Ghosts of 1969 upset surround Ohio State-Michigan game

Rob Oller
Michigan tight end Jim Mandich (88) and teammates celebrate the Wolverines’ 24-12 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 1969. A two-loss Michigan team shocked what many believed was the best Ohio State team ever. Sound familiar? [Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan]

History can be inconvenient.

Here comes No. 1 Ohio State, riding a 17-game winning streak into Saturday’s game at No. 13 Michigan. Except for a blip of a blemish against Penn State, the Buckeyes have appeared unbeatable. And against the Nittany Lions the wounds mostly were self-inflicted.

Best OSU team ever? Maybe, statistically speaking. As for Michigan, the Wolverines are improving, but it seems they would need to play flawlessly to win in the Big House. Not only that, but the Buckeyes would need to repeat their miscues against Penn State — three lost fumbles — to fall to the Maize and Blue for the first time since 2011.

Few facts foretell the Wolverines, who are eight-point underdogs, pulling the upset. But what of history as a harbinger of fate? Of a ghost from 50 years ago whose fingerprints look spookily smudged across current events?

This is where Ohio State fans might want to hide their eyes. Few could blame them for stopping here and saying, “I think it’s time to empty the trash.”

On Nov. 22, 1969, in Ann Arbor, with snow piled against the brick wall behind the corners of the end zones, No. 12 Michigan pulled the “Upset of the Century” by shocking No. 1 Ohio State 24-12. The loss wrecked the Buckeyes’ undefeated season and ruined any chance of a second consecutive poll championship.

Because of the Big Ten’s no-repeat rule, the Buckeyes were not eligible for the Rose Bowl, so a win would have guaranteed one poll title — the final United Press International/coaches rankings came out before the bowl games — and almost certainly assured a No. 1 Associated Press ranking after the bowls.

In that, this year’s game is different. Ohio State may be able to lose on Saturday and still make the four-team College Football Playoff, if the Buckeyes win the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin or Minnesota on Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.

Otherwise, similarities between 1969 and 2019 are striking. The Buckeyes are undefeated, just like in 1969, when they entered on a 22-game winning streak. Michigan has two losses, as it did in 1969, and the Wolverines’ No. 13 ranking is one spot lower than the ’69 team’s, which was a 15-point underdog.

Then there is this: Bo Schembechler was coaching his first season at Michigan in 1969; Ryan Day is in his first full season at Ohio State.

Fortunately for Buckeye Nation, coincidence of circumstance does not mean results will be the same, but that won’t stop players from Michigan’s ’69 team from assembling on Saturday in Ann Arbor, hoping for a similar result. And it doesn’t stop former Ohio State players from issuing call-outs to current Buckeyes, warning that previous results do not guarantee future success.

“We were leading the country in both scoring and defense … but we never got the lesson,” said Ron Maciejowski, who backed up quarterback Rex Kern in 1969.

The lesson is that any team can be beaten, especially if it begins to believe it can’t be. In 1969, Ohio State had demolished No. 10 Purdue 42-14 the week before Michigan. Many considered it OSU’s best team; some said it was college football’s best ever.

“We thought Purdue was going to be our toughest game,” Maciejowski said, adding that Ohio State was not so much overconfident as simply untested in close games. “That’s where I like where this (2019) team is now, because they got the lesson (against Penn State).”

From Michigan’s standpoint, the 1969 game kicked off in November 1968, when Ohio State embarrassed the Wolverines late in a 50-14 romp at Ohio Stadium. After scoring its final touchdown, Ohio State lined up for a two-point conversion. The attempt failed, but the Wolverines would not soon forget Woody Hayes rubbing their noses in the loss.

Former Michigan defensive back Barry Pierson, who intercepted Kern three times in the ’69 game — Maciejowski was picked off twice after subbing for Kern — doesn’t put much stock in a thirst for revenge contributing to Michigan’s win. Pierson just thinks the tougher team won.

“I’ve been coaching all my life and know that 70 to 75% of it is tenacity with which you play the game,” Pierson said. “And not to take anything away from Ohio State, but we were going to play tougher than them, and that was developed in us all year. They ran into a buzz saw.”

Schembechler revved the Wolverines into such a frenzy — one motivational tactic was having scout team players wear No. 50 jerseys in practice as a reminder of the previous year’s score — that players cried before the game.

“We were psychologically well-prepared,” Pierson said. “Bo learned from Woody, and his strong suit was motivation.”

Players from both sides acknowledge the Buckeyes were outcoached that day. Maciejowski recalled a later conversation with Jim Stillwagon in which the defensive lineman wondered why the Buckeyes opened in a different defense than they had used all season, before returning to normal after halftime, when Ohio State shut out Michigan’s offense.

On the Michigan side, Pierson shared how the Wolverines knew before the snap what running plays were coming.

“When Woody sent the wingback in motion … (fullback Jim) Otis was not getting the ball,” he said.

Who can separate truth from legend? Only one thing is certain, according to former Michigan defensive back Tom Curtis.

“It gets down to the basics,” he said. “Outhitting them and dominating the hitting on both sides of the ball. Early in the game you’ll be able to tell that.”

No matter 1969 or 2019, some things never change.