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History Learnin’: How a Georgia/Michigan matchup in the Big House helped birth modern Bulldog football

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Michigan State v Michigan Set Number: X84811 TK1 R3 F160

Georgia and Michigan are two of college football’s most storied programs. The Wolverines are 4th all-time in college football in winning percentage (.729) while the Bulldogs are 13th (.659). The Red and Black have played in the second highest number of bowl games (57) while the Maize and Blue are 11th(48). And the Wolverines hold the crown for most college football victories in program history with 976, a comfortable 35 more than second place Alabama (Georgia is 11th with 856). The two schools are woven into the fabric of college football.

That’s one of the reasons why T. Kyle King, Editor Emeritus here at Dawg Sports, was a proponent back in the day of the schools scheduling a home-and-home series, even writing to their respective athletic directors to broach the idea a decade and a half ago. The college football world has turned several times since then. But at the time it seemed a shame that two preeminent programs had not faced off since the Johnson administration.

One of the positive developments since those early days of the college football blogosphere is that the big intersectional matchups we were clamoring for have not only become a reality, they’ve become the rule. Georgia has played or is playing home-and-home matchups with the likes of Notre Dame, Clemson, Oregon, Texas, and Florida State. So while a contest against Jim Harbaugh’s team isn’t such a rarity in the grand scheme of things, for those of us who’ve been around this site since its early days, there’s something special about this particular pairing.

And it’s worth highlighting the special place that Michigan holds in the history of modern UGA football. Because there’s an argument to be made that UGA football as most of us know it began around the time these teams last squared off. That was on October 2, 1965, when second year Bulldog head coach Vince Dooley took his underdog squad up to Ann Arbor to play a Michigan squad ranked #7 in the AP poll. Dooley’s ‘Dawgs had already pulled a week one upset over Bear Bryant’s #5 Alabama team thanks to a late hook-and-ladder touchdown and a daring two point conversion. Incidentally, in a sign that history doesn’t repeat so much as rhyme, Texas hosted Tulane that same week in Austin for a game that had been scheduled for New Orleans, but was moved due to ongoing devastation from Hurricane Betsy. But I digress.

Young Coach Dooley, a 33 year old former Auburn quarterback with a reputation for ruthlessly organized practices, attention to detail, and a love of history and botany, had his boys at 2-0 after that opening victory over the Tide and another home conference win (that one a 24-10 victory over John Green’s Vanderbilt Commodores). Coach Bump Elliott’s Wolverines entered the game 2-0 as well following a road victory over North Carolina and a 10-7 squeaker at home over Cal. The two schools had played only once previously, in 1957 and also in Ann Arbor, when a Bulldog team that would end up 3-7 was drubbed 26-0 by Michigan, in no small part due to 110 yards in penalties.

The 1965 Michigan team featured a stout defense, led by linebacker and future Xavier head coach Tom Cechini and defensive lineman Bill Yearby, an All-Big Ten selection at year’s end. Offensively the Maize and Blue were led by future Canadian Football League standout and fantastically named quarterback Wallace Gabler, III. Gabler had transferred to Michigan as a walk-on in 1964 then traded off the starting quarterback job with Dick Vidmer. What I’m telling you, dear reader, is that Stetson Bennett, IV may be a Highlander who played on the other side of this rivalry using the same playbook and a different alias.

The Bulldogs would rely on senior quarterback Preston Ridlehuber, and a solid defense of their own, coordinated by a 39 year old fire brand named Erskine “Erk” Russell. Ridlehuber, an all-state baseball player at Gainesville High School (the Georgia one, not the other one) had turned down a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates to matriculate in Athens. Contemporary accounts held that Ridlehuber is red/green color blind, which I cannot verify, but strikes me as a real issue should the Red and Black have been matched up with Baylor. Ridlehuber’s targets included receiver Pat Hodgson, who would go on to a successful NFL coaching career. Ridlehuber, Lynn Hughes, and Kirby Moore would combine for 135 passing attempts during the 1965 season, a quaint total in this day and time but a pretty wide open attack during a time when the Beatles were the biggest thing on the radio. The Bulldog roster also featured All-SEC defensive lineman George Patton, linebackers Jiggy Smaha and Tommy Lawhorne, and future Bulldog coach John Kasay on the offensive line.

But there was no doubt who the favorite in this one was. A Sports Illustrated account from the time declared that “Georgia has about ten good football players in the entire school, and half of them are on the coaching staff.” A Michigan squad that was noticeably bigger, faster, and stronger began the game out of the T-formation on offense, intent on running the ball between the tackles and down the throats of the visitors. And that they did on the first series. But in a harbinger of things to come, a tale as old as football itself, the favorites were undone by their own mistakes when a 28 yard touchdown run by halfback Carl Ward was called back for a false start penalty, and the Wolverines then turned the ball over on an interception.

Georgia couldn’t do much better on offense until they got some help late in the first quarter when Maize and Blue punter Stan Kemp mishandled a snap. That error set up a Bob Etter field goal to stake the Red and Black to a 3-0 lead after one quarter. The Wolverines struck back however, ramming it into the endzone to the lead 7-3. Then the dropsies struck again, with fullback Tim Radigan fumbling on the UGA 28 with Michigan driving for what could have been a back-breaking score. Georgia executed its (for the time) hurry-up offense well, moving Etter into position to kick his second field goal of the half, a 44 yarder, with a single second left on the clock before the half.

The Bulldogs trailed 7-6 at the intermission, but things were not nearly as bad as they could have been. And observers of the time knew well that Dooley’s undersized ‘Dawgs were overly fond of conditioning, a trait which would prove to make them tougher in the second half than they’d been at the start.

Bear Bryant once famously remarked “Winning isn’t imperative. Getting tougher in the fourth quarter is.” I for one believe that Bryant was largely Erk Russell with better branding and more bag men. The second half of the 1965 Michigan game didn’t prove my point, but it didn’t detract from it either. Russell’s defense tightened down fiercely, knifing in from the ends to undercut the Michigan rushing attack in the second half. The Wolverines managed only 28 rushing yards after halftime, looking a step slower than the Bulldog defense that played with a renewed vigor. The home team also ran only 22 plays and held the ball for less than eight minutes of the thirty minute second half that belonged to the visitors from the Classic City. The Bulldog offensive line found success and opened holes for tailback Bob Taylor, who carried 13 times for 71 yards on the day. But while the ‘Dawgs moved the ball Michigan punter Stan Kemp made up for his earlier mistake by pinning the visitors deep in their own territory time and again and keeping them out of the endzone and keeping the home favorite’s hopes alive as they clung to hope heading into the fourth.

But then as now, there’s only so much weight a Big Ten team can hang on its punter. As the fourth quarter clock began to run out Georgia mounted another sustained drive. This time THE ‘Dawgs got the ball just shy of the Michigan side of the field. Having worked the running game the Red and Black had planned to go to the air against the whipped Wolverines. Lining up at the Michigan 28 Ridlehuber rolled left intending to throw to Hodgson, only to see his receiver covered. But more than that he saw Michigan’s all-conference end Yearby streaking left as well. Knowing that Yearby would be the trailing defender in this scenario he looked back across the grain and saw nothing there but red jerseys. Ridlehuber reversed field and made it all the way to the Maize and Blue’s six yard line before being pushed out. Two plays later he did indeed connect with Hodgson, this time in the end zone. Dooley’s ‘Dawgs would waltz out of Ann Arbor with a 15-7 victory, a solid blow for the upstart SEC against what was then college football’s most dominant conference.

Hodgson would later recall that when the team flew back into Athens after the game they saw a stream of lights in the darkness approaching the airport. It turned out that thousands of students and fans had queued up to welcome the conquering victors back, and the headlights of their cars had turned the darkness into a display that outshone the runway. In some ways it was a victory that served as proof of concept for Dooley and Russell’s way of playing football. The win would be a high point for the 1965 Bulldogs, who were bumped all the way to #4 in the polls following the win. They would follow it up with a 23-9 home thumping of Clemson. But the Red and Black lost four of their final six down the stretch, dropping painful single score games to Florida State, Florida, and Auburn. The 1965 Bulldogs were a team that just wasn’t quite there yet.

The game was a sadly characteristic affair for the 1965 Michiganders. Michigan went on to finish 4-6, 2-5 in the Big Ten, including a wrenching 9-7 season-ending loss to Woody Hayes’ Ohio State team. They would then watch their instate rival the Michigan State Spartans claim a shared national title. They shared that title, by the way, with the same Alabama squad Georgia had beaten to start the year. Because college football today is college football 60 years ago, with only official finality substituted for the prior chaotic weirdness.

But back to the ’65 Bulldogs. They beat Georgia Tech 17-7 to gain some momentum headed into the offseason. Then many of those same players came back in 1966 to lead a 10-1 Bulldog team that went 5-0 in the SEC and shared the conference title with Alabama. Following a nationally televised 24-9 Cotton Bowl victory over #10 SMU the Red and Black finished the season ranked #4 in both the coaches’ and media polls. Georgia finished the season a single point away from an undefeated season that year, dropping a 7-6 decision in Miami to the Hurricanes.

1966 was Georgia’s first ten win campaign since 1959 under Wally Butts. It was also the first of six SEC titles under Dooley, and it’s no stretch to say that the recruiting boost Dooley got from that period helped him unseat Bobby Dodd as the Peach State’s preeminent recruiter. The Gnats have never really recovered their prior stature.

In short, much of Georgia’s status as one of the most consistently successful college football programs of the past fifty years can be traced back to that fateful October afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There are no such stakes this Friday. Both of these schools have “made it”, though one could argue that a Wolverine victory would serve to elevate Harbaugh from quirky achiever to top five head coach.

Still, when two of the most storied programs to ever step foot on the gridiron face off it should be celebrated. No matter what you think of the crass commercialism of modern college football, this sort of game feels like what we want from the sport. Titans of yore, re-emergent under newly ascendent coaches. Who knows, maybe 56 years from now we’ll be talking about 2021 as the season when the Kirby Smart dynasty began its march to dominance*. Until later . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!!!

This post is one of a series previewing the Georgia/Michigan Orange Bowl brought to you by the folks at DraftKings. Odds/lines are subject to change. Terms & conditions apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.

*Offer not valid in Alabama, Alaska, Azerbaijan, Buffalo, Cyprus, Iowa, most Denny’s restaurants, and perhaps this timeline of the metaverse. Some restrictions apply.