The First Time A Pandemic Made Ohio State vs. Michigan History

For the first time since 1942, Ohio State is scheduled to play Michigan before the final game of the regular season.

The Big Ten released its updated schedule for the 2020 season on Wednesday, and the Buckeyes and Wolverines are now set to play The Game on Saturday, October 24.  

It takes something very unusual (and usually not great) going on in the world to modify the traditional rivalry. The last time it was World War 2, and the Buckeyes’ final opponent was Iowa Pre-Flight, a program made up of members of the U.S. Navy’s aviation training school. 

But this isn’t the first time a global pandemic has forced a big change to the Ohio State vs. Michigan series. In fact, the very first time The Game was played as either team’s regular season finale, it was a direct result of the 1918 Influenza pandemic. 

Even before that outbreak, 1918 was already shaping up to be a very unusual college football season. World War I was raging in Europe, and established stars like Charles “Chic” Harley and Gaylord Stinchcomb had left the Buckeyes to join the war effort.  

In early May, the Dayton Daily News wrote, “Half-back Stinchcomb has left Ohio State to join the naval training school and only three O.S.U. regulars are left.” 

Stinchcomb would play for the Cleveland Naval Reserves team instead of the Buckeyes that fall. 

Despite the almost-total turnover in their roster, the 1918 Ohio State team still got off to a good start. They destroyed local rivals Ohio Wesleyan and Denison by a combined score of 75-0. 

But things changed dramatically when the influenza, which had swept through the country in the spring and then largely gone away during the summer, came roaring back in the fall. 

On October 9, in an article titled “‘Big Ten’ Fixes Up New Schedule,” the Akron Beacon-Journal laid out new travel restrictions from the War Department. The goal was to limiting the spread of the influenza on the home front while the country was sending millions of troops overseas to fight. 

“Football schedules of the ‘Big Ten’ were completely revised at a special meeting of the coaches and athletic directors (in Chicago) yesterday to conform with the war department ruling limiting the teams to two 48-hour trips next month. All games previously scheduled for October were canceled, so the western conference championship season will be entirely confined to November,” the story read. 

That meant Ohio State went four weeks without a game. The 34-0 win over Denison came on October 12. Their next game, a 56-0 win over Case, didn’t happen until November 9.

The following week, the Buckeyes played their first, and only, road game of the year. Like the newly-released 2020 schedule, that first road game was at Illinois. It ended in a 13-0 Ohio State loss.

The next Saturday, Wisconsin came to Columbus and handed the Buckeyes a 14-3 defeat.

That left just the season finale against Michigan. On the original schedule, the Buckeyes and Wolverines were supposed to play on October 26. The updated schedule pushed that to Saturday, November 30.

It was the first time the teams played in their regular season finale.

Michigan entered with a 4-0 record, including 1-0 in conference play. Played on a slick field, the game was scoreless through three quarters before the Wolverines finally broke through on special teams.

“Rife’s blocked punt from the two-yard line sailed back of State’s line, Goetz falling on the oval for six points,” according to the Dayton Daily News.

Michigan’s offense would add a little insurance later in the fourth quarter, as described in the same article. 

“With but about five minutes to play, a pretty forward pass, Steketee to Dunne, worked to perfection, the ball finding the waiting arms of Dunne while the latter was back of the line.”

The final score was Michigan 14, Ohio State 0. 

The Wolverines and Buckeyes would not play again in their regular season finale until 1935.

Outside of 1942, and a post-OSU trip to Hawaii for Michigan in 1998, The Game has been the last regular season game for both sides every year since. Until now.