Statistics from those days are hard to conceive, because the level of competition was down and games were not nearly as high-scoring as they are now. But in every facet of the game, Michigan dominated — outscoring its opponents, 150-12, en route to an 8-0 record and its sixth national championship.
The team was led by legends in the lore of Wolverines football. Their names are still etched on buildings around the University’s campus.
Coach Fielding H. Yost was in his 23rd season, having already won five national championships in Ann Arbor. He had Ray Fisher — after whom Michigan’s baseball stadium is named — on his staff as an assistant coach.
Harry Kipke was the captain at halfback, entering the season as a consensus All-American in 1922. Though he would finish without this distinction for the 1923 season, falling behind Illinois’ Red Grange and Penn State’s Harry Wilson, his contributions were undeniable in helping the Wolverines to their sterling record.
Michigan earned several key wins throughout the season, including a 23-0 win over Ohio State in front of the largest crowd in Ferry Field history (50,000) and a 6-3 win over Wisconsin that was preserved by a game-saving, shoestring tackle by Edliff Slaughter, which Yost called “the greatest play in football (he) ever saw.”
However, without a national or conference championship game in those days, the Wolverines’ season came down to a final bout with Minnesota, pitting two undefeated teams against one another for the Little Brown Jug.
The Golden Gophers possessed a high-powered offense, coming off wins over Northwestern and Iowa in which they scored 34 and 20 points, respectively.
Despite this, the Wolverines came out strong. They scored the game’s only touchdown in the second quarter, as fullback Richard Vick threw a 31-yard touchdown to quarterback Ferdinand Rockwell, who also kicked the extra point.
In the third quarter, Slaughter blocked a Minnesota punt, and Dick Babcock recovered it on the Golden Gophers’ 27-yard line. From there, the Wolverines stalled out, but Kipke, playing in his last game, hit a 37-yard field goal to put Michigan up, 10-0.
Kipke came up even bigger late in the game.
On Minnesota’s final drive, as it desperately tried to climb back into the game, Kipke sealed the win with an interception to polish off the shutout and win the Little Brown Jug for the Wolverines.
Though Kipke had perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game, defensive tackle Stanley Muirhead was the defensive star. He was credited with 22 tackles in what was also his final Michigan game.
Even with the Wolverines’ success throughout the season and in their final game, it was still unclear if they would be crowned national — or even Big Ten — champions.
Illinois also finished the 1923 season undefeated, having never played Michigan. However, they had three common opponents in Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin. Against those teams, the Wolverines won by a combined score of 38-6, while the Fighting Illini won, 28-6.
While this wasn’t official criteria for deciding the national champion, it may have been enough to push Michigan over the top in certain polls.
In the end, the Billingsley Report and the National Championship Foundation recognized the Wolverines as the 1923 national champions.
With no more concrete deciding factors, and despite other publications and foundations naming Illinois the national champions, the honors the Wolverines did receive are enough for them to still claim this as one of their 11 national championships in program history.