Every game in the Ten Year War set the table for future games, but there are a couple games that truly impacted the Ten Year War and the legacy that followed. The 1969 and 1973 games were undoubtedly these types of games and the 1976 was as well. If Woody Hayes had retired after the 1975 season, his legacy would have been unquestioned. He would have just ended an undefeated season and would have left with a 4-2-1 record against Bo Schembechler. Of course, he did no such thing and the tide would once against shift in the 1976 edition of "The Game" back towards Michigan.
Michigan's 1976 team was something to behold. Not only did they storm through their first 8 games with a score of 352-58, but they also were ranked #1 through 8 games. The 1976 defense was impeccable, holding 8 opponents to one score or less and really only allowing three teams to score anything significant. Even in Michigan's only regular season loss on the road against Purdue, the Boilermakers only scored 16 points. This loss was pretty important, as it truly removed Michigan from the national championship discussion. Granted, the Wolverines lost the Rose Bowl to USC, but they probably would have entered that game ranked #1 instead of #2.
What also adds to this performance wass the fact that the 1976 version of "The Game" was the 7th straight time that Michigan entered the game against Ohio State ranked in the top 5. That much consistency is simply astounding. Compare it to some of the more modern dynasties. Bob Stoops and Oklahoma were ranked #6 or higher for 5 straight years, Alabama has been ranked #10 or higher for 4 straight years, Florida was #13 or higher for 5 straight years, Jim Tressel had OSU ranked #9 or higher for 6 straight years. In fact, the only recent dynasty that can really match Michigan's performance from 1970-1976 was USC. Pete Carroll had the Trojans ranked #4 or higher for 7 straight years. However, we all know about the sanctions that removed some of those records so in reality, not even USC could match Michigan's performance during the 1970-1976 period.
OSU's 1976 wasn't as strong as Michigan's team, but they still put together a solid squad. The big offseason loss had been Archie Griffin and it would be a challenge to replace the 2-time Heisman winner. However, outside of an early season loss to Missouri, the Buckeyes were undefeated entering the Michigan game. They had gone on the road to defeat Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, something that was never an easy task, especially because Penn State was ranked in the top 10 at the time.
In terms of team accomplishments, OSU actually had quite a few entering the 1976 matchup. They had beaten a great team on the road, were undefeated in conference play, were undefeated at home, and had held up well against a great UCLA team. OSU had even managed to beat what had become its kryptonite, Michigan State. Since 1972, the Buckeyes had only lost 3 regular season games entering the 1976 season and all had been to the Spartans. Getting past them and Michigan seemed a sure sign to get to the Rose Bowl and they hoped to do so in Ann Arbor.
The game opened with defense. On the first 7 combined possessions, neither team got a 1st down. After a while, Michigan began moving the ball. Rob Lytle and Rick Leach were the primary weapons and were able to pound and stretch the defense. As the drive continued, the Wolverines got in a 4th down situation on the OSU 36 yard line. The Buckeyes stopped Michigan and got the ball back. Despite a lot of hope and the first real offense of the game, no points were on the board.
As the 1st half was coming to a close, the Buckeyes started a solid drive based on the great running of Jeff Logan. Buckeye quarterback Jim Pacenta followed Logan with a 23 yard run of his own. The Buckeyes had finally moved into the redzone and appeared destined to take over the game and continue their streak of 4 games against Michigan without a loss. The Buckeyes got all the way to the 10 yard line, but Pacenta threw a pass that was intercepted by Jim Pickens. Instead of a chance at 7 points, the Buckeyes had come away with nothing. This would be the play that gave all the momentum to Michigan.
Michigan opened the 2nd half with some great running by Rick Leach, Rob Lytle, and Russell Davis. Consistent running got the Wolverines all the way down to the OSU 47 yard line when they were faced with a crucial 3rd down situation. Michigan used a fake to give Leach the room to get Michigan a 1st down. After a few more runs and a penalty committed by the Buckeyes, Davis ran into the endzone to give Michigan a 7-0 lead.
Michigan continued their momentum by shutting down OSU's offense and moving the ball right back into Buckeye territory and getting Davis back into the endzone. He cites these two touchdowns as one of the greatest moments of his career at Michigan. A fake extra point got Michigan a 15-0 lead. The Buckeyes knew they didn't do something and do it quick to get back in the game. However, John Hennessy and Greg Morton stayed consistently in the backfield and made Pacenta pay for every snap. Tom Seabron recovered a fumble and Michigan once again took over. Two interceptions for both sides followed, giving the ball back to Michigan. Lytle scored another touchdown and Michigan would win the game 22-0. Shutting out the Buckeyes for the first time in over 100 games.
This game was significant for a multitude of reasons. The first and most obvious reason was that it got Michigan another Big Ten title and back to the Rose Bowl. Michigan hadn't been to the Rose Bowl since after the 1971 season. Despite this the more important implications of this game regarded the Ten Year War and the rivalry between Michigan and OSU.
Michigan hadn't beaten the Buckeyes since 1971 and for a time when Michigan was having so much success, it was very frustrating. Michigan was doing pretty much everything right almost every year, except beating Ohio State. As I talked about earlier, they had entered the game in the top 5 for 7 straight years. That's not something that happens often and illustrates just how good the Michigan teams had been. For some reason, they just hadn't been able to beat the Buckeyes during most of that period.
The 1976 game shifted the tide of this rivalry and one can argue this was the game that started the downfall of Woody Hayes. Of course, his fate was sealed when he punched a player during a bowl game, but he would never again beat Michigan and would only get the chance to play the Wolverines two more times. The rivalry would be just as fierce in 1977 and 1978, but Michigan would win all the remaining games.