The date: October 6, 1951
The matchup: No. 1 Michigan State (2-0) at No. 7 Ohio State (1-0)
The stakes: It’s early in the 1951 season, but this game will serve as a bit of an eliminator in the chase for the Mythical National Title. It also gives Michigan State a chance to make a statement against its soon-to-be Big Ten rival.
The back story: In late-1948, Michigan State was voted into the Big Ten. The Spartans had gotten a late start when it comes to football and ambition, beginning its major college football odyssey in the mid-1920s. But the school made up for lost time, expanding its facilities and doing whatever it possibly could — expand enrollment, expand the football stadium — to make itself attractive to the league. When Chicago finally bowed out in 1946, the race was on. It came down to Michigan State and Pitt, and the former got the nod.
State had to wait its turn, though. Because of scheduling spats, the school wouldn’t begin as a full-time football member until 1953. In the meantime, Biggie Munn made the Spartans one of the best teams in the country. They went 8-1 with their first top-10 finish in 1950, and after a 25-0 pounding of Michigan on September 29, they found themselves ranked first in the country for the first time. Their first foe as the No. 1 team: Woody Hayes’ first Ohio State squad.
The game: From 50 Best*:
State traveled to Columbus to take on first-year Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and 1950 Heisman winner Vic Janowicz in front of 82,640. The Buckeyes were seventh in the country, and while they would struggle on offense for much of the season, they gave Michigan State all it could handle.
Ranked No. 1 for the first time ever, the Spartans trailed the Buckeyes, 20-10, early in the fourth quarter. But after throwing a tough interception, Dorow settled in. He completed five passes on the ensuing drive, including a one-yard scoring strike to Paul Dekker on fourth-and-goal. Down just 20-17, the Spartans then caught the break they needed, recovering a fumble near midfield. A few plays later, they faced a fourth-and-5 from the OSU 28. Munn called for a trick.
Tom Yewcic, used primarily as a punter, entered the game and took a pitch from Dorow. He ran right, and appeared to get hemmed in with nowhere to run. That was the plan. Yewcic backed up and slung a perfect pass across the field to Dorow, running open down the left sideline. Dorow caught the pass, outran one defender, unleashed a devastating cutback to evade two more, and scored. Michigan State 24, Ohio State 20. The play became known as the “Transcontinental Pass” in East Lansing, and it kept the unbeaten season alive. (It was also a bit of foreshadowing: Yewcic would throw a few more pretty passes as MSU’s starting quarterback in 1952.)
The box score: Via Newspapers.com.
Ohio State would give up only 104 points all season, but nearly one-fourth of them came in this game. The Spartans gained 401 yards for the day but still needed a trick play of sorts to hold off what was, for one day at least, a potent Buckeye attack.
Michigan State would fall into a bit of a post-Buckeye funk, needing a comeback to get past Marquette the next week. The Spartans would move to 6-0 but fall to fifth in the polls because of their ability to just eke by.
That trend continued in early November. They humiliated No. 11 Notre Dame, 35-0, to vault from fifth back to first ... then eked by Indiana, 30-26, to fall to second. Tennessee would win the AP national title that year, though State could still claim a share of it via the Helms Foundation.
This was just the beginning, though. Sparty would go 9-0 again in 1952, beginning and ending the year at No. 1 in the AP. They would go 9-1 and finish No. 3, complete with a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl win (in their first eligible year), in 1953. Munn would retire to become Michigan State athletic director, and Duffy Dougherty would keep the ship sailing with three straight top-10 finishes from 1955-57. After a brief funk, they would finish No. 2 in 1965 and 1966, too.
Ohio State, meanwhile, had to wait its turn. The Buckeyes went just 16-9-2 in Hayes' first three seasons. But in 1954, they surged to 10-0 and won the national title, then ripped off five top-10 finishes in the next seven years. After a recruiting funk in the early-1960s, they surged again, winning the 1968 national title and finishing in the top 10 eight times in nine years from 1968-76.