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The Historical, Michigan Vs. Michigan State: The Black Knights Of Red Cedar

This week The Historical looks at Michigan State's dramatic upset of defending National Champion Michigan in 1934 and the 1951 on-field brawl in Bowling Green that cost the Toledo coach his job.

Michigan State donned black and gold uniforms to take on Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1934.
Michigan State donned black and gold uniforms to take on Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1934.

Michigan Vs. Michigan State, 1934

By the mid-1930s, Michigan State’s rivalry with Michigan had become an overwhelmingly one-sided affair. Since the start of the series in 1907 the Wolverines had been bested by the Spartans on just two occasions – 1913 and 1915.

As the 1934 season began there was little reason to believe Michigan State’s string of 17 fruitless outings against the Michigan squad was about to change. The Wolverines were not only the defending National Champions, they had won the title two years running.

In five seasons under head coach Harry Kipke, Michigan had been the champion or co-champion of the Big Ten four times. They entered the 1934 season opener with Michigan State having not suffered a defeat in 22 games using Kipke’s "punt, pass and a prayer" system.

While expectations for the 1934 were just as high as his previous squads, the fact was that Kipke lost three All-Americans (Charles Bernard, Francis Wistert and Ted Petoskey) as well as other key players from his title-winning teams. His star player was a senior center from Grand Rapids named Gerald Ford.

Michigan State was led into Ann Arbor by second year coach Charlie Bachman. The Notre Dame product had spent solid stints at Northwestern, Kansas State and Florida before his arrival in East Lansing. His first try against the Wolverines in 1933 ended in a 20-6 defeat but there was evidence of progress, as Michigan State scored the first touchdown against their in-state rivals since 1918.

The Spartans certainly looked different when they appeared on the Michigan Stadium field on Oct. 6, 1934 before an opening day crowd of 25,644 (far less than the venue’s 85,752 capacity). Bachman had abandoned the school’s green and white colors and outfitted the squad in gold and black uniforms. In time their apparel would earn them the sobriquet "The Black Knights of the Red Cedar."

Michigan State took the initiative from the start and drove deep into Wolverine territory only to be stymied repeatedly in the red zone by Kipke's vaunted defense. The Spartans watched no less than three field goal tries go awry. Michigan’s offense fared poorly against the Spartans and the scoreboard remained empty through the first half of the game.

Mid way through the third quarter, Michigan State’s Steve Sebo broke the Spartan’s field goal jinx by booting one through from the five-yard-line. Then, in the fourth quarter, Michigan’s defense collapsed completely.

As the final stanza unfolded, the Spartans' began gashing Michigan with big runs. Michigan State's Kurt Warmbein scored the game’s first touchdown on a 29-yard sprint into the end zone. The standout halfback from Saint Joseph was just getting started. He pulled down a Wolverine pass the next drive and ran it back to the Michigan 10-yard line. Three plays later he ran in his second touchdown of the game.

When the final whistle blew the Spartans had beaten mighty Michigan 16-0. A near riot broke out in the North end zone when Michigan State fans tried to tear down the goal posts and was met by a host of Michigan students. The fighting lasted for a good half hour and while two Spartan fans made it onto the cross bar, the goal posts remained standing.

Chicago Tribune sportswriter Harvey Woodruff declared the game a "humiliating defeat" for the defending national champion and the numbers backed him up. Michigan State accrued 219 yards on the ground and 98 in the air. Michigan only mustered 44 yards rushing and nine yards passing. The Wolverines managed just three first downs the entire game, all of which occurred in the third quarter.

Kipke responded by throwing his squad into 90-minute scrimmage the Monday following rather than the usual day of rest the team was allowed. It didn’t help. The next weekend Clark Shaughnessy’s University of Chicago team pounded the Wolverines 27-0 at Stagg Field in Chicago. Michigan went on to a dismal 1-7 season and finished dead last in the Big Ten.

Michigan State would roll up an 8-1 record for 1934 falling only to Syracuse on the road. The Spartans would not lose to their in-state rival for another four years until the arrival of Herbert O. "Fritz" Crisler in Ann Arbor renewed the Wolverine’s gridiron fortunes.

For more on these schools, visit Michigan blog Maize N Brew and Michigan State blog The Only Colors, plus SB Nation Detroit.

Toledo vs. Bowling Green, 1951

The great college football rivalries are usually defined by a well-known group of bellicose partners: Alabama vs. Auburn, Stanford vs. Cal, Michigan vs. Ohio State. Yet the Toledo vs. Bowling Green rivalry may not trace its roots quite as far back (the Rockets and the Falcons first met in 1919), in terms of sheer enmity it certainly punches above its weight class.

The bad blood between the two Ohio schools stretches back at least as far as 1924 when Bowling Green accused Toledo of having a ringer on the squad. The conference squelched the accusation but the rancor lingered. An on-field brawl after a blowout 63-0 win by Toledo in 1934 lead the two schools to sever relations for 14 years.

While the series resumed, so did the acrimony. The situation came to a head on Oct. 27, 1951 when the Rockets traveled to Bowling Green to take on the Eagles in University Stadium.

The day of the game was marked by persistent rain that relented only after halftime. The inclement conditions limited the crowd to a hardy 2,500 and, by the third quarter, had turned the playing field into a brown bog.

Although both offenses found their passing attacks limited by the wet weather, the first score of the game was a 29-yard pass to Toledo’s Rick Kaser midway through the second quarter. Right before intermission, the Rockets' star player struck again reeling in an interception and running 98 yards for the score. With two missed extra points, the Toledo held a 12-0 lead.

The respite from the rain after halftime allowed Bowling Green to reignite its passing game in the third quarter. An Eagles' drive was saved when Rex Simonds connected with Jim Ladd on a 25-yard pass play on fourth down that put Bowling Green on the one-yard-line. Another pass to Ladd and a missed extra point put the score at 12-6 where it would remain until the final whistle.

The rest of second half was dominated by turnovers and rough play, the latter of which increasingly upset the Toledo fans. Rockets coach Don Greenwood felt that the umpires were deliberately turning a blind eye to late hits, and when Mel Triplett was hit by a block by Bowling Green’s Lloyd Parkson on a punting play in the final minutes of the game, he was furious.

When Bowling Green's first play of the next series went out of bounds near him Greenwood took up his complaint with referee Roy Wisecup who he believed was deliberately allowing the dirty play. The referee then hit the coach with a 15-yard penalty for coming onto the field.

When the clock ran out both teams swarmed the field and started swinging punches. One account says the brawl began when a Toledo player "deliberately struck" Bowling Green tackle Darrell Clay after the whistle sounded. Whatever the spark, the players went after each other with gusto and at least a hundred fans descended from the stands to join the melee on the muddy gridiron. After about seven minutes, it was over.

"The incident," reported the Associated Press, "resulted in about 20 black eyes and numerous cuts and bruises. Both dressing rooms looked like slaughter houses after the melee."

Reportedly, Greenwood tried to confront Wisecup after the game but the referee was able to avoid him and leave the field with help from Toledo coaches and players. "When a football game is over I don’t hang around to referee any fight."

After the debacle, administrators from both schools opened investigations into the incident but declined to take any action on the officials. In response, Greenwood resigned.

"You can't pass up such a thing because a player, when he is relaxed, can be permanently injured," he said after the game. "If I hadn't protested, I would never be able to regain the respect of my squad."

For more on Toledo and Bowling Green, visit MAC blog Hustle Belt.