With triple-option expert Rex Kern, future NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Jack Tatum and a host of other weapons on both sides of the ball, Ohio State marched into Michigan Stadium on Nov. 22, 1969, expecting to coast to victory against No. 12 Michigan.
Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes led a team that was not only unbeaten, but had yet to trail that season. The Buckeyes’ biggest “scare” — a 27-point victory over Minnesota — was hardly even a whimper.
Ohio State arrived in Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team at a crossroads led by first-year head coach Glenn Edward “Bo” Schembechler Jr. The coach had one goal for his discouraged Wolverines — beat Ohio State.
According to Schembechler’s autobiography, “Bo,” he displayed the number 50 everywhere in the team’s facilities to remind it of the embarrassing feeling of 1968, in which the Buckeyes humiliated Michigan in Columbus. 50-14. Even before 1968, though, Ohio State had won 11 of the last 16 editions of ‘The Game.’
The 1969 game was a bit different, though. Adding another intriguing element to the mystique of the rivalry, Schembechler played for Hayes at Miami (Ohio), and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Hayes at Ohio State. He even intended to model his first Michigan team after Hayes’ high-scoring Buckeyes.
After neglecting to comment on ‘The Game’ for much of the season, Schembechler preached confidence in his team just days prior.
“Ohio State is beatable,” Schembechler told The Michigan Daily on Nov. 18. “I think we have a better chance than most people give us credit. Anyone who has seen us play can’t say that we haven’t improved with each game.”
After a 3-2 start to the season, the Wolverines had won three straight games leading up to ‘The Game.’ Yet despite this gradual improvement, they still came in as 17-point underdogs. Few gave them a chance against a seemingly otherworldly Ohio State squad, led by Kern and star running back Jim Otis, that averaged nearly six touchdowns per game.
The then-high of 103,588 fans at Michigan Stadium saw this offensive firepower from the first drive as Kern quickly began the game with a 25-yard run, driving down to the Wolverines’ 11-yard line before Michigan stopped the Buckeyes. On Ohio State’s next possession, though, Otis scored a one-yard touchdown to put the Buckeyes up, 6-0.
Michigan remained undeterred, and after a strong kickoff return to midfield to jumpstart the drive, the Wolverines converted their extra point and took a 7-6 lead, forcing the Buckeyes to play from behind for the first time since the 1969 Rose Bowl.
In the second quarter, Ohio State scored and chose to go for a two-point conversion that ultimately failed. After receiver Jan White’s touchdown reception, the Buckeyes wouldn’t score again.
Michigan fullback Garvie Craw found the end zone on the next drive to give Michigan a 14-12 lead and the Wolverines never looked back, scoring on another Craw touchdown and a field goal before the first half ended.
Neither team would score in the second frame, with Michigan’s 24 first-half points proving to be all it needed en route to its eventual victory.
On defense, the Wolverines successfully forced Kern to use his arm rather than his legs. Michigan earned six interceptions from a combination of passes from Kern and his backup Ron Maciejowski, who replaced Kern in the 4th quarter.
“All good things must come to an end and that’s what happened today,” Hayes told the Ann Arbor News after the game. “They outplayed us, outhustled us and outcoached us. Our defense didn’t play well in the first half and our offense was miserable in the second half. We made every mistake we could possibly make.”
In only his first season with the Wolverines, Schembechler had inaugurated a new era for Michigan football, the 10-Year War. For the next 10 seasons, Schembechler would face off against his mentor in the final week of the regular season, often with the Big Ten Championship or Rose Bowl at stake. Michigan eked out five victories in those next 10 years, finishing with a 5-4-1 record over Hayes’ Buckeyes.
And that “war” all began on a Saturday morning in 1969 when the Wolverines truly shocked the world and defeated one of the greatest teams of Hayes’ Ohio State tenure.
“Nobody in the world thought that they could do it except the Michigan players, and they went out and did it,” said Big Ten Commissioner Bill Reed in the November 23 edition of The Michigan Daily. “That’s the wonderful thing about football.”