OHIO STATE’S GREATEST DRIVE #4
It’s funny how Ohio State football history repeats itself. The 1975 Buckeyes wouldn’t be lacking for offense, especially with the greatest backfield the school has ever seen returning intact, but the defense had to replace 8 starters, including 3/4th of the secondary, from a 10-2 unit of 1974. And the Scarlet and Gray didn’t have long to get it together- three of their first four games would be against preseason Top 15 teams, including a prime-time battle at UCLA and a home matchup against Joe Paterno.
1975 was Woody Hayes’ 25th season prowling the Ohio Stadium sidelines, and if his team jelled quickly, he’d have a great chance at one more national championship that had eluded him five times since the glorious 1968 campaign. Cornelius Greene would be back for his third year as the starting quarterback, and would have the envious task of handing off to the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, senior Archie Griffin. Although fullback “Champ” Henson had been cleared to play another year after missing most of 1973 with a knee injury, he chose not to suit up, so Pete Johnson would be clearing the way for Arch, then bulling over people when the Bucks got close to the goal line. Wingback Brian Baschnagel would keep defenses honest with the occasional counter and serve as a sure-handed target for Greene on those rare occasions when General Hayes would go to the air. The kicking game was in solid hands with All-American punter Tom Skladany (OSU’s first scholarship punter) and placekicker Tom Klaban, hero of the 1974 Michigan game. The defense would be lacking only in game minutes, certainly not talent, and the most experience would be right up the middle with tackle Nick Buonamici, and OSU’s two defensive captains, linebacker Ken Kuhn and safety Tim Fox.
For the fifth straight season, all Big Ten teams began play with a league game, and for Ohio State the opener couldn’t arrive fast enough- a trip to East Lansing to face 11th-ranked Michigan State. The haunting memory of the controversial 16-13 loss to the Spartans in 1974 hung in the air over fall camp, and on September 13th the Buckeyes gained a measure of revenge, and eased Buckeye Nation’s concern over 8 new defensive starters, with a 21-0 whitewash of MSU. Cornerback Craig Cassady, son of OSU legend “Hopalong” Cassady, celebrated his first career start by intercepting three passes to tie a school record.
The next Saturday, Woody Hayes and Joe Paterno squared off for the first time ever, and the Buckeye defense kept a second straight opponent out of the endzone as OSU prevailed 17-9 in the home opener, the school’s first ever victory over Penn State. Seven days later, North Carolina made its first visit to the Horseshoe since Archie Griffin’s star had launched with a record 239-yard performance in 1972. This time it was Pete Johnson’s turn to enter the record books, as he pounded over for 5 touchdowns in a 32-7 rout of the Tarheels. The Bucks closed out non-conference play with a 41-20 blistering of #13 UCLA in a nationally televised 8PM showdown that propelled Ohio State into the #1 spot in the AP poll.
It was a walk in the park the next two weeks as Iowa and Wisconsin were blanked 49-0 and 56-0, respectively. Freshman quarterback Rod Gerald closed out the Hawkeye game with touchdowns on his only two carries of the day, while Tim Fox highlighted the Badger romp with a 75-yard punt return touchdown punctuated by a forward somersault in the south endzone. Purdue was thumped 35-6 as Archie Griffin became college football’s all-time career rushing leader, surpassing Cornell’s Ed Marinaro, who would go on to play Officer Joe Coffey on TV’s “Hill Street Blues”. Woody Hayes gave the squad Monday off after the victory over the Boilermakers, but after getting out to a 17-0 lead against Indiana the next Saturday, the Buckeyes had to scrap to hold off the Hoosiers 24-14. After the flat performance, Mondays off went the way of the Edsel.
The following week at Champaign, Ohio State chalked up what looked to be a rather pedestrian 40-3 win over Illinois, but there were historical highlights aplenty. Pete Johnson scored his 20th and 21st touchdowns of the season, breaking the school record of 20 set by former teammate “Champ” Henson in 1972. Archie Griffin went over the 5,000-yard career rushing mark, and just before halftime, Tom Skladany booted his way into the record book with a still-OSU record 59-yard field goal. Tim Fox put the cherry on the sundae by turning another flip following a 20-yard interception return for a score.
It was an emotional home finale on November 15th as the seniors went out with a 38-6 conquest of Minnesota. Every member of the fabled backfield scored at least once in OSU’s final tuneup before the trip up north. Woody removed his seniors individually to deafening cheers from the crowd, especially for Archie. Griffin would carry a 31-game regular season streak of rushing for at least 100 yards into Ann Arbor. The Wolverines had been the last team to keep Archie under 100 in a regular season game, holding him to 75 in the Buckeyes 14-11 victory in 1972 (USC had allowed Griffin 95 and 75 yards, respectively, in the 1973 and 1975 Rose Bowls, but the NCAA didn’t take bowl game stats into account). The senior tailback had long since surpassed the previous record of 17 straight 100-yard rushing games set by Oklahoma quarterback Steve Owens, the 1969 Heisman Trophy winner.
Michigan entered the contest at 8-0-2 overall, but somewhat surprisingly 7-0 in the Big Ten. The two ties had come in September against Stanford and Baylor, and with Bo Schembechler breaking in freshman Rick Leach at quarterback and having four sophomores on his offensive line, the fact that UM made it to “THE GAME” with an unblemished league mark spoke highly of Bo’s coaching job. Of course, the Wolves had a more experienced, hard-hitting defense that had kept things together as Leach matured, and it didn’t hurt that tailback Gordon Bell and fullback Rob Lytle had both gone over 1,000 yards rushing. In fact, during Michigan’s 21-15 win over Illinois the week before facing OSU, Leach had put the ball in the air exactly twice.
So for the third time in six years, the two bitter rivals would enter “THE GAME” unbeaten. Ohio State was still ranked #1, while TBGUN’s surge in conference play had helped them move up to #4. As usual, a trip to the Rose Bowl awaited the winner, but for the first time ever, the Big Ten was permitting more than one team to go bowling. It was announced that the OSU/UM loser would head to Miami to face the Big 8 champion in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s night. And while the Buckeyes and Wolverines slugged it out in Ann Arbor, undefeated, #2 Nebraska would be tangling with 9-1 Oklahoma to determine the Orange Bowl representative.
Ohio State hadn’t won in Ann Arbor since Schembechler took over in 1969, and in fact Woody’s last victory at Michigan Stadium in 1967 had also been the last time that the road team had won in the series. To say that Bo “held serve” at home would be a colossal understatement, as he had run up a 46-1-3 record in Ann Arbor, the lone loss coming to Missouri in 1969. Even more impressive was UM’s Big Ten record at home under Schembechler- 25-0-1, with the only blemish being the 10-10 tie with the Buckeyes in 1973. The Wolverines would enter “THE GAME” with a 41-game unbeaten streak in Michigan Stadium.
As usual, tension was high around both campuses the week leading up to the game. Hayes announced Monday at his noon press luncheon that practice would be closed all week, which came as no surprise. The Wolverines had followed suit, but on Wednesday a UPI photographer had tried to take pictures from the third-floor balcony of an apartment building across the street from where Michigan was practicing. Schembechler spotted the photographer and headed for the building along with some of his assistants. The photographer, Andrew Sacks, saw the coaches coming and called police. Bo got the local gendarmes to confiscate the film, then got a one-two punch in at UPI by banning them from his press conference the next day and resigning from their coaches’ poll. Schembechler called Sacks’ attempt to skirt the closed practice a “shabby trick” while Sacks called Bo and his assistants “bullies”. By Friday, Bo was laughing about the incident, and it was later revealed in Sports Illustrated that Michigan had been working on a secret short-yardage offensive set when the photographer had been caught. In watching films of Ohio State’s close shave with Indiana, Schembechler had “borrowed” Lee Corso’s idea of putting a defensive tackle in the backfield with a camouflaging, albeit legal, jersey number he would wear while serving as a blocker. For all the fuss, the only time Michigan tried the maneuver against Ohio State the play actually lost a yard. The national press, needless to say, had a field day covering the story.
The week leading up to “THE GAME” is always festive, especially when the stakes are as high as they were in 1975. In fact, various concert venues around Columbus kept the party going all week. On Tuesday, Mershon Auditorium on the Ohio State campus welcomed in Dave Mason, while the venerable Fairgrounds Coliseum played host to ZZ Top. Veterans Memorial rocked out on Wednesday with Black Oak Arkansas, Foghat and Montrose, then if you had any money left, and could still hear, you could drag out your “Boogie Shoes” for KC and the Sunshine Band that Thursday A then NCAA-record crowd of 105,543 packed Michigan Stadium for the 1PM kickoff, which broke the previous attendance record set by OSU and UM in 1973. ABC, as usual, was on hand to broadcast the showdown to a national television audience.
Michigan downed the opening kickoff in its endzone, and punched out one first down before being forced to punt. John Anderson’s kick only traveled 23 yards and Ohio State had good field position at their 37. On second down, Greene connected with Griffin on a 15-yard pass to enter Wolverine territory. Two Griffin carries and Pete Johnson’s initial run were all good for three yards, so Woody had the game’s first big decision with a 4th-and-1 at the Maize and Blue 37. Those “big” decisions, however, were much easier to make when you had Pete Johnson at fullback. Hayes didn’t hesitate calling Pete’s number, and the burly junior pounded over the right side for four yards and the first down. Griffin knocked out 19 yards on the next four plays, but Johnson was held to a yard, and again it was 4th-and-1, this time at the UM 13. Passing up the field goal, Woody sent Johnson over the right side and it worked for another first down at the 12. Three plays later on 3rd-and-5 from 7, the Buckeyes went with a special play they had designed just for this game. Greene dropped back to throw, and to the surprise of practically everyone, he hit Johnson out of the backfield at the 1. The big “hoss” barreled over safety Dwight Hicks into the endzone to put OSU on the board. Tom Klaban’s PAT was good and the Buckeyes had a 7-0 lead, with their first touchdown against Michigan since Johnson had scored in the second quarter of the 1973 game.
On their ensuing drive, the Wolverines quickly faced a 3rd-and-2, and Rob Lytle was stood up for no gain by linebacker Ken Kuhn. When John Anderson again punted weakly into the wind for only 20 yards to OSU’s 48, the Maize and Blue faithful could sense that the Buckeyes were smelling blood. But the UM “D” began to turn the tide as wolfman Don Dufek nailed Griffin for a loss of 7 on an option pitch, then two plays later Dwight Hicks almost picked a pass intended for Baschnagel. Skladany got off a 45-yard punt to pin the Wolves at their own 14.
Leach couldn’t get anything generated offensively for Michigan, and John Anderson’s less-than-stellar first quarter continued as he could only manage a 21-yard punt to the Ohio State 43. With the period running out, Woody Hayes tried to take advantage of having the wind at his offense’s back and had Greene throw deep, but safety Jim Bolden snagged it at the UM 1. Lytle immediately broke off a 10-yard scamper to give the Wolverines some room to work with as the first quarter ended.
Gordon Bell picked up 2, then took a pitch to the right, shook a tackle, cut back left and sped for 44 yards to the OSU 43 before Kuhn made a touchdown-saving stop. It looked like ‘ol mo had shifted, but just like that it changed. Defensive end Bob Brudzinski forced Leach into an early option pitch and Bell dropped the ball just as a blitzing Tim Fox submarined him. Linebacker Ed Thompson came up with the loose ball and the Bucks once more had great field position at their own 45. Corny Greene came out throwing and promptly hit tight end Larry Kain for 15 and a first down at the UM 40. Little did anyone know but that was the last time the Buckeye offense would move the chains until the fourth quarter. After linebacker Calvin O’Neal knocked down another pass attempt for Kain, Greene tried to go back to the tight end one more time down the left sideline, and this time Dufek was there to pick it off at the Wolverine 25.
Rick Leach and receiver Keith Johnson hooked up on a 28-yard pass play to the Buckeye 42, but after Bell had dashed for 5, Ray Griffin, who had moved from tailback to safety before the season, blew by guard Walt Downing and dropped Leach for a loss of 7. Middle guard Aaron “Chunky” Brown brought more heat on the next play and Leach’s pass for Jim Smith was too far inside and easily intercepted by Craig Cassady, who returned to the Buckeye 32. OSU was quickly forced to punt, and again the Wolverine offense tried to get in gear. Two Lytle runs got one first down, then Bell got loose again for 24 more to the Ohio State 32. But in the blink of an eye, the turnover bugaboo hit again as Leach was stripped by Thompson on an option keeper. After a scramble, Brown came up with the ball for the Scarlet and Gray at their own 30, but the offense couldn’t take advantage and Tom Skladany boomed a 66-yard punt into the endzone.
Michigan’s running attack produced a first down, then Leach moved the ball into enemy territory via airmail, drilling a wide-open Keith Johnson for 28 yards to the OSU 36. The Buckeye defense counterpunched as Ed Thompson stopped Leach for a loss of 4, but on 3rd-and-9 the freshman signal caller scrambled for 11 and a huge first down at the Buckeye 24. Leach hit Johnson for 13 and the Wolverines were now at the OSU 11. Just as Ohio State’s touchdown had come on a play that the offense ran for the first time all year, Bo Schembechler was ready to spring a new wrinkle on the Buckeye defense. Gordon Bell took a pitchout to the right as receiver Jim Smith looked to block Craig Cassady. Bell then pulled up and fired towards Smith at the pylon in the front of the endzone. Cassady defended the play about as well as could be expected but the throw was perfect and Smith made a leaping catch shielding Cassady away with his body and got his feet in for the score. Bob Wood converted and with only 24 seconds left in the half the game was tied at 7.
Disaster struck on the ensuing kickoff as Derek Howard forced Archie Griffin to fumble. John Anderson recovered and TBGUN had life at the Buckeye 21 with 18 seconds to go. Aaron Brown bolted through to crack Leach on a first down pass attempt and the ball floated out of bounds. Ray Griffin broke up a throw for Jim Smith, and then Gordon Bell, who already had 100 yards rushing, was held to only one on a draw. Bob Wood was sent in for 36-yard field goal try, but missed it wide left and a big opportunity went by the boards for Michigan as the half ended with the 7-7 deadlock.
Ohio State faced a 4th-and-1 on its opening series of the third quarter, but Woody didn’t gamble this time and Michigan took over at its 42 after Skladany’s punt. Rob Lytle popped through for 15 to the OSU 40, but on 3rd-and-4 from the 34, Nick Buonamici brought down Leach for a loss of 2. Schembechler sent in freshman kicker Gregg Willner to try a 53-yard field goal but it came up short. Michigan had now attempted 11 field goals against Ohio State since 1972 and had converted only 3 of them.
Defensive back Kurt Kampe stopped Archie Griffin a yard shy of a first down on OSU’s next possession, then after UM appeared to be gaining offensive momentum with a 20-yard burst by Lytle, Buonamici later stood the fullback up for no gain on a 3rd-and-5 carry. The teams exchanged punts twice more as the third quarter ended still tied at 7.
Michigan rang up a pair of first downs on their opening march of the fourth period, but the Buckeye defense held firm. John Anderson trotted on to punt and his kick rolled dead at the OSU 6. After Archie lost 3 yards on a first-down pitchout and Johnson could only pick up 1, Woody sent Skladany in to kick it away on third down. Skladany booted out to the Buckeye 43 and this time the Wolverines made the good field position count.
A huge mental gaffe got the Maize and Blue jumpstarted, as Aaron Brown was whistled for being offsides as a 3rd-and-9 Leach pass fell incomplete. Given a reprieve, the Wolves moved the chains as Bell took an option pitch to the 33 for the first down. Jim Smith hauled in a 9-yard toss, and Rob Lytle followed with an 11-yard scamper. Lytle had now joined Bell in going over 100 yards rushing, and the Wolverines were sitting pretty at the Ohio State 13. The Buckeye “D” drove UM back to the 15, but Leach fired to Jim Smith for 11 and a 1st-and-goal at the 4. Leach picked up 3, then on the next play he optioned left and went over for the score as Michigan Stadium came completely unglued. Wood converted and with 7:11 to play, Michigan had come back to take a 14-7 lead over an OSU squad whose offense had been non-existent for nearly three quarters.
The ensuing kickoff traveled out of the endzone, and with the Michigan goal line 80 yards away and the vast majority of the record throng in a complete uproar, Cornelius Greene asked for a little divine intervention. Asking everyone to grab hands in the huddle, Greene told his teammates they were going to pray- not to win, but for strength and for all of them to play their best.
It seemed the prayer had fallen on deaf ears. Greene faked the counter play to Brian Baschnagel and went deep for Herman Jones, but the pass was overthrown. On second down, middle guard Tim Davis got into the backfield as Greene dropped to throw. Corny faked left, then right trying to lose Davis and suddenly was in his own endzone. With linemen Mike Holmes and Greg Morton joining the chase, Greene threw up a desperation pass for Archie Griffin, who was surrounded by blue jerseys. Don Dufek was actually in great position to pick it off, but Calvin O’Neal tipped it first. The ball went over Dufek’s head where Dwight Hicks and Jim Bolden both had shots at it, but somehow, someway, the football fell to the turf. Now it was 3rd-and-10, and all the marbles- the outright Big Ten title, the Rose Bowl trip and a possible national title- seemed to be heading UM’s way. Brian Baschnagel recalled hearing the PA announcer say that Oklahoma was leading #2 Nebraska, a scenario that could allow the Wolverines to take the top spot if they and the Sooners could pull the upsets. But as bleak as it looked, Corny Greene’s prayer was about to be heard over the deafening tumult in Michigan Stadium.
On 3rd-and-10, Baschnagel lined up in the left slot. The play call, “84 Barb”, had Brian running an out route to the sideline. Greene had plenty of time to throw and hit Baschnagel at the 31, just ahead of a defender. The senior wingback worked his way to the 37, and Ohio State finally had a first down, their first since early in the second period. The play quieted the throng somewhat, and on the next snap Greene fired for Lenny Willis, who made a beautiful diving catch at the Michigan 49. Sticking with a good thing, Greene went back to Willis again, and despite pressure from Calvin O’Neal, an open Willis latched onto the wobbly pass for another first down at the UM 31.
At this point, it was a moot issue that Archie Griffin’s 31-game 100-yard rushing streak was going to end, barring a huge breakaway run. But with Michigan’s pass defense trying to stem the tide, Archie burned them for his longest gain of the afternoon, an 11-yard jaunt over the right side for yet another first down at the Michigan 20. Greene rolled left on the next play with both guards pulling and danced for 12 more to the 8. Five plays, five straight first downs, and when Pete Johnson thundered for six to the Wolverine 2, it appeared UM’s tremendous defensive effort was quickly coming unraveled. But not so fast- Johnson’s next 2 carries only produced 1 yard, and so here it was- Ohio State trailing by seven in a hostile environment with everything on the line, and it had all come down to 4th-and-goal at the Michigan 1.
In 1973, the Wolverines had trailed Ohio State 10-3 in the fourth quarter and were faced with a 4th-and-1 from the Buckeye 10. UM quarterback Dennis Franklin had faked to fullback Ed Shuttlesworth, then kept around the right side untouched for the tying score. In the Rose Bowl the next January, Ohio State had been 4th-and-goal from the USC 1, and Cornelius Greene had faked to Johnson and skipped to paydirt without a hand being laid on him. Would it be Greene again? He brought the Bucks to the line and handed to Johnson for the fourth straight time. Following right guard Bill Lukens, Johnson hammered over for the score. Tom Klaban knocked through the all-important point-after and with 3:18 to go, the Buckeyes had come off life support to knot the contest at 14.
Now Schembechler’s team found themselves in a quandary of their own doing. Up until this 1975 season, if two teams had been tied for the Big Ten title, the conference athletic directors would meet and vote for who should go to Pasadena. It was an archaic, highly political way to do things, and Schembechler’s outbursts after Ohio State got the vote following the 10-10 tie in ’73 had led the Big Ten to finally come up with a tie-breaking formula. Another remnant of the fallout from that controversial ’73 decision was the allowance of more than one bowl participant from the league, and of course the loser of this game was headed to the Orange Bowl. With Johnson’s second score of the day tying “THE GAME” up at 14, Michigan had to score. Their two non-conference ties gave Ohio State the first tiebreaker- a better overall record. Unless Leach could move the Maize and Blue downfield, a tie would send the Wolves to Miami.
Skladany’s kickoff sailed out of the endzone, so Michigan began from their own 20. On first down, Leach dropped to throw, but Aaron Brown blew right by center Jim Czirr and teamed with Bob Brudzinkski for a 9-yard sack. A second-down bomb for Jim Smith was busted up Craig Cassady, bringing up a 3rd-and-19. Leach pegged it down the middle for Smith once again but the pass was high. Out of nowhere came Ray Griffin to make a leaping interception at the UM 33. Griffin continued up the right sideline and flew all the way to the Wolverine 3 before Leach could run him out of bounds. The pockets of Ohio State fans around the big bowl went bananas while the Michigan faithful sat stunned. There have been several legendary interceptions in Ohio State football history (“Hop” Cassady vs. Wisconsin in 1954, Ted Provost vs. Purdue in 1968, Chris Gamble vs. Penn State in 2002 and Will Allen’s theft vs. Michigan later that year), but arguably, Ray Griffin had just turned in the mother of all picks on a day that older brother Archie’s cherished 100-yard game streak was finishing.
From the Michigan 3, it was, of course, Pete Johnson who got the call over- no surprise! – the right side. Calvin O’Neal met Pete in the hole, and as the big fullback spun back to the left, he was met by linebacker Dave Devich. Johnson kept his huge legs pumping and fell over backward into the endzone. The spin move and slight hesitation as Johnson worked his way goalward gave most of his teammates time to watch the play, and almost everyone of them leaped for joy as big Pete punched over for his 25th touchdown of the year. Klaban’s conversion made it 21-14 with 2:19 to play, and amazingly within the span of 59 seconds, the Buckeyes had scored twice to move into the lead.
Leach scrambled for two, then threw two incompletions to bring up a 4th-and-8. Leach dropped back to toss his 20th pass of this game, and it settled into the arms of Craig Cassady, who returned it 17 yards to the UM 30. It was Craig’s second pick of the day and, remarkably considering this was his only year as a starter, it was his ninth of 1975, tying him with Mike Sensibaugh for the most in a season, a record that still stands.
Ohio State ran out the clock to cap off a perfect 11-0 season with one of the greatest comebacks in school annals. The 1979 and 1995 teams would equal the ’75 squad’s 11-0 start, but it would take until the memorable 2002 season before the mark would be eclipsed. The Buckeyes were off to Pasadena for the fourth straight year, although this time their opponent would be UCLA, who the Buckeyes had dusted back in September. In fact, in an eerie similarity to this season, Columbus Dispatch columnist Paul Hornung had offered this opinion in the week leading up to “THE GAME”-
“If Ohio State wins Saturday…it should pull for California or Stanford to win the Pac-8 (Arizona and Arizona State had yet to join the league). Imagine what a situation it would create if UCLA is the West Coast representative in the Rose Bowl and the Buckeyes had already beaten the Bruins 41-20 in the regular season.” Seems that even then no one wanted rematches!
As it turned out, the prospect of facing the once-vanquished Bruins led to less-than-focused bowl practices as many members of the team have admitted in the years since. As a result, Ohio State followed up one of their greatest victories ever with one of the most heartbreaking defeats. Down 3-0 at halftime, UCLA took a 16-3 second-half lead and went on to a 23-10 upset over the #1-ranked Buckeyes. Ironically, Oklahoma, who had positioned themselves for the national title by upsetting unbeaten Nebraska, took full advantage of UCLA’s win with a 14-6 Orange Bowl victory over Michigan to finish #1.
Although 1975 ended on a bitter note, the outgoing seniors could still celebrate a fourth straight Big Ten championship and a 3-0-1 record against TBGUN. Their 4-year mark of 40-5-1 would stand until the 1996 group won 41 games. One of most interesting tidbits to come from that year? Archie Griffin won his second Heisman Trophy, but the team selected quarterback Cornelius Greene as its MVP. The vote was reportedly so close that had Griffin voted for himself (he voted for Greene), he would have won.