A look back: Sweet 30-year anniversary
No one saw this one coming.
Just about thirty years ago, Purdue produced one its most shocking upsets ever.
The "Spoilermakers" as they were known at the time, struck one of their most lethal surprises, one that will forever put a black mark on the career of legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler.
Back on Nov. 6, 1976, the Wolverines appeared headed to a national championship. They were undefeated, ranked No. 1, and had a couple of games left against losing Big Ten teams at the time, Purdue and Illinois, before playing host to Ohio State at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Purdue was a 28-point underdog in the contest.
"I am not sure we gave ourselves much of a chance in that one coming into the game," recalled Scott Dierking, an All-Big Ten running back in 1976, yesterday. "I remember the offensive coordinator coming into our meetings as we prepared for the game saying we needed to score 38 points to win, but as it turned out the defense was the story."
The Boilermakers entered the game in meltdown mode with a 3-5 record, fresh off an embarrassing 45-13 loss at Michigan State. The Spartans had scored 35 unanswered points to whip Coach Alex Agase's fourth and final Boilermaker squad.
En route to Michigan's 8-0 record, the Wolverines had outscored its opponents 352-58, including four shutouts. They had only given up 17 points in the five games preceding their visit to West Lafayette. Schembechler's teams loved to run the football, and this team was no different, averaging 382.8 yards per contest to date.
Michigan also led the Big Ten in rushing defense giving up 118.8 per contest, but it didn't take Dierking and Company long to figure out it could move the ball on the ground versus the Maize and Blue.
"Early in the game, I looked at my backfield mate John Skibinski and said 'we can run on these guys,'" and it was true. "Both Skibo and I had bad ankles, but that didn't slow us down on that day."
Skibinski, a junior in 1976 who would later play for the Chicago Bears for a handful of years rolled off 81 yards on 17 carries. Dierking, in one of the great single-game efforts in the history of Purdue football, doubled Skibinski's effort with 162 yards in a record 38 carries.
The Wolverine were led by quarterback Rick Leach, and backs Rob Lytle and Harlan Huckleby. Lytle didn't do much to hurt his 7.5 yards per rush average picking up 153 yards in 21 carries, but the Boilermaker defense contained Leach and Huckleby.
"Our defense was amazing, swarming to the ball and making big play after big play," Dierking, who played in the NFL for the Jets and Bucs, said.
The game was a roller-coaster ride to be certain. Michigan wasted little time scoring as it put a touchdown on the board on its first possession with Leach and Lytle racing down the field on a 58-yard, six-play drive.
While the Boilermaker offense lacked explosiveness in 1976, quarterback Mark Vitali didn't record a touchdown pass, and running gains of over 25 yards were a rarity.
But, Purdue knotted the score following linebacker Fred Arrington recovering a Michigan fumble near mid-field. Vitali hit freshman receiver Ray Smith for 20 yards, then Skibinski gained 19 more. Dierking took it the final four yards.
"Our offensive line was one of the best in the Big Ten at that time," Dierking said when describing the FOOLS (Fraternity of Offensive Lineman) as they were called at the time. "Guys like Dave Lafary, who played in the NFL for nine years, and Tom Gibson were really good players. They made it easy for me on that day."
Dierking's best run of the day, a 25-yard scoring jaunt just before halftime, gave the Boilermakers a 13-7 lead. The fact that he could manage such a long run against the Michigan defense amazes the West Chicago, Ill., native to this day.
"I remember going around right end, breaking a tackle and then being in the clear," said Dierking, whose son, Dan, is in Coach Joe Tiller's 2007 football recruiting class. "For some reason the cornerback didn't come over and tackle me, and next thing I knew I was in the end zone."
Defensive back Rock Supan, who was named Sports Illustrated's Player-of-the-Week for his 11-tackle effort, was pressed into kicking duty due to an injury and missed the extra point. Still, Purdue's 13-7 lead at halftime sent shock waves around the college football world.
In a scene worthy of a "Twilight Zone" episode, the crowd of 57,205 (some 12,000 short of capacity at the time) grew after intermission. The game was not televised, and students, who figured they had better things to do with their time and didn't pay for their tickets in those days, listened passively in their rooms. After halftime, and thinking Purdue had a chance, droves decided to check out the possible upset.
The defense kicked it up a notch in the second half on the Wolves' opening drive. Lytle had a pair of long runs, and in just a handful of plays, UM was at the Purdue 4. Three plays netted the visitors just three yards and on fourth-and-one Huckleby fumbled a Leach pitch resulting in a 15-yard loss. The goal-line stand was nothing new for Purdue that season, as it was its fifth of the season.
"You don't beat a team like Michigan without great defense," Dierking said.
The visitors ended the game with 200 yards under their season average with 335 yards compared to 360 for Purdue.
Not surprisingly, Schembechler's crew was far from finished. On its next possession, Leach, who completed just 2-of-8 passes in the contest, hit senior receiver Jim Smith for a 64-yard touchdown to give the visitors a 14-13 lead. Michigan seemed poised for the kill early in the fourth quarter, but All-Big Ten defensive end Blane Smith recovered a Lytle fumble at the Purdue 29 with 11:42.
In the end, Michigan's two lost fumbles proved fatal.
"I hate fumbles," said Schembechler, who made the media wait 40 minutes to speak with him after the game.
For the next 7:20, Purdue marched to the Michigan 6. Crucial passes by Vitali, who completed 10-of-14 passes for 109 yards in the game, and elusive runs by Dierking and Skibinski reminded Michigan they weren't home free yet.
When the drive stalled, Supan redeemed himself for the missed P.A.T. and finessed one through the goal posts from 23 yards.
"It must be my peripheral vision, because it looked to me like he missed the kick," Dierking said. "I have that problem to this day of not being able to judge whether field goals are good when I am sitting in the stands on the side of the field."
With just 4:20 left and holding a 16-14 lead, the Boilermaker defense had to hang on. It did, barely.
Michigan launched a 12-play offensive that drove the visitors to the Purdue 19. Sure the Boilermakers were playing well, but they also received some good fortune, none more evident than when Smith dropped a sure touchdown pass at the Purdue 6 in the game's final minute. As a result, with 14 seconds left it all came down to a 37-yard field goal attempt by UM kicker Bob Wood.
"I don't recall watching that one," Dierking said. "I don't think I could take it at the time."
Kicking into the wind, Wood, who had made 6-of-8 attempts to date that season, sailed the potential game winner wide left.
As the clock expired, hundreds if not thousands of Purdue students stormed the field. Purdue's two-point victory eliminated Michigan from quite possibly its best chance at a national title during Schembechler's reign as coach. It was the Boilermakers' eighth (and most recent) upset of a No. 1 team in school history.
Dierking's enduring memory of the post game celebration was one shared with his father, Ed, who celebrated his 73rd birthday this week, in the Boilermaker locker room.
"The thing I remember most about the win was sitting next to Skibo in the locker room with our ankles in ice buckets," Dierking said. "All of a sudden the training room door swings open and in comes our fathers running at us full speed with their arms out. They had tears in their eyes and they almost knocked John and I out of our chairs."
Dierking will never forget that moment, and long-time Boilermaker fans will never forget the game.
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