College Football Retrospectives: The fate of Paul Bunyan

This column seeks to look back on memorable moments in college football and offer commentary on what makes them unique.

The Michigan Wolverines merchandising department spun the 83rd iteration of their game against cross-state rivals as “No. One Vs. No One.” As hyperbolic as that statement is, it fit nicely within the narrative heading into the game, considering both teams compete in one of college football’s most competitive conferences. 

Michigan came into the game riding a dominant three game winning streak, having won each of those games by at least four score. Only the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had managed to topple the Wolverines in their first game of the season, but the Irish were the home team and came into the game ranked first in the country, according to the preseason polls. There was no shame in losing by one score in South Bend.

The Michigan State Spartans, on the other hand, were faring much more poorly. In their first game of the season, Syracuse held them to a 23-23 tie on the road in upstate New York. Next, they lost the battle for the Megaphone Trophy at home against a number one ranked Fighting Irish, failing to hold on to a 12-point lead they had going into the fourth quarter. Their lone win of the season before the game against Michigan came at the expense of the miserly Rutgers University Scarlet Knights, who would limp their way to a 3-8 record that year. 

In the following game, Michigan State was only able to muster a single touchdown to appease the 76,873 fans that packed the Spartan Dome in a 12-7 losing effort against the number 18 Iowa Hawkeyes. Things were not going well in Kalamazoo. Or, at least, that was how the narrative framed it. 

Looking back at those performances with wisdom that only hindsight can provide, the Spartans’ losses were by a single score, and they had lost to Notre Dame by a smaller margin than the Wolverines had. Syracuse would end up finishing the season ranked 21st in the country after a dominant 28-0 win over Arizona in the Aloha Bowl. The Hawkeyes would go on to be co-champions of The Big 10 that year, alongside Michigan and Michigan State. 

Michigan’s wins were over cupcakes in comparison. UCLA went on to go 5-6 that year. Wisconsin only won an anomaly against an otherwise solid Ball State University. And the Maryland Terrapins would only win six of their 12 games that season. Calling the game “No. One Vs No One” was disrespectful, but that was the point.

Spartans hate Wolverines. Wolverines hate Spartans. Though there were no wolverines in ancient Anatolia, if Ulysses had built a giant wooden wolverine, you can bet King Agamemnon would have had some roasted soldiers on his hands. In 1953, the Governor of Michigan presented the Paul Bunyan — Governor of Michigan Trophy to the winner of the rivalry game to commemorate Michigan State’s admittance to the Big 10 Conference. On account of its origins, Michigan wanted nothing to do with the trophy. 

After their first rivalry win following the trophy’s introduction, the Michigan Wolverines left it out on the field for 30 minutes before chucking it into an equipment closet. They added insult to injury by failing to engrave the score lines by which they won that year and the following year. In the end, Michigan State had to go back and carve their losing results into the trophy after just having won it back. They kept it for the next eight years though, cherishing and taking care of their spoils of war. 

Naturally, with all of this hate, Michigan would do everything in their power to make Michigan State feel like No One, but that was just not true. 

Sure, Michigan State did not field as many future NFL players as the Wolverines did, but they had a gem of a coach in George Perles. 

While he was by no means a hall of famer like Jimmy Johnson or Bobby Bowden, Perles had been one of the masterminds behind the Pittsburg Steeler’s decade-defining defense of the 1970s. The defensive line, dubbed the Steel Curtain and helmed by Perles, dominated NFL offenses. Most notably, in 1976, they started the season 1-4 but went on to a nine game winning streak, ending the regular season after their starting quarterback went down with an injury. 

Over that nine game run, they allowed a total of 28 points, over half of which came in one game in which the Houston Oilers valiantly managed to score half as many points as Pittsburgh. The Oilers were the only team during that nine game run to achieve such a feat. Perles’s coaching of the defensive line was integral to their success. Sure, Joe Greene was the fourth overall pick in 1969. He managed to become an All-American on a team that is not notable enough to warrant an entry on Wikipedia. 

The rest of the line, on the other hand, were more blue-collar than blue chip. Teams drafted 237 players before the Steelers selected L.C. Greenwood in that same draft. More than 200 picks should have represented a massive gulf in talent between him and Greene, but they both found themselves on the 1970s All-Decade Team. While you could argue that scouts had overlooked Greenwood in the draft, Perles gave him that chance and put him in a system in which he could thrive. The man had a track record of making somebodies out of nobodies.

That is not to say that the task ahead of him was not daunting. After all, the Spartans had to go up against future People Magazine Sexiest Athlete of the Year Elvis Grbac lining up under center — he would go on to be featured in the 2000 Pro Bowl, but that is beside the point — passing to a future Heisman Award winner in Desmond Howard and that year’s Big 10 Co-Offensive Player of the Year Jon Vaughn on the ground. Staring down the maw of an offense with an embarrassment of riches, the Spartan walls held firm through the first half, only allowing a single touchdown. 

This clearly irked the Wolverines. They were “No. One.” They were not supposed to be threatened by “No One.” The advanced metrics were on their side. Algorithms said they were the better team. Plus, they had a sexy man named Elvis chucking the pigskin for them. 

But, Elvis met his toilet in The Big House that day. Dan Enos, the Spartans’ quarterback, was no Grbac, but he sure could scramble. He paid no heed to his porous offensive line, and ran out of the pocket, making out of pocket throws all game long. His running and gunning ways, combined with clutch running from running backs Tico Duckett and Hyland Hickson, saw the Spartans go into the game’s last two minutes leading by a touchdown. Michigan had it all to do, but they managed to put together a scoring drive, making it to the endzone with six seconds to spare. Then they got a little too big for their britches.

Earlier in the game, Michigan had the ball on Michigan State’s goal line, needing just a small gain to punch the ball into the endzone. They ran four plays that looked identical to the untrained eye and failed to walk away from that possession with any points. If they had gone for a field goal, the kicker would have been able to shank the extra point, and the Wolverines would have won the game. Instead, they were put in a position where they got greedy again. Instead of kicking the extra point and settling for the tie, the Wolverine’s decided they really wanted that statue they left in the closet in the ‘50s, but Paul Bunyan knew who really loved