All right, quick, what year is it? Ohio State’s head football coach is in his sixth year, the team is coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory over a tough independent team, the defense only has two defensive linemen back while the offense is headed by an experienced senior quarterback who played little in the spring game. The returning tailback went over 1,000 yards in his sophomore season, the offensive line is strong despite some shuffling, and the conference opener will be against one of the teams who beat you last year.
2006, right? Well, sure, but it all applies to the 1984 season as well. While Earle Bruce’s sixth edition was coming off the dramatic Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt, they had to overhaul the defense for the upcoming campaign. Only Dave Morrill and Dave Crecelius returned as starters along the “D”-line, but just like now Buckeye Nation hoped the offense could carry things until the stop troops could gel. Quarterback Mike Tomczak would be in his third year as a starter and had tailback Keith Byars (1,199 yards in ’83) to make the ground game go. Although some of the “big uglies” up front had changed positions, there was still lots of experience with junior Rory Graves and seniors Jim Lachey, Kirk Lowdermilk, Scott Zalenski and Mark Krerowicz.
In the second quarter of the spring game, Mike Tomczak suffered a broken leg and speculation as to when he would be back ran rampant all summer. (I’ll admit to being disappointed when Jim Tressel sat Troy Smith down after one series in this year’s spring game, but I’m sure Tressel, who was the runningbacks and receivers coach for the ’84 Buckeyes, vividly recalls that Tomczak injury). And when the sixth-ranked Bucks opened with a shaky 22-14 win over Oregon State, after trailing 14-3 at the half, it seemed evident that the offense missed its leader. The pollsters took note as well, dropping OSU to ninth despite the victory. However the next week the Buckeyes wiped out Washington State 44-0 as Tomczak saw his first action and led the “O” to touchdowns on his first three drives.
Big Ten play got underway the next Saturday as the conference would have a round-robin schedule for the second straight year, and the Bucks would have a leg up as only they and Wisconsin had won both of their non-league tilts. A late fourth-quarter touchdown pass had given Iowa a 20-14 upset over OSU in ’83, but this time around the Scarlet and Gray drilled the Hawkeyes 45-26, breaking the game open from a 10-10 tie. Keith Byars got his Heisman bandwagon on the road by rushing for a score, catching a touchdown pass and throwing an option pass to Mike Lanese for another tally. Linebacker Larry Kolic filled in when freshman Chris Spielman went down with an ankle injury and helped turn the game around by picking off a Chuck Long pass and taking it back for a touchdown. After beating a rejuvenated Minnesota team led by first-year coach Lou Holtz 35-22, the Buckeyes rebounded to #2 in the polls behind Texas. Iowa, the team everyone felt would battle OSU for the Big Ten crown, had been humbled, and Earle Bruce’s squad was 4-0 for the first time since the Rose Bowl season of 1979.
The next week in West Lafayette, Ohio State led Purdue 17-7 in the third quarter, but the Boilers used a pair of Jim Everett touchdown passes and an interception return for a score by Rod Woodson to take a 28-17 lead with 9 minutes to play. OSU cut the lead to 28-23, then got the ball back with 1:23 to go at their own 20. Facing a 4th-and-25 situation from their 27, Mike Tomczak and Cris Carter hooked up on a clutch 27-yard pass to keep the drive alive, but later on a third down play Keith Byars failed to get out of bounds to stop the clock after a reception to Purdue’s 28. With no timeouts left, the offense hurried to the line, and Tomczak looked to the down marker on the sideline- which still read third down from the previous play. Tomczak fired the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, but it was fourth down. I can still hear WTVN Radio’s Chuck Underwood crying out in disbelief, “Why, oh why did Tomczak throw the ball out of bounds?” Purdue, who had won 6 games total the previous two years, now was 3-0 in the Big 10 and in sole possession of first place while OSU, Iowa and Michigan were all 2-1. Illinois was 3-1 in the league and set to invade Columbus the next Saturday for Homecoming. Since 1896 only three teams- 1959 Wisconsin and 1981 Ohio State and Iowa- had won or shared a Big 10 title with two conference losses.
Illinois, led by fifth-year coach Mike White, was 4-2 overall, and in 1983 had become the first (and to this day the only) conference team to beat all other Big 10 teams in the same season, including a last-minute 17-13 upset of Ohio State which was Illinois’ first win over the Bucks since 1967. The good news for OSU was that both of the Illini’s 1984 losses had come on the road (34-19 at Stanford and 21-16 at Iowa), while the bad news was that they would be facing an offense led by receiver David Williams, who was leading the nation in receptions with 53 and yards with 793. After the way Jim Everett had riddled the Buckeye pass defense the previous week, Williams had to be licking his chops. The Bucks could counter with their big tailback Keith Byars, who led the country in rushing with 160 yards per game and was second in scoring at 13.2 points per game. It remained to be seen which Illinois run defense would show up at Ohio Stadium, the one who had held Wisconsin to 26 total rushing yards the week before, or the one that Iowa’s Ronnie Harmon had gashed for 191 yards on September 29th. The Illini were also trying to defend their Big 10 crown while knowing they would not be playing in a bowl game, a result of probation handed down for recruiting violations. The Buckeyes had the obvious motivation of avoiding a second league loss in addition to the revenge factor for the ’83 upset, not to mention they were looking to extend a 12-game Ohio Stadium win streak. But OSU fans had to wonder if the team had shaken off the nightmarish Purdue ending.
Ohio State pounded out one first down on their opening possession, but then were forced to punt. Taking over at their own 20, Illinois marched to the Buckeye 43. Then, in an almost mirror image of his winning touchdown run from the year before, runningback Thomas Rooks got loose around the right side for 39 yards before roverback Sonny Gordon forced him out of bounds at the 4. On 3rd-and-goal from there, quarterback Jack Trudeau, who had completed 66% of his passes for 1,459 yards coming into the game, rolled right and hit receiver Randy Grant in the endzone to give Illinois a 7-0 lead.
The Illini forced another Tom Tupa punt and set up shop at their 34. Trudeau immediately dialed up tailback Ray Wilson for 17 to move into Buckeye territory, then later connected again with Randy Grant for 23 to move the sticks to OSU’s 13. The Bucks’ “D” stiffened, so coach Mike White sent in his son Chris for a field goal. Chris White, who had booted 5 field goals against Wisconsin the week before and was 14 of 16 on the year, capped off the 8-play drive with a 26-yard boot, making it 10-0, Illini.
Things went from bad to worse on Ohio State’s very next snap. Looking to get things jumpstarted from the 20, quarterback Mike Tomczak double clutched as he looked to hit Cris Carter on a quick out. Cornerback Mike Heaven, who had tied for 2nd in the conference in ’83 with 5 picks, made a diving interception and just like that it was Illinois’ ball at the OSU 21. It only took Trudeau and Co. 4 plays to cash in as David Williams made a super leaping catch over Sonny Gordon and linebacker Dennis Hueston in the back of the endzone for a 9-yard score. Now the Bucks were in a 17-0 hole, and when Keith Byars fumbled on OSU’s very next play with Craig Swoope recovering at the Buckeye 22, the tired defense trudged back out. Trudeau only needed six plays to complete the drive-which carried over into the second quarter-as he threaded the needle to tight end Cap Boso for an 8-yard TD. It was now Illinois 24, Ohio State 0, and ever since Keith Byars’ touchdown had given OSU a 17-7 lead on the opening march of the third quarter at Purdue, they had been outscored 45-6. The Ohio Stadium crowd was turning ugly and CBS was probably looking for a backup game to switch viewers to.
Slowly the Buckeyes got the offensive oars in the water on their next series, but they came up empty on a fourth-down pass from the Illini 13. Another glimmer of hope came from the defense as they forced Illinois’ first punt of the afternoon, but OSU found themselves pinned at their own 9. In three plays, though, they had hammered out to their 41, then Mike Tomczak faked pumped to the left and fired deep down the right sideline to Cris Carter. The ball hung up for an eternity as the wide-open Carter waited on it, and he hauled it in at the Illini 23 before being decked by Craig Swoope. The Horseshoe now was coming back to life, and after a holding call, Tomczak and Carter hooked up on a short crossing route. Carter shook off a tackle and scooted to the Illinois 16, and on the next play Keith Byars took a pitchout left. Fullback Barry Walker buried linebacker Rob Sebring, and Byars did a 360 to get out of safety Dave Edwards’ grasp. The big tailback motored into the endzone and the Bucks were finally on the board. As the crowd roared, the Illini’s Dwayne Pugh refused to let go of Byars’ ankle in the endzone. Keith finally pulled away as Pugh was surrounded by the entire Buckeye offensive line. Safety Craig Swoope came flying in and blindsided center Kirk Lowdermilk, drawing a personal foul flag and earning himself a seat on the bench for the rest of the day. With 4:13 to go in the half it was 24-7 and OSU would be kicking off from the Illini 45. Over on the Ohio State sideline after the touchdown, Keith Byars looked right into the CBS camera and declared “We’re coming back” to the nation. With the short field after the Swoope penalty, everyone anticipated an onside kick. Rich Spangler’s boot was bobbled by Illinois and Buckeye linebacker Joe Jenkins came out of the pileup with the football at the Illini 31.
Two plays later, Earle Bruce reached into his bag of tricks. Tomczak faked to Byars, then faked an end-around pitch to flanker Mike Lanese. With pressure bearing down on him, Tomczak threw a rainbow off his back foot towards Cris Carter, who was lonesome at the goal line. Three Illini defenders had closed in by the time the ball arrived, but Carter made an incredible leaping catch and fell into the endzone for a 30-yard touchdown. Now it was a ten-point game at 24-14, Ohio Stadium was rocking and the players were breathing a little easier. And although OSU’s two scoring drives had taken a total of 8 plays, the defense now had its wind back along with a ton of momentum. Jack Trudeau moved the Orange and Blue to their 46 on the ensuing series, but then his deep pass down the left sideline was picked off by Sonny Gordon at the Buckeye 38. A ten-yard run by Byars moved the ball into Illini territory, then on 3rd-and-10 from the Illinois 43 Tomczak hit his freshman split end Cris Carter for 19 to the 24. After a 9-yard reception by Doug Smith, the Bucks used their last timeout with :37 to go in the half, then Tomczak fired a bullet to Mike Lanese at the 4. As WOSU-TV’s Jack Kramer marveled at the “relentless comeback by the Buckeyes”, Byars took a pitch to the left, got a great block from fullback Roman Bates, and dove over the pylon for Ohio State’s 3rd touchdown in less than 4 minutes. The 21 unanswered points had cut the Illinois lead to only three, and as Jack Trudeau took a knee to end the half, the Illini, visibly frustrated by the turn of events, exchanged shoves with OSU’s “D”. Anyone who only saw the halftime score of 24-21 probably thought, “Hey, great game so far”. If only they knew…
Just as the game had seemingly blown up in Ohio State’s faces in the first quarter, the wheels continued to come off the Illinois wagon as the second half commenced. Ray Wilson took the kickoff 4 yards deep in the endzone and brought it out, only to be tripped up at the 11. Steve Hill stripped the football away at the 14 and it rolled to the 26 where William White fell on it for the Buckeyes. Keith Byars immediately circled the left side for 17, then carried for 3 and 5 yards before diving one yard for the score to give Ohio State its first lead of the day at 28-24. Byars had carried 20 times for 106 yards and 3 touchdowns it a little over a half. Not since the Oklahoma game of 1977 (where OSU overcame a 20-0 deficit to lead 28-20, only to lose in the final seconds 29-28) had Ohio Stadium been witness to two completely different ballgames in one.
The Illini showed what they were made of, though, launching a drive that reached Ohio State’s 32 in six plays. At this point Jack Trudeau had healthy numbers- 21 of 27 passing for 203 yards and three TD’s- but the Buckeye defense tightened and Chris White was called on for a 46-yard field goal try. Scott Leach just missed blocking it, but the kick was good and the OSU lead was down to one at 28-27. Ohio State’s offense had been on fire for 4 straight drives, and now they revved it up again from their 23. Runs of 11 and 4 by Keith Byars brought up a 2nd-and-6 at the Bucks’ 38. Tackle Mark Krerowicz jumped offside, moving the ball back to the 33 and setting the stage for one of Ohio Stadium’s greatest moments ever. Mike Tomczak audibled to a draw play to Byars, who broke through the right side behind great blocks by Scott Zalenski and Barry Walker. As he reached the east sideline, Byars cut back towards the middle and somehow his completely tied left shoe came flying off of his foot. It didn’t matter- Keith blew right by the entire Illinois secondary for a 67-yard touchdown. A secondary made up of, as analyst Paul Warfield pointed out on the WOSU telecast, members of the Illinois track and field team.
The Buckeyes now led 35-27 and Ohio Stadium was completely berserk over the now-legendary run. Guard Jim Lachey brought the shoe (which Keith Byars still has to this day) to the tailback and couldn’t believe it was still laced up. Byars had rumbled for a career-high of 191 yards rushing in the loss to Purdue the previous week, but now in 23 carries he had amassed 188 yards and 4 touchdowns.
After an exchange of punts, Illinois began a drive at their 37 and gave the Bucks a taste of their own medicine, leaning on runningback Thomas Rooks as they moved to the OSU 33. After a nine-yard reception by Randy Grant, Rooks carries twice more for 15 yards to move the ball to the Buckeye 9. Rooks now had set a new career high for himself with 138 yards on 21 carries. After forcing an incompletion, the Buckeyes came with an all-out blitz but Trudeau found a wide-open Ray Wilson on a delay for the score. Trudeau now had 4 touchdown passes, and when he rolled right and dove into the endzone on a two-point conversion try, the score was tied at 35-all and that’s how things stood as the third quarter came to a close.
To this point in the game, none of the offensive fireworks had required much time. Only one of the eleven scoring drives by both teams had needed more than 10 plays. In the fourth quarter both squads upped the ball-control ante. The Buckeyes moved to the Illinois 25 in nine plays, where they faced a 3rd-and-6. Cris Carter leaped to snare a 7-yard catch, his 7th reception of the day for 134 yards. The next two plays gained 5, then on 3rd-and-five from the 13 Tomczak tried to hit Byars but Dwayne Pugh was dragging Mike down by his facemask and the pass landed nowhere near Keith. Despite the blatant facemask grab, Tomczak was called for grounding and the Bucks were penalized back to the Illinois 30. OSU was still in Rich Spangler’s range and Tomczak, who was rightfully in the officials’ grill, was dragged away before he was flagged. Spangler nailed the 47-yard field goal with plenty to spare and with 10:21 to play OSU led 38-35.
Back came the Orange and Blue, starting from their own 22. In fifteen plays Mike White’s troops marched to the OSU 7, where it was 1st-and-goal. Thomas Rooks hit for 4 and then 2, giving him166 yards on the day and setting up a 3rd-and-goal play from the 1. The call was for Rooks one more time on a dive up the middle, but yard number 167 never came as linebackers Fred Ridder and Pepper Johnson stuffed him in midair. Now it was decision time for Mike White. If Illinois scored the touchdown, the Buckeyes would have a little over three minutes left but would have to go the length of the field. A field goal would forge a tie, which wouldn’t completely kill Illinois’ Big 10 chances if the game ended that way, plus they would still have all their timeouts left to try and get the ball back. If they went for it and failed, OSU would only need a field goal to win. Any of the scenarios would require the Illini defense to stop Ohio State, which they hadn’t done since the second quarter. White sent his son Chris in, and the kicker responded with 17-yard boot to tie the contest at 38 with 3:18 to go.
The ensuing kickoff resulted in a touchback, and the Buckeyes took over at their 20. On first down Tomczak’s pass to Cris Carter was incomplete thanks to questionably tight coverage. As Keith Byars recalled on the DVD “Echoes Of Glory”, the offensive linemen took exception to the play call and made it clear what they wanted to do-
“The offensive linemen were…upset,” recalled Byars. “And the coaches saw the look on their faces. If we’re gonna win the football game, we’re gonna win it with those guys up front”. Cris Carter had no doubt put his name on the national map with his performance, but Messrs. Graves, Lachey, Lowdermilk, Zalenski and Krerowicz wanted to win the game, erase the memory of the bitter ’83 loss and atone for the horrid first quarter only one way- by pounding Keith Byars at Illinois until they were dead and buried. And they had extra incentive- Byars currently had 224 yards on 32 carries, tied for the fourth-highest rushing total in OSU history with Calvin Murray (Indiana, 1980). Archie Griffin’s school record of 246 was sitting there for the taking. And it only took one play as Byars plowed through the left side for 23 yards, moving past Ollie Cline (239 yards at Pitt, 1945), and Archie (239 vs. North Carolina, 1972 and 246 vs. Iowa, 1973) for the greatest rushing day in Buckeye annals. And he wasn’t through yet.
Backup tailback John Wooldridge, who had a 65-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter called back on a motion penalty, came on to give Keith a breather and rang up 7 on a pitchout to the right. From midfield, Byars picked up 4 and a first down. Back came Wooldridge, taking an option pitch for 5 to the Illinois 41. Byars slammed for 8 to move the chains again to the Orange and Blue 33. The yards were coming in chunks now as Byars hit for 6 more, then Wooldridge took a handoff to the left, cut back to the right and sped for 18. For a split second it looked as if John would score but Dave Edwards grabbed him by the collar and roped Wooldridge down at the nine. Keith burrowed for 6 more to the 3 and Illinois called time with 58 seconds to go. The Illini “D” finally stopped Byars for no gain on second down, then called time once more. So far on the drive Wooldridge had gone wide twice, but everything from Byars had been between the tackles. For this critical third-down, the Bucks went with one of their bread-and-butter plays- a pitchout to Keith to the left. Freshman fullback George Cooper, who had gone all the way on this drive and, like Cris Carter, introduced himself to the nation, knocked Dave Edwards down as Byars cut back and walked into the endzone with :36 left. Ohio State now led 45-38 and Byars had a new school record of 274 yards rushing. His five touchdowns also tied a school record set by Pete Johnson against North Carolina in 1975.
Despite the joy in Buckeye Nation, no one had forgotten that Illinois had only needed :37 the year before to go 80 yards for the win over OSU. And after Trudeau hit Randy Grant with a 19-yard pass to advance the ball to the Illini 40, it seemed the Orange and Blue weren’t going to go quietly. But Trudeau misfired on his next four throws and the Buckeyes had prevailed in one of the most exciting games ever in Ohio State history, a game that ended at 7:11 PM with portable lighting shining on the Horseshoe for the first time ever.
There was little doubt who the 1984 Heisman front-runner was after this game. Keith Byars now led the nation in rushing at 179 yards per game, and in scoring with 16 touchdowns. He had scored at least two TD’s in 12 straight contests, and after gaining 39 yards on his first 11 carries of the day, he had rolled for 235 on his other 28 totes. He would cap off the regular season with a three-touchdown day against TBGUN, but Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie’s miracle touchdown on the Friday after Thanksgiving to beat Miami, FL enamored the Heisman voters.
Keith Byars would finish as the runner-up to Flutie, falling victim to two of the Heisman voters’ most aggravating tendencies- rewarding a guy for one play or game (see Tim Brown, Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard, Flutie) and looking at career numbers instead of who had the best year.
The Buckeyes’ miraculous comeback put them back in the driver’s seat in the Big 10. Although there was a 4-way tie at 3-1, the Buckeyes had the best overall record at 5-1. After disposing of Michigan State, OSU traveled to Wisconsin and were beaten in the rain 16-14- the Badgers’ 3rd win in 4 years against the Bucks. Indiana went down 50-7, then on November 10th the Scarlet and Gray crushed Northwestern 52-3. But the big news came from elsewhere around the league- Michigan State had nipped Iowa and Wisconsin had handed Purdue their third conference loss. Unbelievably, the Buckeyes, even with the two Big 10 defeats, were in sole possession of first place. Only the Maize and Blue stood between Ohio State and a trip to Pasadena, and the Bucks broke open a tight game in the fourth quarter to win the outright league crown with a 21-6 triumph. However, the “9 and 3” bugaboo set in again on New Year’s Day as Southern Cal kept Ohio State out of the endzone until the fourth quarter and took advantage of four Buckeye turnovers to win the Rose Bowl 20-17.
The 24-point comeback would be eclipsed in 1989 as OSU rallied from a 31-point deficit to beat Minnesota. Eddie George would better Keith Byars’ single-game rushing record with a 314-yard effort against those same Illini in 1995, and earn the Heisman that had eluded Keith. Derek Combs would even score a touchdown without a shoe as he ignited a 23-7 thumping of Wisconsin in 2000 with an 80-yard, one-shoe gallop. Many of the records and moments of that October afternoon in 1984 have been eclipsed or duplicated, but it takes nothing away from the excitement of that day. And the members of that 1984 team would probably love to see another of their achievements ended- their title as Ohio State’s last outright Big Ten champion.