The date: November 9, 1940
The matchup: No. 3 Michigan (5-0) at No. 2 Minnesota (5-0)
The stakes: The Big Ten title was on the line, which, in 1940, is the same as saying “A share of the mythical national title was on the line.”
The back story: Bernie Bierman’s Gophers were the class of college football in the mid-1930s, losing just once (with four ties) from 1933-36 and finishing in the AP top 10 in both 1937-38. They fell to 3-4-1 in 1939, however, and not much was expected of them in 1940. From 50 Best*:
The best coaches sometimes produce a second act that we didn’t see coming.
Bierman was a public worrywart, an anti-showman. He never predicted big things before a given season (even the great ones), and with the Gophers sporting a mere 15-8-1 record over the past three seasons, nobody rolled their eyes at his preseason proclamation that “we’ll have no championship team this year,” and “with a little luck we may be able to improve on last season’s record.”
To be sure, Minnesota was going to be relying quite a bit on sophomores after losing 16 of 25 lettermen. ... Still, he had to know what he had. Halfback George Franck was the fastest player in the Big Ten, and junior Bruce Smith had emerged as a breakout star while Franck redshirted in 1939. With sophomore Bill Daley prepped to break out as well, Minnesota had three outstanding runners, the former two of which would go on to make the College Football Hall of Fame. (For that matter, so would tackle Dick Wildung, another one of those important sophomores.)
With a burly line and more halfbacks than a defense could stop, Minnesota had the ingredients to make a run at the Big Ten title. The passing game was as nonexistent as ever — Smith, the “leading” passer, completed seven of 30 for 161 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions — but this was, as always under Bierman, a rushing-and-defense team.
The 1939 season was a bit misleading. The Gophers had thumped Michigan and lost to Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, and Iowa by a combined 20 points. They weren’t exactly that far away from a top-10 level. With the return of Franck, the addition of Daley, and a murderous line, Minnesota was loaded. Good thing, too, because so was the schedule.
Bierman’s squad got past solid Washington and Nebraska teams, then knocked off No. 13 Ohio State, 13-7, in Columbus. After crushing Iowa, they eked past No. 8 Northwestern in Evanston, then returned home for the biggest game of the year.
Michigan was as good as ever in 1940. The Wolverines boasted a backfield of quarterback Forest Evashevski and halfback Tom Harmon, and end Edward Frutig was an All-American that year as well. Fritz Crisler's squad had beaten Cal, Michigan State, Harvard, Illinois, and No. 8 Penn by a combined 130-14, and Harmon would go on to win the Heisman.
The game: From the Minnesota Star:
A gallant, fighting Minnesota football team that refused to become frightened in any one of many tight spots Saturday afternoon edged out the best Michigan football team in 10 years by a score of 7 to 6 on a rain-soaked Memorial stadium field before 63,894 drenched customers.
YES, THAT'S RIGHT. THE SCORE WAS MINNESOTA 7, MICHIGAN 6.
For the second time in three years, these Gophers, unbeaten in their parade to the Western conference and possibly the national championship, gave the Wolverines of Fritz Crisler some of their own medicine--a one point defeat.
Yes and it was the second time in two games that Joe Mernik's placekick for the extra point dropped a Minnesota foe in defeat.
But don't think that terrific outpouring of Minnesota rooters didn't say their prayers often on this rainy afternoon.
They had to for not once but four times this brilliant Michigan football combination, led by the great Tommy Harmon, had to be thrown back on goal line attacks, some of them within inches of payoff dirt, before they were rewarded with another hair line decision.
Michigan outgained Minnesota, 240-205, but finishing drives was as important in 1940 as it is in 2017. Plus, there was the “kickers weren’t very good because there were no specialists” variable. Just as Northwestern had the week before, Michigan missed a key PAT, and that made the difference.
The box score:
Minnesota was 0-for-3 passing! Bierman called passing a “gambler’s game” and didn’t do it unless he had to. He didn’t have to in this one.
Following this win, the victory lap was easy. Minnesota beat Purdue with ease (33-6) and outlasted Wisconsin (22-13) to win the conference and national titles, then did it all again the next year, going 8-0 once more. Bierman engineered a couple more decent seasons following World War II, but this second peak was staggering.