All season long Bo Schembechler had been looking for a test. He wanted his top-ranked, unbeaten, unmolested Michigan football team to prove just how good it was—and how good it could be. For eight long weeks he had watched the Wolverines roll to one lopsided win after another. Cakewalks all of them: 352 points for our side, 58 points and multiple abrasions for theirs. It seemed that Schembechler would have to wait until the Ohio State game, as always, for the ultimate challenge.
At least it seemed that way until last Saturday afternoon in Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium, once famed as a Notre Dame burial ground. With three straight losses and a 3-5 record, the Boilermakers did not appear to be much of a threat. They were fast losing their reputation as spoilers and, some said, were on the verge of losing their coach, Alex Agase. But throughout the game, as Purdue raised one knotty question after another, Michigan kept coming up with the wrong answer. And when it was over, the Wolverines, you might say, flunked the test 16-14.
The game was decided by two field goals, one the Boilermakers made and one the Wolverines didn't. There were four minutes, 20 seconds remaining when Rock Supan's 23-yarder put Purdue ahead. Still time for Michigan to score again. In fact, as Quarterback Rick Leach brought the Wolverines down the field, they seemed in no particular hurry. Four first downs got them to the Purdue 23, but after three running plays the ball was only on the 19. Bob Wood was waved onto the field with 14 seconds left.
Last year Wood set a Michigan record with 11 field goals. This season he was six for eight. His 37-yard attempt would lend a dramatic touch to the mettle-testing victory Schembechler wanted. So here it was: snap, spot, kick...long enough...but off to the left. No good. There was jubilation in Ross-Ade Stadium but none on the bench of the former No. 1 team in the nation.
"We got down there at the end and we should have scored," Schembechler said later, "but when you depend on winning on a forward pass or a field goal, you're in trouble."
Schembechler's bias against passes and field goals is understandable. He has seldom tried the one and seldom needed the other. And field goals made, missed and passed up, remember, have kept him out of three of the last four Rose Bowls.
Alex Agase certainly wasn't kicking about Supan's field goal. Most of the time Supan is a free safety. In fact, his 11 tackles Saturday led the Boilermaker defense. Supan did a little placekicking in high school but he did not become the Purdue kicker until the fifth game of this season, against Wisconsin. He beat the Badgers with a 20-yarder (not bad for on-the-job training) and was 4 for 7 coming into the game.
When Supan lined up to kick his winning field goal, he figured it was his fault the Boilermakers were trailing in the first place. His extra-point attempt following Purdue's second touchdown had been blocked, perhaps because he had lined up the ball off center. "After I missed it I said to myself, 'Please give me an extra chance.' " And when the opportunity to make amends came, the sophomore said, he was not nervous at all. "I didn't have time to get nervous," he said. "I just went out and kicked the ball, and the feeling I had was the best of my life."
There is no telling exactly what the Wolverines felt. They had not lost to Purdue in 10 years or to any Big Ten team except Ohio State since 1969. "It hurts a lot more to lose when you win a lot like we do," said Schembechler. "We don't accept it—we shouldn't accept it—because we should have won. No defeat is good."
For Purdue, victory was plenty good. It is no secret that Agase's job is in danger, and even after the game Athletic Director George King would only say, "I haven't made a decision. At the end of the season we'll sit down and talk about the future."