It was like a nightmare. My hands were numb (and blue). I had no feeling in them and I don’t know how I hung onto the ball. It was terrible. You knew what you wanted to do, but you couldn’t do it.
- Vic Janowicz, a star halfback for the Ohio State Buckeyes
Sometimes called the 'Worst Game' of the Ohio State/Michigan US college football rivalry, and sometimes considered one of the best, the 1950 'Snow Bowl' game is certainly unique in the annals of US college football. The fierce competition between the two schools is today considered perhaps the greatest of all college football rivalries. Yet it is not just a modern squabble. The historical feuding between the two schools stretches back well over a century.
The 'Snow Bowl' was one in a long series of annual games between the two rivals, played on 25 November, 1950, in Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio. That year, the Ohio State University (OSU) Buckeyes were ranked in the top ten of all college teams, while the University of Michigan (UM) Wolverines were left out of the rankings. By this time, the rivalry between the two teams was already intense. And the outcome of the game would have a major bearing on who would win the championship of the Big Ten Conference, of which both were members. Ohio State was expected to win the game by a couple of touchdowns. That result may very well have come to pass if the game had in any way resembled the sport of US football.
US football is a game where a team generally wants to be in possession of the football in order to score points. Yet during this game both teams got rid of the ball by punting (kicking it) a staggering 45 times. In a game where points are almost always earned by running the ball for first downs until a touchdown, passing the ball or kicking a field goal, Michigan made zero first downs, zero completed passes and zero field goals, yet still won the game. This was no ordinary football game.
The Snow Bowl
The game was scheduled for 1pm on a Saturday afternoon. Ohio State Athletic director Dick Larkin (a former OSU basketball player) went to check out the field at 11am, and things looked alright. The weather reports in Columbus predicted light snow and temperatures hovering around freezing. While certainly not comfortable, ardent Buckeye fans, raised through many long, cold winters, expected to brave those conditions without much of a problem. After all, because the big game between the two rivals alternated between each state, most Ohio State fans only had a chance to cheer on their beloved Bucks once every two years. The 70,000-seater stadium were expected to be filled to capacity.
But suddenly the weather began to deteriorate. Without warning, a monstrous blizzard swept into town and temperatures dropped to a biting 5 degrees fahrenheit (-15 celsius), complemented by fierce gales blowing at 30 to 40 miles per hour. Snow poured onto the ground quickly, and showed no signs of stopping.
Larkin wanted to cancel, or possibly postpone, the game. However, if that had happened, Ohio State would have automatically won the Conference Championship and a coveted place in the prestigious Rose Bowl. Michigan Athletic director Fritz Crisler naturally objected to a cancellation. After all, it would have been the first time in the history of the Big Ten Conference that a game was cancelled. Larkin was left to make the decision. Believing that if he cancelled the game Michigan fans would scream foul, he decided to play on.
Around 50,000 fans trudged into open-air Ohio Stadium, looking like destitute refugees as their layers of clothes were blown by the unstoppable wind. They shielded their faces from the gusts with gloved hands and marched on. Most stayed below stadium level until just before the game began, to avoid facing the conditions for as long as possible.
A tarp had covered the field and a group of boy scouts went out to remove it, but it had frozen to the ground so solidly that half of it had to be left on the field. The tarp did not make much of a difference, though, because an impenetrable layer of snow blanketed the entire field.
When you did hit somebody, it hurt, because your hands were frozen and your feet were frozen.
- Jim Hietikko, an Ohio State offensive tackler
To start the game, Ohio State halfback Vic Janowicz kicked the ball off to Michigan's Ted Topor on the Michigan 28-yard line. Janowicz was widely considered to be Ohio State's best all-around player. Today, players tend to focus on one compartmentalised position, but Janowicz did everything. He played as a single-wing tailback, he ran the ball, he passed, he punted, he place-kicked, he returned kicks, and he played as a safety on defence. Not surprisingly, he is now sometimes considered Ohio State's greatest all-around player ever. Then in his junior year of college, he was at the centre of most of the important plays in the Snow Bowl game.
Visibility was terrible. Tacklers could barely see their targets until they were upon them. And when the ball was placed on the field for a play, it would sometimes be blown away by strong wind, causing delays and confusion. Centres and quarterbacks had trouble holding onto the ball for the snap at the beginning of each play. In fact, the slippery, white field was a ridiculous place to play a game of football. And yet the players pressed on.
For Michigan's first play, quarterback Chuck Ortmann punted the ball away immediately on first down. This set the tone for the rest of the game. In a normal match, a team would never punt the ball on a first down; rather it would run a few plays to see how far it could get into rival territory. A team only usually punts the ball away if the opposing defence proves able to stop it from advancing by the fourth down. In this game, though, possession of the ball proved a liability; it was an icy, cold rock. Different balls were alternated by officials (and warmed by kerosene heaters in between alternations), but it had little effect. Numb hands were unable to hang onto the ball, and each side simply traded punts, hoping the other would make a mistake (which happened frequently).
Ohio State valiantly tried a few running plays after the first Michigan punt, before they too were forced to punt the ball away. Running was extremely difficult in the thick layer of snow and ice resting on the field.
Janowicz set up the first Ohio State punt and absolutely walloped the ball, which eventually came down on the Michigan six-yard line. The Wolverines made an attempt to kick the ball away first thing, but Joe Campenella of Ohio State managed to block the punt attempt, and recovered the ball right outside of the Michigan end zone. The Buckeyes tried a passing play for a touchdown, but Janowicz came under pressure and was forced to throw the ball away, resulting in a penalty which pushed the ball back to the 34-yard line.
After a few more plays, Ohio State found themselves on the 27-yard line on a fourth down. Janowicz told his teammates in the huddle: ‘I can see the goal posts.’ This statement would have been absurd in any other match, but in a game where film footage shows little more than two opposing sets of darkened shapes in a white, fog-like haze, being able to see the goal posts was no small thing.
With the unrelenting wind in their faces, the Buckeyes set themselves up to attempt a field goal kick. Janowicz needed to loft the ball in between two indistinct metal poles 30 yards away, in wind conditions that could rip a man's toupee off. His kick spun through the air and disappeared right before the eyes of the wind-whipped players. To everyone's surprise, it went straight as an arrow between the posts for three points and an early lead, only four minutes into the game.
This tremendous kick is considered by some to be the defining moment of Janowicz's Ohio State career, and one of the greatest individual contributions by any Ohio State Buckeye, ever. Normally, kickers are ignored until they either make a mistake or a game-winning kick. However, in light of the circumstances, this kick can be reasonably called one of the finest kicking efforts in the history of US college football.
The Wolverines received a kick-off after the field goal, and several punts were traded until Michigan blocked one punt, after which a Buckeye player with the ball stepped out of bounds inside of the end zone. The referees awarded the Wolverines a safety, worth two points. The first quarter ended with the score 3-2 in favour of the Buckeyes. Each team had punted the ball away a stunning seven times. Michigan managed a meagre seven yards of rushing, while Ohio State had negative two yards.
The second quarter was mostly a display of punting prowess. The energy and determination that kept the two sides going in the first quarter had mostly left them by the second. Only a few times did the game-play even resemble football. One of these occasions was when Ohio Sate managed to make an 11-yard first down play; another when Michigan unsuccessfully tried a field goal after a blocked punt - the wind cruelly blew Michigan's kick left of centre.
A quarter of ennui was coming to a close, with two minutes remaining on the clock. A punt by Michigan's Ortmann went out of bounds at Ohio State's six-yard line. Ohio State tried a few rushing plays, but were thwarted as much by the conditions as the Wolverines. Only 40 seconds remained before half time and Michigan's coach called for a time out. They wanted to force the Buckeyes to run another play, rather than allow them to run the clock out. The hope was that Ohio State would make a big mistake they could capitalise on. And that is exactly what happened.
On third down, with 20 seconds left, Ohio State coach Wes Fesler ordered a punt. Janowicz backed behind the line of scrimmage, into the end zone, to kick the ball. As the ball left his foot and began to travel on its arc, one of the Wolverines got a hand on it and knocked it back into the Ohio State end zone, amid a pile of snow and ice. Players from both sides were unsure where the ball was, and dived into the end zone in search of the brown pig skin amid the white snow.
Eventually, Tony Momsen, a Michigan player who had blocked the kick1 came up with the ball; the referees dug through the snow to find out where the end zone began. After a long delay, it was ruled that Momsen had recovered the ball in the end zone and earned a touchdown, for six points. An extra point was added by a field goal kick and the score at half time stood at 9-3 in Michigan's favour. Fesler would be roundly criticised for his play call to make a punt on a third down, rather than simply letting the half expire.
Meanwhile, the Ohio State Marching Band, which considered itself the best in the country (and still does), was offended by an article in Life magazine which claimed Michigan had the best. Ohio State was determined to prove itself and arranged an elaborate performance for half time. However, the brass instruments were chilled and the mouthpieces frozen. It seemed it would be unable to play.
The band planned to silently perform its manoeuvres, which included standing together in a shape resembling a Buckeye leaf, while previously recorded music played over the loudspeakers. However, the determined band members got hold of some antifreeze for their mouthpieces and did the performance.
Two problems arose. All of the field markers, which would normally be used to guide the group's movements, were covered in snow. The band was also playing into a strong wind, which did everything it could to swallow up the sounds of the 'Buckeye Battle Cry'. The Michigan band followed with 'The Wooden Soldier Drill' and a formation called 'The End', experiencing similar difficulties.
Some players replaced their cleats with tennis shoes at half time, to gain an advantage on the icy turf. They put on warm clothes and tried to thaw out a bit in the dressing room, but, all too soon, the second half began.
Understandably demoralised, both sides mostly punted back and forth; the snow was now up to the players' ankles. A running game became near impossible and any efforts at passing were almost comically bad for both sides.
Late in the game, news that Northwestern University had upset the University of Illinois (both Big Ten Conference teams) arrived in the Michigan huddle. As Michigan were third in the conference, behind Ohio State and Illinois, they realised that if they managed to hold on to their lead they would be conference champions and entitled to a place in the prestigious Rose Bowl. Playing conservatively, they punted the ball away frequently, while Ohio State frantically tried to move the ball down the field. Every new burst of determination was checked by the cold reality of the weather. Janowicz threw several desperate, incomplete passes at the very end, to wrap up the game. Michigan won 9-3 and became champions of the Big Ten Conference for 1950.
After the Game
The Buckeyes achieved 41 yards of offence over 58 plays; 16 yards were rushing, while 25 yards were passing (from three complete passes out of 18 pass attempts, a dreadful showing). They managed to get three first downs and 47 yards on kick returns, but also gave up two pass interceptions.
Ohio State punted the ball 21 times, while Michigan punted 24 times3. Together, the ball travelled an incredible 1,408 yards from punts - almost a mile in the air.
By the end of the game, only about a tenth of the original crowd remained. Some who had brought liquor to keep warm passed out and had to be carried out upon the game’s completion. Many of the 5,000 or so who remained at the end went onto the field to help clean up. And then they went home - very slowly.
The Michigan players went on to win the Rose Bowl in sunny Pasadena, California. On the other hand, the Ohio State players had plenty of time to think about their loss. The blizzard turned out to be the worst in four decades, and 20-30 inches of snow piled onto parts of Ohio. Some house’s roofs collapsed under the weight of snow. Classes at Ohio State University were cancelled for Monday and Tuesday. Each of the Buckeye players had time for a long, hot shower.
There was a silver lining for Ohio State fans. Janowicz easily won the Heisman Trophy - the prestigious award given annually to the best player in college football - partially on the strength of his tremendous kick in the first quarter of the Michigan game. Only two weeks after the Snow Bowl match, Fesler resigned as coach. He claimed the incredible pressure to win and beat Michigan (he never beat them in four years at Ohio State, although the teams drew once) was damaging his health. To replace him, Ohio State University chose a little-known coach at Miami University of Ohio. He would go on to become one of Ohio State’s most beloved coached. His name was Woody Hayes.