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December 31, 1981 First Ever Bluebonnet Bowl Game

Posted on December 31, 2017 by Barry Gallagher

Today’s post recalls the thirty-sixth anniversary of Michigan’s first ever Bluebonnet Bowl game on December 31, 1981. This historic game took place in Houston, Texas against the UCLA Bruins. It was also the first time that the Wolverines ever faced the Bruins in a bowl game.

The Wolverines had a regular season record of 8 wins and 3 losses going into this season ending game. UCLA had a record of 7-3-1 heading into the final game of the 1981 football season.

1981 Bluebonnet Bowl Program | bigbluefootballhistory.com

Michigan played in their first, and only, Bluebonnet Bowl game in 1981. Picture courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at The University of Michigan.

The first ever bowl game between Michigan and UCLA was also a matchup between Bo and Terry Donahue. It looked like it was going to be another close bowl game for Bo and his Wolverines. Michigan was listed as a slight favorite in this game, but it was expected to be a close game. As it turned out, Michigan played well for all four quarters and won the game going away.

Michigan started strong in their first ever Bluebonnet bowl game by scoring ten points in the first quarter. The Wolverines opened the scoring on a 24-yard Ali Haji-Sheikh field goal. A few minutes later, Steve Smith threw a 50-yard scoring pass to Anthony Carter and the first quarter ended with Michigan holding a 10-0 lead. The Wolverine defense dominated UCLA and held them to less than 60-yards of total offense in the first half. However, Michigan left many point on the board thanks to a bunch of penalties. The good news was that the Maize and Blue footballers led 10-0 at halftime.

The Wolverines traded scores with the Bruins in the third quarter. Haji-Sheikh kicked another field goal (47-yards), but UCLA scored a touchdown/extra point. It was 13-7 in favor of Michigan the end of the third quarter.

Fortunately, Schemechler’s team saved their best for last in their first ever Bluebonnet Bowl game. The Wolverines outscored the Bruins 20-7 in the final quarter to win going away. Butch Woolfolk (1-yard), Steve Smith (9-yards) and B. J. Dickey (5-yards) and rushed for touchdowns in the final fifteen minutes of play. Final Score: Michigan 33 – UCLA 14. Yes, it was a BIG win for the Wolverines and a great way to end Bo’s thirteenth season at Michigan.  

Butch Woolfolk Bluebonnet Bowl MVP 1981 | bigbluefootballhistory.com

Running back Butch Woolfolk closed out his outstanding Michigan career by rushing for 186-yards in the Bluebonnet Bowl. He earned the MVP Award for his efforts. Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library at The University of Michigan.

So, December 31, 1981 was a historic date in Michigan Football History and for Bo Schembechler. Here are the most important “firsts” that took place on this important day:

·         This game was Michigan’s first, and only, appearance in the Bluebonnet Bowl. Of course, it was also the first and only win that the Wolverines ever posted in this game.

·         The 1981 Bluebonnet Bowl was the first time that Michigan ever played UCLA in a bowl game.

·         This game resulted in Michigan’s second bowl win in the same calendar year. Yes, after 7 straight bowl losses, Bo’s 1981 team won two straight to start and end the year. Michigan defeated Washington 23-6 on January 1st and blasted UCLA 33-18 on December 31st. It doesn’t get any better than that for a Michigan Football team!

·         Butch Woolfolk, Michigan’s talented running back, also achieved something that no other Michigan player had ever accomplished. He was named MVP of both the Rose Bowl and the Bluebonnet Bowl. And, nobody has done it since!

·         Michigan quarterback Steve Smith passed for 152 yards in the game which allowed him to set a new single-season passing record of 1,661.

·         Smith also set another record for total offense with 2,335 total yards. He rushed for 674 yards during the season and passed for 1,661.

Finally, the first ever Bluebonnet Bowl game was a bowl game to remember instead of one to forget! It looked like Bo Schembechler was getting the “bowl game monkey” off his back. After losing his first seven games, the 1981 bowl wins helped Bo win five of his last ten bowl games.

Yes, Bo Schembechler won a ton of games at Michigan, but he had trouble winning the last game of the season. To win two” “last games” in the same year was something very special for Bo and his players. That’s why Michigan’s Bluebonnet Bowl win in 1981 was so important! Go Blue!


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