Memorial Stadium, Minneapolis.
Saturday, November 20, 1926.
Looking over the playing field before kickoff for what would be his final game, U-M football coach Fielding H. “Hurry Up” Yost was concerned. Three days before, a storm had dumped a foot of snow on Minneapolis followed by freezing rain. The playing field was rough and hard, a strong northwest wind howled, and the temperature was nineteen and falling. Michigan’s offense was built on the passing of Benny Friedman to Bennie Oosterbaan, but frozen fingers meant it was in trouble. Michigan’s line was not overly strong, and the Minnesota Gophers’ powerful rushing attack was raring to go.
The Wolverines were undefeated in the Big Ten, as was Northwestern. Minnesota had one Big Ten loss, against Michigan in Ann Arbor earlier in the season. Northwestern was favored in its final game–but Michigan would share the title if it could win on the frozen field at Memorial Stadium.
Since coming to Michigan in 1901, Yost had built his teams on blocking and tackling, a sound defense, and “playing for the breaks,” taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. Faced with Minnesota’s much stronger line and the bitter cold, Michigan would need every break it could get.
Ninety years ago, the Big Ten schedule wasn’t fixed in advance; it took shape during the season. The Gophers were so powerful that the other teams were ducking them, and they were having trouble scheduling the five conference games needed to qualify for the title. There were many complaints that their offensive system, the “Minnesota shift,” broke the rules then in force, as often players would be moving when the ball was snapped. And Minnesota was noted for dirty play while, as Alan Boyd of the 1915-1917 teams wrote to me many years ago, “Coach Yost always told us ‘Hit ’em hard–but clean.'”
But Yost was generous and scheduled the Gophers twice. The first game was a 20-0 Michigan victory, but Minnesota pushed the Wolverines all over in the second half, with a couple of long drives, and had improved since. Fullback Herb Joesting, a future All-American dubbed the “Owatonna Pile Driver,” led the Gopher attack.
As Yost prepared for the rematch, he planned a surprise for Minnesota: a defensive lineup with two fullbacks, Bo Molenda and Wally Weber. “Weber was a ROCK-hard hitting-tough ball player and the tougher it got the better he performed,” tackle Henry Grinnell wrote me in 1983. In practice, “Coach Yost used most of the special squad circle session each day to acquaint Weber to his special assignment … Looking back, it becomes more vivid how much of a strategist Yost was … Weber was beginning to measure up … Coach Yost was so very thorough–he kept reminding Weber, ‘Here is your chance to make your mark and a place as a future coach.'”
When the Wolverines arrived in Minneapolis on Friday, the playing field was unfit for practice. Instead, “Yost took the squad outside of Minneapolis to a swampy area which included two ice-covered lakes,” tackle Otto Pommerening wrote me in 1984. “The members of the squad were lined up in several groups on the ice and the coaches threw footballs on the ice in front of the players and they were to run for the ball, scoop it up and continue on.”
The next day, Weber started at fullback, Molenda at right half. In the first quarter, Minnesota threatened but missed a thirty-yard field goal attempt, the only opportunity that period.
Early in the second quarter, Gopher quarterback Harold “Shorty” Almquist was carried off the field on a stretcher. He was leading Joesting through a hole when Wally Weber hit him, ramming him back into Joesting, breaking three of Shorty’s ribs. “Molly” Nydahl took Almquist’s place. Soon, Minnesota began a march from their thirty-yard line.
“Running behind a smashing line, starting their plays from a wide shift, from direct and double passes, Minnesota ripped, tore, ploughed and crashed both sides of the Michigan forward wall,” H.G. Salsinger wrote in his account for the Detroit News on Nov. 22. “The Michigan forwards were lifted and thrown out of the play like schoolboys.”
In four rushing plays, Minnesota gained forty-one yards. Most were aimed at right end William “Flop” Flora, who had come into the game with a leg injury. And Bo Molenda sprained his ankle and came out; to replace him Yost sent in quarterback Leo Hoffman, who was forty pounds lighter.
“I was forced to suffer through a long, cold, stormy afternoon,” Hoffman wrote me long afterward. Minnesota drove to Michigan’s one-yard line, and Nydahl went over for a touchdown. Bob Peplaw missed the extra point, but Minnesota looked so dominant it didn’t seem to matter.
Michigan elected to kick off. Starting from their twenty-seven, the Gophers again plowed down the field. Joesting raced twenty-three yards before Benny Friedman nailed him to save a TD. (In that unspecialized era Friedman, like most of the Wolverines, played both offense and defense.) “Tackling Joesting was like hitting a 12″ tree,” guard Syd Dewey wrote to me. Herm Nyland took over for the injured Flora, but two more plays gave Minnesota a first down on the Wolverine thirteen.
The Wolverines got their first break when guard Jack Lovette intercepted a Gopher pass on the six. But time had run out, and the half ended 6-0.
Michigan hadn’t made a single first down. “With Minnesota gaining at will, and stopping everything Michigan tried, the moral courage of the Wolverines got a severe test,” Eddie Batchelor wrote in Detroit Saturday Night. “It took real poise to avert a complete breakdown at this point. At any moment it looked like the game would turn into an utter rout, but the Michigan men refused to quit and thereby they saved the day … after getting a burning earful from Yost between halves, the Wolverines came on the field a much improved team.”
“I sat beside Wally [Weber] in the locker room between the halves–he was exhausted–slumped down in his seat with chin on chest,” Henry Grinnell recalled. “He had given and absorbed a lot of punishment … as usual, Coach Yost made the rounds to each individual player and coming to Weber he startled him up from his slump with an arm thrust to his shoulder pads and said, “Wally–YOU’VE GOT TO GET IN THERE–YOU’VE GOT TO GET IN THERE”. Weber came alive–I can still see him with both fists clenched and pounding the air and saying “COACH, I’LL KILL ‘EM–I’LL KILL ‘EM.” He didn’t kill them, but he stopped them.”
Michigan managed to make two first downs to start the second half, then had to punt. This time the defense held, forcing Minnesota to punt. Oosterbaan blocked the kick, and Ray Baer recovered the ball on the Gopher twenty-four. But Friedman’s pass on fourth down was broken up.
Once again, Minnesota got into gear. Joesting ran for nine yards, then three, then five–and then Peplaw broke away for nineteen yards before Syd Dewey got him from behind on the Michigan forty-five. Nydahl gained twelve yards, but then two penalties were called on Minnesota, one for illegal motion (finally the officials listened to Yost’s complaints about movement). Minnesota punted, and Louie Gilbert punted back to the Gopher thirty. The quarter ended. The temperature was now two degrees. Passing was fruitless.
Minnesota punted out of bounds on the Michigan eleven, Gilbert punted to the Gopher forty-four, where Nyland downed the ball. Joesting plowed for a first down to the Michigan forty-one.
The Minnesota center would “long snap” the ball to a point slightly ahead of the back, who would grab it on the run, but on the next play, Nydahl had trouble holding onto it. He tried to cut inside of Michigan’s left end, but Oosterbaan was ready to drive him back, and Michigan’s right guard broke through the Gopher line. “Jack Lovette, the unsung hero of the game, hit Nydahl waist high and pulled the ball free at the same time,” Herm Nyland recalled in a 1996 letter. “The ball hit the ground and bounced a couple of feet.”
Salsinger’s Detroit News account takes it from there: “Oosterbaan, stooping down, grabbed the ball and ran. One lone Minnesota back ran a few paces behind him. He was Peplaw, Minnesota’s fleetest back, but Oosterbaan, calling on his last ounce, managed to beat Peplaw across the goal line.”
Bennie Friedman got set to kick the extra point. “We knew we had it won, because Benny never missed,” wrote Nyland. The Gophers attacked wildly, but the line held and Michigan led, 7-6. Michigan kicked, and the Gophers quickly rushed the ball up to midfield. But Lovette threw Joesting for a loss on fourth down. Weber rushed for Michigan’s third (and last) first down of the game, but again the Wolverines lost the ball on a turnover–only to get it back when Friedman intercepted a pass.
With time running out, Herm Nyland recalled, “We were trying to kill the clock to keep Minnesota from another chance on offense. Friedman would call the signals as slowly as he dared and be slow untangling after a play in the line. In the third down huddle he told Oosterbaan to get offside just before the ball was snapped. He did. Eckersall, refereeing, was caught up in the excitement and paced off a 5-yard penalty and signaled the ball in play. He didn’t give the Minnesota captain a chance to refuse the penalty” or stop the clock.
Louie Gilbert punted, and then just before the gun he intercepted a pass on the Michigan forty. He raced fifty-six yards before being tackled on the Minnesota four as the game ended.
“A long, hard road to travel and Michigan travelled it,” Yost said after the game. “[T]here is a lot of luck in picking up a fumble … and running for a touchdown … but there is something in being where you can take advantage of such a break … and give your credit to those linemen who took a terrible beating but came back and won.”
Michigan had gained just twenty-seven yards rushing in twenty-seven attempts and completed two out of ten passes for twenty-one yards. Minnesota had rushed for an even 300 yards in �xADseventy-nine attempts and didn’t complete any of their eleven passes (Michigan intercepted six of them). Friedman, Oosterbaan, Baer, Dewey, Lovette, Gilbert, and Weber played the full sixty minutes, though only two Gophers did. It was estimated that Wally Weber made half of Michigan’s tackles, and, despite freezing temperatures, he lost sixteen pounds during the game. A final Big Ten championship, Yost said, was “a happy ending to our journey.” He retired before the start of the 1927 season.
Yost continued as Michigan’s athletic director through 1941, dying in 1946.
Wally Weber did become a coach, at Michigan, for almost thirty years. So did Oosterbaan, who was head coach when the Wolverines won the 1948 national championship. Benny Friedman entered the NFL, where he became the league’s first passing star. Salsinger called him “one of the most colorful players in the history of football, a man of unsurpassed moral and physical courage … the picture of Oosterbaan running down the field, one lone defense man pursuing him, will live for a long time.”
It did. In 1999, fellow Michigan football historian Carl Smith and I made a trip to Akron for a last visit with Henry Grinnell. The 1925 and ’26 teams had stayed in touch since graduating, with Grinnell acting as their unofficial secretary.
Henry was a wonderful, optimistic gentleman whose favorite word was “gusto.” At ninety-five, he had only a couple months left to live, yet his mind was crystal clear as he recalled the game and the winning play: “It was dark and freezing. I was standing on the sideline, and I can still see in my mind’s eye the ball taking a crazy bounce and spinning a couple of times, and Bennie scooping it up and running off in the distance …”
In 1982, I asked Oosterbaan about that run. He said that he could see that Peplaw was gaining, so he just added a little more speed and angled more to his left.” Bennie was noted for never having to expend all his energy–he was that good.
He also said, “Bob, anyone could have done it. My teammates did all the work, and I got all the glory.”