1979: A year of transition
In 1979, the Wolverines were in a year of transition. QB Rick Leach (1975-1978) had finished his playing career, the Wolverines searched for a new signal caller among three untested players (B.J. Dickey, John Wangler and Rich Hewlett), WR Anthony Carter had arrived on campus as a true freshman, the "Ten Year War" (1969-1978) had ended with OSU coach Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce was the new Head Coach for the Buckeyes starting a new chapter in the rivalry, and Notre Dame was coming to play the Wolverines in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1943.
The 1979 season started for the three-time defending Big 10 Champion Wolverines with a home game versus conference opponent Northwestern. Michigan romped to a 49-7 victory over the Wildcats with one of the Wolverines' touchdowns coming on a 78-yard punt return by true freshman Anthony (AC) Carter. Next up for #6 ranked Michigan was a home game against #9 Notre Dame which was the first time in 36 years that the teams had played each other in Ann Arbor.
Game Two: Notre Dame (Sept. 15, 1979)
[Sports Illustrated article- part I, part II, part III; orig. SI article from SI Vault]
Both teams struggled mightily on offense in this game as they were each without their star quarterback (Rick Leach for Michigan; Joe Montana for Notre Dame) from the previous season. The Wolverines started B.J. Dickey at QB while the Fighting Irish countered with Rusty Lisch. The Fighting Irish were limited to four field goals on the day (kicker Chuck Male hit from 40,44,22, and 39 yards) but the Wolverines were only able to muster one touchdown (a one-yard run by Stanley Edwards) and a field goal through three quarters. Michigan entered the fourth quarter trailing 12-10 but the 105,111 in attendance were hopeful that the Wolverines could find a way to win. Notre Dame's star RB Vagas Ferguson (35 carries, 118 yards) fumbled the ball on the Irish 35-yard line and Michigan's All-American DT Curtis Greer recovered the ball. However, the Wolverines' ensuing drive stalled when on third and seven QB B.J. Dickey was sacked for a seven-yard loss. With six minutes left, Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine put backup QB Mike Courey into the game because Lisch had a sprained left ankle. Courey was intercepted on the Irish 44. Unable to convert this turnover into points, Michigan switched quarterbacks on its final possession.
With 2:02 to play and the ball at the Wolverines own 42, John Wangler entered the game to try and drive and the Wolverines into field goal position as Michigan still trailed 12-10. Wangler drove the Wolverines down to the Irish 25 with seven seconds remaining and kicker/punter Bryan Virgil came on for a 42-yard field goal attempt that could have won the game. Although Virgil had made a 30-yarder earlier in the contest, Virgil had a tough kicking day against Notre Dame as he had punted poorly including one punt that went only five yards. On the last second field goal try, the kick was blocked by a leaping Bob Crable. Notre Dame, consequently, escaped with the hard fought victory.
Finishing the non-conference schedule strong and then on to the Big Ten schedule
Michigan bouned back from the tough Notre Dame loss by winning back-to-back non-conference games against Kansas (28-7) and California (14-10). The Wolverines then traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State to try and exact a measure of revenge on the Spartans for the previous year's contest. In 1978, MSU's defeat of Michigan (the Spartans first win over Michigan in nine years) turned out to be the Wolverines only regular season loss of the year. Michigan was determined to not allow MSU to make it two years in a row.
Game Five vs. Michigan State (October 6, 1979)
The sixth largest crowd (79,311) to that point in Michigan State history were in attendance for the intra-state rivalry game between the #11 ranked Wolverines and the #16 ranked Spartans. An additional bit of significance to the game was that Coach Schembechler was vying for his 100th career victory as Head Coach of the Wolverines. Michigan was able to reach the milestone for Coach Schembechler as the Wolverines won 21-7. Tailback Stanley Edwards was named the oustanding player of the game as he led the way to victory for Michigan with 139 yards on 24 carries. However, Michigan did much of their damage through the air as quarterback B.J. Dickey threw two touchdown passes. His first scoring strike came on a 66-yard bomb to wide receiver Ralph Clayton with about one minute remaining in the third quarter. That score put the Wolverines up 14-7. In the fourth quarter, Dickey marched the Wolverines down the field for another score that sealed the game. On third-and-11 at the Michigan 28, Dickey fired to Clayton for a 22-yard gain to midfield. Later, on second-and-10 at the MSU 40, Dickey hit TE Doug Marsh over the middle for 21 yards to the MSU 19. Subsequently, on third-and-6 at the Michigan State 15, Dickey came through again with a nine-yard strike to Roosevelt Smith along the sideline. From the six, Dickey rolled out and passed to the side to Anthony Carter who raced into the endzone for the clinching touchdown.
Rolling through the Big 10 conference schedule
After registering conference victories over Minnesota (31-21) and Illinois (27-7) the Wolverines (6-1, 4-0) hosted Indiana on 10-27-79 for the Homecoming game. In this game with the legendary finish, Michigan and Indiana were tied at 21 with six seconds remaining and the ball at the Michigan 45-yard line. QB Johnny "Wingin'" Wangler hit WR Anthony Carter with the legendary touchdown pass and Carter streaked into the end zone like a penguin with a hot herring in his cumberbund to give Michigan the 27-21 win. Michigan's offense built on the momentum the following week and rolled up 54 points in a easy victory (54-0) over Wisconsin. At this point, the Wolverines stood 8-1 overall, 6-0 in conference and ranked #10 in the nation. Michigan had a tough road game against #14 Purdue and a home game against arch-rival (and undefeated) Ohio State remaining on the schedule in the Wolverines attempt to win their fourth consecutive Big 10 title. Unfortunately, this is where the wheels came off the 1979 season. Michigan dropped a tough road game to the Boilermakers by the score of 24-21 leaving Michigan on a down note heading into the season ending showdown with the #2 ranked Buckeyes (10-0).
Game eleven: Ohio State (Nov. 17, 1979)
[Sports Illustrated article part I, part II, part III; orig. SI article from SI Vault]
In an attempt to jump start the team, Coach Bo Schembechler made the surprising move of starting freshman QB Rich Hewlett against the #2 ranked Buckeyes. Ohio State was led by their QB and Heisman Trophy candidate Art Schlichter. Before a capacity crowd of 106,255- the largest crowd ever to see a regular-season college game to that point- the Wolverines were going for their fourth straight victory over the Buckeyes. The game was a see-saw battle all the way.
After Michigan intercepted a Schlichter pass with 6:57 to play in the first quarter, Hewlett drove the Wolverines from the Ohio State 31 to a third and one on the Buckeyes' two yard line. However, an option keeper by Hewlett got nowhere and the normally conservative Coach Schembechler decided to go for it on fourth down rather than attempt a field goal. Hewlett ran another option play and was stuffed just short of the goal line. In the second quarter, with 11:30 to go before the half, Coach Schembechler made another daring play call. On fourth and seven from its own 36 the Wolverines punter Bryan Virgil faked a punt and threw a pass that fell incomplete. The game remained scoreless until 3:48 to play in the half when Ohio State broke through with a 23-yard field goal by Vlade Janakievski. At this point John Wangler entered the game as quarterback for Michigan as Hewlett sat on the bench with an injured left ankle. On his fifth play, Wangler hit Anthony Carter with a spectacular pass for a 59-yard touchdown. Down 7-3 and with only 1:30 left in the half, Schlichter unleashed an aerial assault on Michigan's prevent defense and he drove the Buckeyes 72 yards in eight plays. Ultimately, the Buckeyes settled for Janakievski's second field goal, a 25-yarder.
In the third quarter, Schlichter drove Ohio State to its first touchdown against Michigan since 1975. On third down at the Michigan 18, Schlichter unloaded a pass toward WR Chuck Hunter racing for the corner of the end zone. Michigan DB Mike Jolly tipped the ball but Hunter hauled in the touchdown pass with one hand while tumbling to the ground. Ohio State's two-point conversion attempt on the following play failed when Jolly intercepted the pass and the score stood at Ohio State 12 Michigan 7.
Michigan responded immediately as Wangler connected with Carter for a 66-yard gainer. Five plays later RB Roosevelt Smith rammed the ball across the goal line from the one-yard line to put Michigan back in the lead. Coach Schembechler decided to go for the two-point conversion and he called Smith's number once again. Smith took it in on the two-point play to put Michigan ahead 15-12.
Disaster struck the Wolverines with 11:21 to play in the game. Virgil came in to punt from his own 38 while 10 Ohio State players massed at the line of scrimmage intent on blocking the kick. Linebacker Jim Laughlin roared through the left side untouched to block the kick. The ball took a big hop directly into the arms of Linebacker Todd Bell who raced into the end zone from the 18-yard line for the winning touchdown. Michigan's attempts at a comeback were thwarted by Ohio State's ball control offense which held the ball for all but 17 seconds of the last 5:24. Ohio State held on for the 18-15 win and the undefeated Buckeyes advanced to the Rose Bowl while Michigan (8-3) was relegated to the Gator Bowl.
Gator Bowl vs. North Carolina (Dec. 28, 1979)
The Gator Bowl marked the first time in Coach Schembechler's tenure as Michigan's Head Coach that the Wolverines were playing in a non-January Bowl game. Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent was the North Carolina Tar Heels (7-3-1). QB John Wangler opened the contest with a 47-yard pass completion to WR Anthony Carter. However, the Wolverines did not get on the scoreboard until early in the second quarter when Bryan Virgil booted a 20-yard field goal. Michigan extended its lead later in the second quarter when Wangler hit Carter for a 53-yard touchdown pass. The extra-point conversion failed but Michigan had a 9-0 lead. On the Wolverines next possession, Wangler suffered a game ending injury when he was tackled by linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Wangler left the game having thrown for 203 yards and a touchdown. North Carolina scored on a one-yard run shortly before halftime to go into the half down 9-7. In the second half, North Carolina scored 10 unanswered points to take a 17-9 lead before Michigan QB B.J. Dickey rallied the Wolverines. With only 1:28 remaining in the game, Dickey hooked up with Carter on a 30-yard touchdown pass to pull the Wolverines to within two points. Michigan then attempted the two-point conversion with another pass to Carter but the attempt failed giving North Carolina a 17-15 victory.
The Gator Bowl loss meant that Michigan finished the 1979 season with three (3) consecutive losses. It also meant that the Wolverines (8-4) finished out of the top 10 in the final polls for the first time during Coach Schembechler's tenure as Head Coach. The 1979 team finished ranked #18 in the AP poll and #19 in the UPI poll. Go Blue!
*Note: Photo of Anthony Carter TD from the '79 Homecoming Game on the cover of the 10/2/82 game program by Rick Engel.