It had been a generation since Ohio State had a new football coach. Seven U.S. Presidents had served while Woody Hayes stalked the OSU sidelines. America had gone from “I Love Lucy” and the Korean War to disco and Iran. Now, as the Buckeyes finished off the winningest decade in school history (the 1970’s would produce 91 wins, which would be equaled in the 1990’s), former Hayes assistant Earle Bruce was at the helm. Bruce not only had to deal with the key losses of tailback Ron Springs and linebacker Tom Cousineau, but also the psyche of a ballclub still working through the Gator Bowl nightmare of the previous December. But Earle had a few aces up his sleeve- his entire secondary returned, four seniors led the offensive line, and quarterback Art Schlichter, with a year’s experience under his belt, now had a coach that would utilize his arm while not forgetting what he could do with his feet.
The 1979 Buckeyes’ debut was a smash- an easy 31-8 win over Syracuse. But the next Saturday OSU ventured to Minneapolis and found itself down 14-0 after the Gophers’ first two possessions. Minnesota, surprising the Bucks with a double-wing T offense, kept command until the fourth quarter when Schlichter, with his team trailing 17-13, kept on the option and scooted 32 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Despite a 221-yard rushing effort from Gopher fullback Garry White, Ohio State prevailed 21-17 in their Big 10 opener.
Back in Columbus the next week, the Scarlet and Gray ran their record to 3-0 with a 45-29 victory over Washington State, a game highlighted by the longest pass play in school history- an 86-yard touchdown strike from Schlichter to tailback Calvin Murray. Art’s favorite receiver, Doug “White Lightning” Donley, also saw his first action of the year against the Cougars and hauled in five passes for 138 yards and the Buckeyes’ final TD of the game. Next up was a visit to Los Angeles to face UCLA at the Coliseum.
It was only the sixth meeting between the two teams, and the series was even at 2-2-1, but every contest had been noteworthy. After tying TCU in their 1961 opener, the Bucks had launched a nine-game win streak with a 13-3 victory over UCLA. Eight of those nine wins came in ’61 as OSU laid claim to the Football Writers’ national championship. However, in game 2 of the 1962 season, with the Buckeyes ranked #1, the Bruins had kicked a late field goal to upend Ohio State 9-7. In 1975, the two clubs met in week 4 for a primetime matchup in L.A., and OSU cruised to an easy 41-20 win. It had been too easy, in fact, as the teams had a rematch in the Rose Bowl at season’s end. Looking to cap Woody Hayes’ silver anniversary season with a national title, the top-ranked Buckeyes instead suffered one of the most bitter defeats in school history 23-10. To this day, UCLA is one of only two teams to beat Ohio State twice when the Bucks were ranked #1 (Michigan State turned the trick in 1974 and 1998). Buckeye Nation looked forward to revenge when UCLA came to Columbus in 1976, but coming off a shocking loss to Missouri that ended a 25-game Ohio Stadium win streak, the best OSU could do was a 10-10 tie.
Terry Donahue was in his fourth year as coach for the Bruins, and he had directed the team to second-place finishes each of his first three years. His 1979 edition was 2-1, with both wins coming against Big Ten teams- pre-season favorite Purdue and Wisconsin. Donahue would have tailback Freeman McNeil back against Ohio State. McNeil had missed the previous week’s Wisconsin game with a dandy combination of the flu and a groin injury, but sophomore Anthony Edgar had rolled up 168 yards against the Badgers on a school record 39 carries and both McNeil and Edgar would see action against OSU.
Ohio State had given up 505 yards of total offense to Minnesota and 408 yards to Washington State, but for UCLA the Bucks would have starters Vince Skillings and Tim Sawicki back in the lineup, as well as key reserves Gary Dulin and Tony Megaro. Offensively, though, the tight end situation was critical. Jim Houston wouldn’t make the trip due to injury, while Ron Barwig was done for the year after hurting an ankle against Washington State. Starting fullback Paul Campbell would move to tight end for this contest while Ric Volley would step in as fullback. Not only would the Buckeyes be looking to go 4-0, but with ABC ready to bring the action to the nation with a 4PM Eastern kickoff, OSU looked to put an end to a six-game losing streak on national TV (’77 Oklahoma, ’77 Michigan, ’78 Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama, ’78 Penn State, ’78 Michigan and ’78 Gator Bowl vs. Clemson).
UCLA got the game’s first big break as linebacker Billy Don Jackson, who had started the previous two years as a defensive tackle, smothered a Tom Orosz punt before Tom could even kick it. Jackson recovered the ball at OSU’s 13, and on 3rd-and-7 from the 10, quarterback Rick Bashore hooked up with Willie Curran for a 10-yard touchdown pass over Mike Guess. Kicker Peter Boermeester booted his 39th-straight PAT and the Bruins had drawn first blood 7-0.
On UCLA’s next possession, Bashore connected with freshman wideout JoJo Townsell for 15 and later with big tight end Tim Wrightman for 11 to move the ball to OSU’s 12. A delay-of-game flag disrupted the drive so on 3rd-and-10 Donahue played it safe and ran McNeil to position the Bruins for a field goal. Boermeester delivered from 27 yards away and after one UCLA led 10-0.
In the second quarter Vlade Janakievski was set up for a 47-yard field goal try, but the Buckeyes called a fake. UCLA smelled it out and holder Greg Castignola was buried for a loss of 14. On their next series Calvin Murray fumbled, but the defense held once more and Ohio State took following a Bruin punt at their own 30. On 3rd-and-6 Schlichter found freshman receiver Gary Williams wide open on a hook route for 14 to midfield. On the next play Williams was again wide open on the opposite side on a curl and Art dialed him up for 16. UCLA called timeout to try and settle their defense down, but it did no good as Calvin Murray took a handoff on a draw, bounced to the left sideline and motored 34 yards for the score. Neither team would light the scoreboard for the rest of the half so UCLA took their 10-7 lead in at the break.
Despite trailing by three, Ohio State had actually outgained UCLA 195-82 in the first half, including a 134-49 advantage on the ground. After getting off to a slow start, the Buckeye defense, playing with their starters together for the first time all year, had held the Bruins to only 19 yards in the second quarter.
Ohio State’s first possession of the second half began at their own 30. On 2nd-and-10 Schlichter rolled left and threw back across his body to Murray for 20 yards to midfield. On first down from there, Murray picked up 6 but had to leave the game after hurting his hand. Ricky Johnson came on to replace him and picked up 5 yards on two carries to get another first down. Facing 3rd-and-9 from UCLA’s 38, the Buckeyes once again took advantage of loose coverage in the Bruin secondary as Schlichter found Gary Williams on an inside curl for 19. On 2nd-and-9 Schlichter pitched late and high to Johnson on an option, but Johnson swatted the ball out of bounds and the play actually gained 7 yards. On 3rd-and-3 Schlichter picked up the first on a keeper and now OSU was 1st-and-goal at the 9. Three plays later on 3rd-and-goal from the 8, Murray returned to the lineup and looked like he had a path to the endzone on a pitchout, but Bruin All-American safety Kenny Easley made a super one-on-one hit to bring Cal down at the 7. Janakievski nailed the field goal try and the Bucks had tied it up at 10 apiece, which is where things stood after 3. OSU’s big play capability was standing out; despite having an 8-minute advantage in time of possession, UCLA was being outgained 259-150 after 3 quarters.
Early in the fourth, UCLA forced a Tom Orosz punt (his first since the opening quarter) which Easley fair-caught at his own 44. With Freeman McNeil out temporarily, coach Terry Donahue kept things landlocked with backup TB Anthony Edgar and fullback Toa Saipale, and the two moved the ball to Ohio State’s 22 in 6 plays. Facing 3rd-and-3 from there, Saipale drove into the line and was dropped for no gain by defensive tackle Jerome Foster. UCLA called timeout and decided on a field goal try, and Boermeester drilled a career-long 39 yarder to put the Bruins back up 13-10 with 11 minutes to play.
UCLA regained possession at OSU’s 47 following a Buckeye punt and continued to churn out the yardage on the ground. Nine straight rushing plays put the ball on the Ohio State 15 where it was 4th-and-1. Rick Bashore’s quarterback sneak gained 2, but the left side of the Bruin line had jumped too quickly and the Bruins now had 4th-and-6 back at the twenty. For a split second it appeared the Buckeyes would be off the hook as Boermeester’s 37-yard field goal try missed, but Vince Skillings was called for roughing the kicker and the Bruins had new life and a first-and-goal at the 10. Luther Henson dropped Saipale for a loss of 2, but on second down Edgar ran right over Henson and just before breaking into the clear he was dragged down by Ray Ellis at the 6. Edgar’s number was called one more time (on UCLA’s 24th straight running play) but linebacker Jim Laughlin and safety Todd Bell stopped him for no gain. Boermeester now had a chipshot from 23 yards out, but the left-footer missed again and a drive of 6:28 had produced nothing. It was OSU’s ball at the 20 with 2:21 left in the game and two timeouts at their disposal.
or throw. As the play developed, it appeared Murray could have actually scored, but Schlichter rolled right and with the UCLA defense bearing down on him, Art tossed a perfect pass to tight end Paul Campbell who was all alone along the endline in the back of the endzone. The Buckeyes had moved 80 yards in 8 plays with Schlichter going 6 for 6 through the air, and with Janakievski’s point after the Buckeyes led for the first time all day at 17-13 with only 46 seconds left.
OSU decided to kick deep, and Easley brought the kickoff back 23 yards to his 30. On first down Luther Henson and Tim Sawicki dropped Bashore for an 8-yard loss, forcing UCLA to burn one of their last two timeouts. The next two throws were incomplete, but on 4th-and-19 Bashore found tight end Tim Wrightman down the middle for a huge 32-yard pickup to Ohio State’s 46 and the Bruins used their last timeout with :12 to go. Bashore would at least have a shot to get the throw to the endzone, and he let fly on first down towards Curran, but the ball was overthrown and picked off right at the sideline by Mike Guess. Guess had gone out of bounds at his own 1-yard line, but Schlichter was able to get a clean snap and plow forward to kill the final second, earning head coach Earle Bruce a ride off the field on his players’ shoulders.
The somewhat maligned Buckeye defense only gave up 27 points in the next 6 games after the UCLA win, and OSU went into Ann Arbor 10-0. It was a typical, hard-fought battle but the Scarlet and Gray came from behind on the road once more as the “Buckeye Block Party”- Jim Laughlin’s block of a Michigan punt and Todd Bell’s TD return- gave Ohio State an 18-15 win, an outright Big 10 title and a shot at the national crown in Pasadena against USC. As Ohio State had flown home from Los Angeles after the UCLA win, their charter’s pilot had flown over the Rose Bowl to give the team a look from the sky. They did indeed return on New Year’s Day but this time the last-minute heroics came from Southern Cal as Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, with his team trailing 16-10 late in the fourth quarter, led a relentless 83-yard drive which he capped with a 1-yard touchdown run to give ‘SC a 17-16 win.
Ohio State would finish fourth in the polls with their 11-1 record and Earle Bruce would earn Coach Of The Year honors. The 1979 Buckeyes more than proved their mettle, especially on the road where they had won three games by overcoming fourth quarter deficits. And ironically enough, against UCLA the Buckeyes had made most of their passing yardage by working out of an uncharacteristic three-receiver lineup due to the lack of tight ends and Paul Campbell’s inexperience at the position. Yet when the chips were down there was Campbell wide open in the back of the endzone for the winner.