The Associated Press called it the United States’, “worst weather-whipping in years.”
The Michigan Daily called it, “another chapter in the rags-to-riches tale.”
The Michigan football team called it a Big Ten Championship.
Purely from a football standpoint, the 1950 edition of ‘The Game’ between Michigan (4-3-1 overall, 3-1-1 Big Ten) and Ohio State (6-2, 5-1) had the potential to be memorable, with a conference title and, of course, bragging rights on the line.
With a rash of injuries seemingly sentencing them to their worst season in 13 years, the Wolverines came in as underdogs, owing also to the brilliance of Buckeye halfback Vic Janowicz, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. But when it was all said and done, Michigan clinched a coveted Rose Bowl bid with a 9-3 win. More on that in a moment.
For now, let’s talk about the weather.
In late November 1950, a massive blizzard walloped the Eastern United States, bringing 110-mile-per-hour winds, killing hundreds and causing tens of millions of dollars in property damage.
The temperature in Columbus on Nov. 25 was a whopping 10 degrees. The 50,035 fans at Ohio Stadium built bonfires in the stands to stay warm. The tarp covering the field had frozen to the ground with four feet of snow on top of it. Grounds crews needed over two hours to remove it just so the game could be played.
Neither Wolverines coach Bennie Oosterbaan nor Buckeyes coach Wes Fesler wanted it to be played anyway. But when Dick Larkins, Ohio State’s athletic director, went to talk to Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler, Crisler told him that the Wolverines would forfeit, but not reschedule, the game. Larkins rejected this offer, thus setting the stage for one of the most absurd contests in the history of college football.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Michigan halfback Chuck Ortmann took the snap and … punted. This was the first of 24 times he would do so.
With snow falling at a rate of two inches per hour, both the Wolverines and Buckeyes quickly came to believe that punting, in order to possibly force a fumble or swing field position, was the most effective offensive strategy. Both teams combined for 45 punts on the day — many of which took place before fourth down. As Daily sports editor Bill Connolly wrote, “It was a game of football in the literal sense.”
Midway through the first quarter, Ohio State guard Bob Momsen got his left hand on an Ortmann punt, and the Buckeyes recovered the ball deep in Michigan territory. Three plays later, they sent out Janowicz for a 38-yard field goal attempt. Somehow, he split the uprights, despite barely being able to see them. If you’re wondering how a 38-yard field goal could be named one of the “Greatest Feats in American Sports” by a panel of sportswriters, that’s how.
The lead wouldn’t last. In the second quarter, Wolverine tackle Al Wahl blocked a Janowicz punt out of the end zone for a safety. The game’s climactic play came with just 20 seconds left in that same quarter, when Michigan linebacker Tony Momsen one-upped his brother, Bob — storming through the line to block Janowicz’s punt and falling on top of it in the end zone. Harry Allis’ ensuing extra point gave the Wolverines a 9-3 lead going into halftime.
The punt-fest continued in the second half, but Momsen’s score would stand as the only touchdown. Once time expired, thanks to Northwestern’s win over Illinois earlier that day, Michigan punched its ticket to Pasadena, where slightly warmer conditions awaited.
“It was the happiest game of my life,” Ortmann said after the game. “We beat a good team, and the Rose Bowl is a four-year dream come true.”
Other Wolverines told reporters that the game was like a “fairy tale or something out of a dime novel.” Crisler remarked that the game “took a lot of courage and fight.” That seems like an understatement.
As Connolly wrote, it was a game of football in the literal sense — but only in that sense. Certainly, it resembled nothing anyone nowadays would refer to as ‘football.’
Consider these statistics: As a team, Michigan gained 27 yards of offense, failed to complete a pass and failed to earn a single first down. Ohio State was slightly better; gaining three first downs and 34 yards — 18 of which came through the air, somehow. The game saw 1,408 combined net yards of punting, 10 fumbles and five blocked punts.
One month later, the Wolverines beat California, 14-6, in the Rose Bowl, finishing their season on a high note. However, the same couldn’t be said for Fesler, who resigned 18 days after the game and was replaced by someone named Woody Hayes.
Another chapter of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry would soon await.