie-breakers, and so the coach many people referred to as "Little Woody" jumped out of his shell and turned his freshman quarterback loose.
OSU's defense was ready, and they sacked Leach for a 9-yard loss on the first play, then they broke up his pass to Smith on 2nd down. On 3rd down, Leach lofted it over the middle but the pass sailed over Smith's head and OSU safety Ray Griffin intercepted. Griffin was a former running back and he put those skills to use, carrying the ball 30 yards down to the UM 3-yard line. From there, Johnson busted in again for the TD and OSU was suddenly up 21-14. Michigan got one more chance, but again Leach was intercepted, this time by Craig Cassady (son of OSU Heisman Trophy winner "Hopalong" Cassady). OSU then ran out the clock to complete the comeback.
Ohio State would finish the regular season ranked #1, but would go on to lose a heart-breaker to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Much like the 2006 Buckeyes, the 1975 team went into the bowl game over-confident and were humbled by Dick Vermeil's Bruins 23-10. Archie Griffin's consecutive 100-yard game streak ended against Michigan, but he went on to win an unprecedented second Heisman Trophy, a feat that has still not been duplicated. As for coach Woody Hayes, the 1975 win was his last against Michigan, and his teams spiraled down from there in the last three years of his tenure until he was fired after the 1978 season. Michigan was invited to play in the Orange Bowl after the loss to OSU. Their opponent was Oklahoma, and the Sooners defeated the Wolverines and claimed the national title. But despite the bitter end to the season, the win against UM on that day was one of the most exciting games that I can remember, and I'll never forget the never-say-die attitude of Greene and the Buckeyes on that day.