Photo courtesy of Minnesota athletics
There was plenty of offense in this year’s season-opening meeting for the Little Brown Jug.
On this day 80 years ago however, points were hard to come by, but there was much more on the line. In a contest that ultimately decide the Big Ten and national championship, Minnesota took down Michigan in Minneapolis, 7-6.
Setting the Stage
Living on the edge was the norm for No. 2 Minnesota as it arrived at muddy Memorial Stadium to take on No. 3 Michigan on Nov. 9, 1940. Minnesota arrived with a record of 6-0, but had played five games decided by six points or less.
The Golden Gophers had their eyes on a fourth national championship under head coach Bernie Bierman. Minnesota had won six straight over Michigan and had gone unbeaten in the previous seven.
No. 3 Michigan was undefeated at 5-0, but its road had been less daunting. The Wolverines had not played a game decided by fewer than seven points. Four of their five wins were shutouts.
Michigan finished with 240 yards to 205 for Michigan, but missed opportunities would be the story of the day. Michigan’s first opportunity came in the first quarter as it made its way to the Minnesota 1-yard-line. On fourth down however, back and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon slipped down shy of the goal line and Minnesota took over.
All of the game’s offense would come in the second quarter. Michigan scored first on Harmon’s touchdown pass to Forest Evashevski. The extra point was no good, which would prove costly.
Up 6-0, Michigan appeared to be on the verge of adding on after blocking a Minnesota punt and starting at the Golden Gophers’ 3-yard-line. Harmon’s pass into the end zone on the ensuing drive, however, was intercepted and Minnesota took over at its own 20.
On the very next play from scrimmage, Minnesota running back Bruce Smith took advantage as a couple Michigan defenders slipped and went 80 yards for a touchdown. Joe Mernik knocked through the extra point as Minnesota led, 7-6.
That would account for all the scoring in the contest. Minnesota did not complete a single pass in the victory.
The defeat would serve as Michigan’s lone loss of the season. The Wolverines would go on to defeat Northwestern and Ohio State to finish 7-1 and No. 3 in the final polls.
For Minnesota, a season that began with nail-biters ended with blowouts. The Golden Gophers ascended to No. 1 following the win and capped a perfect season with a 33-6 win over Purdue and a 22-13 victory over Wisconsin.
When the final polls came out, Minnesota was crowned national champions by the Associated Press. It was the fourth title under Bierman and fifth overall. The title likely would have belonged to Michigan had it not been for the 1-point contest that took place on this day eight decades ago.