100th Big Game -- Michigan, OSU Bring Glory to Big Ten
After playing intercollegiate football for nearly three decades -- 28 years to be precise, from 1969-96 -- without crowning a national champion, the Big Ten Conference finally ended its drought in 1997 when Michigan ran off a perfect 12-0 season that included seven wins over ranked opponents, four of which were listed in the top 10. Five years later, in 2002, Ohio State gave the conference its second national title in six seasons with a remarkable 14-0 run that climaxed with a double-overtime win over top-ranked Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
One thing Michigan and Ohio State fans could agree on is the appropriateness of the Big Ten's "big two" breaking through after setting the conference's football standard for much of the last three decades. While the "Big Two, Little Eight" days essentially ended in the early 1980s, Michigan and Ohio State revisited those roots during their championships journeys and made suffocating defenses the foundation for their titles. How good were these defenses Even Bo and Woody would have been proud.
Rob Renes and Josh Williams (91) chase down OSU quarterback Joe Germaine in U-M's 20-14 win in 1997.
Let's start with Michigan's '97 defense. The Wolverines allowed just one opponent more than 16 points and held seven opponents to single digits, including eighth-ranked Colorado (3), 15th-ranked Michigan State (7) and third-ranked Penn State (8).
Statistically, Michigan's 1997 defense was as dominant as any college football had seen over the last quarter-century. Spearheaded by two-way threat and Heisman Trophy-winner Charles Woodson in the secondary, veteran run-stuffing linebacker Sam Sword in the middle and dominant defensive end Glen Steele in the trenches, the Wolverines set the NCAA record by allowing the opposition just 8.8 yards per reception.
A front seven that suffocated the run and a secondary that blanketed the pass helped Michigan lead the nation in three of the four major statistical categories -- total defense, pass efficiency defense and scoring defense -- while finishing seventh in rush defense.
Likewise, the 2002 Buckeye defense paved the way to a national title and in the process finished among the nation's leaders statistically, listing second in the nation in scoring defense and third in rushing defense. More impressive than numbers was what they accomplished between the lines, holding 10th-ranked Washington State and No. 18 Penn State to just seven points apiece and allowing only a field goal in a win over No. 23 Minnesota. The Buckeye defenders also held Michigan and Purdue in single digits, allowing the offense an opportunity to score game-winning touchdowns late in the fourth quarter.
The similarities between the two defensive outfits are not relegated to simply leading their respective teams to a national title. Ohio State showcased a defense paced by a rare two-way athlete in Chris Gamble at cornerback, a disruptive defensive end in Will Smith and in the middle of everything was a tough, senior linebacker named Matt Wilhelm. Sound familiar
Want more The head coaches are a former Bo Schembechler assistant and a lifelong Ohioan well versed in the history and tradition of the programs they now run. The quarterbacks were solid, if not spectacular, generals remembered for guiding the ship, yet each saved the ship on a couple occasions.
1997 Michigan vs. 2002 Ohio State. The similarities are many, yet none as great as the defensive side of the ball. Defense wins championships. Bo and Woody would agree.
This story is part of the special Michigan-Ohio State content in the 100th Game Commemorative Program produced by Barbara Cossman and the U-M Athletics Department in conjunction with Pro Sports Publications. Limited quantity available for $15 apiece (including postage) or online for $15 each plus $3 per order. Order Form: SOLD OUT!
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Charles Woodson sealed his Heisman Trophy bid with a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Buckeyes in 1997.