A big part of Ohio State’s football tradition is its pantheon of great offensive players, including five Heisman Trophy-winning running backs, not to mention two other runners and an offensive tackle that were Heisman runners-up. The galaxy of stars from “Chic” Harley to Troy Smith is bright, but Ohio State has always had a constant thread of defensive excellence as well. That foundation, however, was shaken tremendously in 1981. Heading into their annual battle with TBGUN, the Scarlet and Gray defense had already surrendered 216 points, tying them with the 1978 squad for the most points given up in any OSU football season. With the Michigan tussle and a bowl game still to be played, it was guaranteed the ’81 team would have that embarrassing record all to itself.
If you had glanced at the statistics leading into the UM matchup, you may have scratched your head seeing the Buckeyes fourth in the nation against the run at 83 yards per game. But OSU had come into the season with 4 brand new starters in the secondary and opponents had taken dead aim at them. The Bucks were dead last in the Big Ten in pass defense, and not even the fourth-best offense in the country (442 yards per game heading into Ann Arbor) headed by senior quarterback Art Schlichter could overcome the air assault that the secondary faced every week.
After disposing of Duke in the season opener, the Buckeyes had knocked off Michigan State to start Big Ten play, but Schlichter had injured an ankle on a keeper near the goal line in the Spartan game. With a trip to face John Elway and Stanford and a date with an up-and-coming Florida State team on the horizon, Earle Bruce couldn’t afford to not have Art in the lineup. But the fact remained that despite all the passing numbers Schlichter put up, his ability to run the option was a vital part of the Buckeye offense- one that would become virtually non-existent as 1981 progressed.
The Bucks held off a furious Stanford rally to win in Palo Alto 24-19, but the next week Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles tripped the Bucks up 36-27 despite a still-school record 458 yards passing by Schlichter. The next Saturday OSU dropped a 24-21 decision to Wisconsin, the Badgers’ first victory against Ohio State since 1959. It was the finale of a five-game homestand for Wisconsin which had began with a 21-14 upset of then #1-ranked Michigan on opening day.
The Buckeyes ran off three Big Ten wins in a row over Illinois (34-27), Indiana (29-10) and Purdue (45-33) before losing another shootout- this time to Minnesota 35-31. Gopher quarterback Mike Hohensee torched OSU with 444 yards through the air and five touchdown passes. The Bucks regrouped to pummel Northwestern 70-6, and despite the two league defeats and a leaky defense, they weren’t out of the Rose Bowl picture as they headed north on November 21st. With everyone in the Big Ten beating up on each other, there were still three teams alive for a shot at Pasadena.
Ohio State and Iowa were the only two teams in the Big Ten who had 8-game conference slates in 1981, while everyone else played a nine-game, round-robin schedule. And who had the Bucks and Hawkeyes, both at 5-2 in the league, left off their respective schedules? Yep, each other. Both teams trailed Michigan who sat at 6-2 in Big Ten play, so as the final Saturday dawned the Wolverines needed only a win over the Buckeyes to win an outright title and a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl. Iowa needed to beat Michigan State and hope for an OSU victory in Ann Arbor to smell the roses, while the Scarlet and Gray had to beat TBGUN and root for the Spartans to upend Hayden Fry. A combination of Ohio State and Iowa wins would mean a co-championship, but the Hawks would head west since the Buckeyes had been more recently.
After losing their opener (and preseason #1 ranking) to Wisconsin, Michigan turned right around and pulled the rug out from under the next week’s top-ranked team- Notre Dame. The 25-7 Wolverine win quickly ended Gerry Faust’s honeymoon as Irish coach. Bo Schembechler’s troops won three more before losing to Iowa 9-7, but they took advantage of having the extra conference game and ran off four more wins, moving back up to #7 in the AP poll. The Maize and Blue were 8-2 overall, 6-2 in Big Ten play and were established as 8-point favorites for the 78th edition of “THE Game”. With Ohio State at 7-3 overall, it marked the first time since 1967 that OSU and Michigan would enter their meeting with as many as five losses between them.
Although Ohio State’s Rose Bowl hopes were still alive, Buckeye Nation wasn’t exactly confident as gameday neared. But Earle Bruce had an ace up his sleeve- his predecessor Woody Hayes. Earle had Woody address the squad at Senior Tackle, then invited him along to Ann Arbor for the game. It was Woody’s first road trip with the team since his firing, and his blatant disregard for the “no cheering” rule in the Michigan Stadium pressbox (where he watched the game) greatly irritated the Michigan press contingent, much to the amusement of their Ohio colleagues.
One guy who certainly didn’t amuse Ohio State was Anthony Carter, he of the game-winning touchdown reception for Michigan in the 1980 game in Columbus. And Woody probably filled the “Big House” pressbox with a few colorful words as Carter brought the opening kickoff back 52 yards to spark a drive down to the Buckeye 25. The OSU defense then gave the first indication that they had finally brought their “A” game as roverback Doug Hill picked off a Steve Smith pass. OSU was forced to punt, and Carter brought the kick back 19 yards to the Buckeye 29. On 2nd-and-9 Carter hauled in a 13-yard pass for a first down, extending his consecutive games streak with at least one reception to 19. A pair of runs by fullback Stan Edwards (father of former UM receiver and current Cleveland Brown Braylon) helped give TBGUN a first-and-goal at the five. Edwards plowed for 2, then Steve Smith rolled right and tried to hit Edwards out of the backfield but the pass went off his hands. Edwards could only gain one on 3rd-and-goal from the 3 before being stopped by middle guard Nick Miller and linebacker Glen Cobb, so Ali-Haji Sheikh came on to boot a 19-yard field goal, giving the Wolverines a 3-0 lead with 6:59 left in the opening period.
As the first quarter ticked away, linebacker Marcus Marek snagged Ohio State’s second interception of the game, and Schlichter finally got the offense rolling. From the OSU 20, Art connected with Cedric Anderson for 17. Tailback Tim Spencer, who had gone over the 1,000-yard mark the previous week against Northwestern, then bolted for 13 and 15 to advance the ball to Michigan’s 35. A pair of Spencer runs alternating with two completions to tight end John Frank gave the Bucks a first down at the UM 12. It was fullback Vaughn Broadnax for 5, Spencer for 3 and Broadnax for 3 and now it was first-and-goal at the one. Spencer was stopped for no gain but on second down Schlichter sneaked over for the touchdown, capping an 83-yard, 13-play drive. With 9:57 to go in the first half it was Ohio State 7, Michigan 3.
Anthony Carter once again got loose on the kickoff, bringing it back 30 yards to the UM 33, but Steve Smith couldn’t hook up with a wide-open Vince Bean and the Wolves were forced to punt. Cedric Anderson, who had blocked a punt at Purdue, got a piece of this one, giving the Buckeyes good field position at their own 39, but they couldn’t do anything with it and punted back to Michigan with 1:21 to go until halftime. Smith and Bean combined on a 22-yard pass play to put the ball in Ohio State territory, but Smith promptly threw four straight incompletions and the half ended with the Bucks still up 7-3.
On the Buckeyes’ first possession of the third quarter, Gary Williams extended his consecutive game catch streak to 35 with a nice one-handed grab to give the Bucks a first down, but they couldn’t sustain the march and punted to the Michigan 25. Butch Woolfolk burst for 20 on the first play, then Anthony Carter made a 10-yard reception to advance the ball into Ohio State territory. Stan Edwards bolted for 17 on a trap play to move the chains to the OSU 25, then Edwards and Woolfolk took turns carrying the ball until it was 3rd-and-2 from the Buckeye 6. Steve Smith attempted to run the option to the left side but cornerback Shaun Gayle stormed through to drop Smith for a loss of 3. Haji-Sheikh delivered a 26-yard field goal to draw UM to within a point at 7-6.
The Wolverines gained even more momentum two plays later courtesy of their safeties. Schlichter’s pass for Cedric Anderson was tipped by Keith Bostic and intercepted by Tony Jackson at Ohio State’s 48. Smith kept on an option for 13, and on the next snap Woolfolk picked up 5 and UM gained a gift 15 yards as Marcus Marek was hit with a facemask penalty. With Michigan on the Buckeye 15, Marek more than redeemed himself as he made the stop on the next three plays, forcing the Maize and Blue into a 4th-and-1 call from the OSU 6. Ali Haji-Sheikh, who had only made 3 field goals all season long in 8 attempts coming into the game, nailed his third of this game from 23 yards away and Michigan was back in the lead at 9-7 with 2:26 to play in the third quarter.
On Ohio State’s ensuing series Schlichter found John Frank down the seam for a big 29-yard pickup, but on the first play of the fourth quarter Schlichter’s deep throw for Anderson was short and was intercepted by cornerback Brian Carpenter, who returned it to the UM 18. Schlichter had broken an OSU drought of 13 straight quarters without a touchdown against Michigan by connecting on a scoring toss to Chuck Hunter in 1979. For his career, though, Art was now 32 of 75 passing against the Wolverines for 462 yards and the one touchdown, but with Carpenter’s pick he had now thrown seven interceptions against TBGUN. Bo’s troops couldn’t stand their own good fortune as Butch Woolfolk fumbled after being hit by Kelvin Bell. Shaun Gayle recovered and the Bucks were back in business at the Wolves’ 27.
Two runs by backup tailback Jimmy Gayle gained four, then Schlichter had to hurry a throw down the sideline to Spencer and it fell incomplete. Bob Atha was sent in to try a 40-yard field goal, which had the distance but was nowhere near the goalposts. UM had dodged a bullet, and on their next drive Smith dialed up Carter for gains of 17 and 12, then found Vince Bean for 22 to the Buckeye 8. Michigan’s running game, which had been effective most of the day, was then buried as Smith took to the air. A fade pass to Carter in the corner of the endzone was incomplete, then on second down tight end Craig Dunaway was wide open in the endzone after Glen Cobb fell down in coverage, but Smith threw it behind him. It immediately came back to haunt Michigan as Smith’s third-down pass for Dunaway was tipped by Shaun Gayle and picked off by Kelvin Bell. Gayle had been covering UM’s other tight end, Norm Betts, but had left him as Smith scrambled right and threw into a crowd. Bell’s interception set the Buckeyes up at their own 20 with 8:32 to go in the game.
Spencer got the drive started with a pickup of 5, then it was Schlichter to John Frank for 6 yards and a first down at the Buckeye 31. Spencer gained 2, then Art once again tried to hit Frank down the seam but it was incomplete. Facing 3rd-and-8, Schlichter got heat from Tony Osbun, stepped to his left and floated a pass down the sideline. Tim Spencer went up to grab it for a gigantic first down at the OSU 44. Now with 6:25 left, Schlichter faked to Spencer, rolled right and drilled a 17-yard pass to Gary Williams for another first down at the Michigan 39. Spencer barreled for 4 and John Frank snared a pass for 5 more. With a 3rd-and-1 at the UM 30, Schlichter sneaked for the first down but fumbled the ball. Guard Joe Lukens fell on it to avert disaster and the Buckeyes had a first down on the Michigan 28. On the next play Tim Spencer took a handoff around the right side, picked up a great block from Vaughn Broadnax and scooted for a huge 18-yard pickup to the Wolves’ 10. The Bucks came back with the very same play and Spencer worked it for 2. Once more, the same play was called but this time to the left and Spencer eked out 2 more. With just over three minutes to go the Buckeyes had a 3rd-and-goal call at the 6.
Earle Bruce and the offensive coaches decided to see if they could get history to repeat itself. Just a little over two years earlier in Los Angeles, the Bucks had scored a touchdown in the last minute to beat UCLA 17-13 using “Play Pass 21”, a rollout which gave Schlichter the option to run or throw to his tight end. In that UCLA game, Art had thrown to Paul Campbell in the back of the endzone for the gamer. Now in Ann Arbor two years later, Bruce again sent in “Play Pass 21”. Art would look for John Frank, but the coaches also trusted that Art wouldn’t do anything to ruin their shot at a potential winning field goal, either. As the Buckeyes broke the huddle, the second-largest Michigan Stadium crowd ever of 106,043 (trailing only the ’79 Ohio State game throng) came to its feet. If the play failed, it would only be a 23-yard field goal, but Atha had missed badly on his only other attempt. And even if the kick was good, Michigan would have almost three minutes and all their timeouts to try and get Haji-Sheikh, who was 3 for 3 already on field goals, into position for another.
Bringing Gary Williams in motion from right to left, Schlichter faked to Tim Spencer and rolled to his right. Fullback Vaughn Broadnax was holding off outside linebacker Carlton Rose as Schlichter saw that Frank was covered. With four Wolverine defenders bearing down on him, Art came to a stop and faked inside. At that moment, Broadnax got the better of Rose and knocked him into Keith Bostic, the closest defender to his quarterback. Schlichter ducked around Broadnax and stepped into the corner of the endzone before being drilled into the piles of ice along the “Big House” wall around the field. Only 2:50 remained on the clock and Schlichter’s second touchdown of the game had put the Buckeyes out front 14-9.
Anthony Carter gave UM fans a glimmer of hope by bringing the ensuing kickoff back 34 yards to the Michigan 38, but the Maize and Blue, who had outscored their opponents 98-23 in the fourth quarter coming into the game, couldn’t muster anything. Smith scrambled for 6 but ended a miserable passing day by chucking three incompletions to finish 9 for 26 through the air- all against the “worst” secondary he faced all year. Ohio State ran out the clock as Tim Spencer pounded out one last first down and became only the second runner all year to gain 100 yards on the Wolverine defense. In the Bucks’ last 3 games Spencer had picked up 97, 108 and now 110, and the fact that he gained over 1,000 yards was all the more remarkable considering he shared a great deal of playing time with Jimmy Gayle. Meanwhile Butch Woolfolk, who had rang up 141 yards on 31 carries against OSU in 1980 and had put up 100+ yards in Michigan’s first five games of ’81, was held in check by the Buckeye defense to the tune of 84 yards on 19 totes.
The classic comeback earned Ohio State a share of the Big Ten championship with Iowa, but over in Iowa City the Hawkeyes thumped Michigan State 36-7 to earn their first piece of the conference title since 1960 and their first trip to Pasadena since after the 1958 season. It would also be the first time that someone other than Ohio State or Michigan represented the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl since the 1968 game featured USC and Indiana.
Art Schlichter made his 48th straight start at quarterback on December 30th as the Bucks concluded their 1981 campaign with a 31-28 win over Navy in the Liberty Bowl. It wasn’t the finish that Schlichter had hoped for, but he certainly could brag of being only the second quarterback in Ohio State history to win both of his starts in Ann Arbor (Don Unverferth had led OSU to wins in 1963 and 1965, and no Buckeye QB since has won two starts at the “Big House”). And for the much-maligned Scarlet and Gray defensive unit of 1981, not only had they put forth their best effort of the year to earn their Gold Pants, but they had become the first defense to hold a Bo Schembechler-led Michigan team without a touchdown in a game at Michigan Stadium.