Ohio State’s 1982 football season had been on the brink of disaster. The Scarlet and Gray were sitting at 2-3 after a 3-game Ohio Stadium losing streak- the first skid of its kind since the Horseshoe’s inaugural 1922 campaign- and even the much maligned 9-3 mark the team had achieved the previous two seasons looked remote. But the Bucks got their act together and rolled off 7 wins to close out ’82, with most everyone in and out of Ohio agreeing that they were one of the top teams in the nation by the time they finished dismantling Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl. OSU, by all rights, should have been in Pasadena by virtue of their 24-14 win over TBGUN, but the Buckeyes and Iowa were the only two teams in the Big Ten to not play round-robin and Michigan had already wrapped up the conference crown by playing, and winning, the extra league game. It wouldn’t be a problem in 1983 as all Big Ten teams would play everyone else in the conference for the first time ever.
Ohio State, despite losing Tim Spencer, Gary Williams, Marcus Marek, Glen Cobb and Jerome Foster, hoped to carry the momentum from the end of ’82 into the ’83 season. And despite the loss of one non-league game in order to play round-robin in the Big Ten, September would be anything but boring as fans looked forward to a Week 2 trip to Norman to face Oklahoma in a rematch of the bitter ’77 loss in Columbus. After disposing of Oregon 31-6 in the opener, the Bucks fought through the stifling heat of Owen Field to knock off Barry Switzer’s second-ranked Sooners 24-14, with OSU tight end John Frank hauling in a pair of touchdown passes.
Riding a nine-game win streak and perched at #3 in the polls, the Buckeyes traveled to Kinnick Stadium and were promptly upset 20-14 by Iowa, the Hawks’ first win over OSU since 1962. Iowa QB Chuck Long had what would prove to be his one career moment of glory against the Buckeyes with a 73-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter to Dave Moritz to provide the winning margin. OSU got back on track with a 69-18 thumping of Minnesota, but the next week at home against Purdue it took two Garcia Lane punt-return touchdowns (the only time a Buckeye has brought two punts back in the same game) to subdue the Boilers 33-22. In Champaign the following Saturday Ohio State led 13-10 with 1:43 to go, but were unable to get one final first down to kill the clock from the Illini 17. Illinois needed all of 37 seconds to then march 83 yards downfield, with tailback Thomas Rooks taking a pitchout around the right side for 21 yards and the winning touchdown in a 17-13 victory. OSU’s offense got cranked up as Earle Bruce’s squad rolled over Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Northwestern by an average score of 44-16, but the regular season ended on a sour note with a 24-21 loss in Ann Arbor in a game remembered primarily for the failed “Lachey Right” fumblerooski call and less-than-sterling color commentary from Woody Hayes on the television broadcast. It had been announced prior to the UM game that the winner would play in the Sugar Bowl while the loser would be in the Fiesta Bowl, so for the second time in four years the Bucks headed to Tempe.
The Scarlet and Gray agonized over what could’ve been in 1983. The seniors, who had been through three consecutive 9-3 seasons, now needed a win in the Fiesta Bowl to salvage that record for a fourth straight year. The Bucks were third in the nation in scoring at 34.7 points a game, trailing only top-ranked Nebraska and Brigham Young, but the bulk of the points had come against the Big Ten’s lesser lights. And the injury bug had bitten at the most inopportune times. Tailback Keith Byars had already racked up 98 yards at Iowa when he went out with an injured knee in the second quarter. Quarterback Mike Tomczak went out in the first period at Illinois with a concussion, and although freshman Jim Karsatos had rallied OSU to the lead, the offense hadn’t been able to salt the game away. And up in Michigan fullback Vaughn Broadnax had played sparingly, leaving Keith Byars to futilely try and execute Earle’s imaginative run-up-the-middle offense without his main lead blocker.
Ohio State’s Fiesta Bowl opponent would be the Pittsburgh Panthers, who were 8-2-1 and ranked #15 in the nation, one spot behind the Buckeyes. Pitt had started the 1983 season 2-2, but had fired off six wins in a row before battling archrival Penn State to a 24-24 tie. Second-year coach Foge Fazio had been Pitt’s defensive coordinator from ’79-’81, and in that three-year stretch the Panthers had finished 11-1 each season while ranking 4th, 1st and 1st, respectively, in total defense. Fazio’s ’82 squad had matched Ohio State’s 9-3 mark but had finished third in total defense. Pitt’s ’83 “D” featured future Pro Bowlers Chris Doleman and Bill Maas and had closed at #8 defensively. On offense, John Cummings had come out of fall camp as the heir apparent to Dan Marino at quarterback, but Cummings had suffered a broken collarbone on the last play of Pitt’s opener against Tennessee so the reins were handed to sophomore John Congemi. After a slow start, Congemi finished with 1,599 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, including 13 TD’s and only one pick as the Panthers were going 6-0-1 down the stretch.
Buckeye Nation hoped the OSU offense would resemble the balanced attack they had seen most of the season as compared to the predictable, vanilla look of the TBGUN loss. Keith Byars had amassed 1,126 yards on the ground to go with 19 touchdowns, which put him second in the nation in scoring behind Heisman winner Mike Rozier and made him the only unanimous first-team All-Big 10 pick. But quarterback Mike Tomczak was no slouch, having pitched for over 1,700 yards and 12 touchdowns, including (grab onto something, younger Buckeye fans) FORTY-ONE completions to John Frank. Yes, that’s right, TIGHT END John Frank. (FYI- Ohio State tight ends caught 40 passes in 2004 and 2005 combined!) The game would begin rather auspiciously as Frank dropped a pass on OSU’s first play, but he would more than redeem himself later.
The game would be Ohio State’s only one of the ’83 season to be played on grass, and it would be the first meeting between Pitt and OSU since 1954. Buckeye fans who plunked down 21.50 for tickets to Sun Devil Stadium would have to bear unseasonably cold, windy conditions for gameday in Tempe. Those without tickets were facing a local TV blackout until the day before the game when the local NBC station in Phoenix (who would carry the broadcast) teamed up with Citicorp to buy up the last 5,000 tickets, ensuring a sellout so the game would be televised locally.
The Buckeyes shook off John Frank’s first play drop and marched down the field to light the scoreboard first. One of Pittsburgh’s pregame defensive keys was dealing with the versatility of Mike Tomczak, and it was on display on this opening march as the junior quarterback completed three passes, including a big 20-yarder to Thad Jemison, before capping the drive with a three-yard keeper to give OSU a 7-0 lead. The Bucks maintained the lead into the second quarter before Tomczak fumbled a snap from center Joe Dooley. Pitt recovered at their own 43, and Congemi drove the Panthers 57 yards in six plays, capping things off with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Curtis Wilson to knot the score at 7-7. Keith Byars put the Scarlet and Gray back into the lead with a 1-yard touchdown run, his 20th of the season, and Ohio State took the 14-7 advantage into the locker room at the half. Tomczak had completed 9 of 11 passes for 131 yards in the first half, while the Bucks had rang up 108 yards on the ground. Pitt knew they would have their hands full with the almost 500-pound backfield of Byars and Vaughn Broadnax. In fact, Panther safety Tom Flynn had pointed out that in Pittsburgh’s three previous bowl games they had faced George Rogers, Herschel Walker and Eric Dickerson and felt that Byars and Broadnax were “comparable”. “They haven’t gotten all the honors and all the publicity of the others, but they’re just as good”, said Flynn.
Neither team scored in period three, with OSU safety Kelvin Bell helping to keep Pittsburgh off the scoreboard by intercepting a John Congemi pass in the endzone. But then the fireworks began on the second play of quarter four as Pitt finished off a long drive with a huge break. Tailback Joe McCall, who came into the game needing 154 yards to get 1,000 on the season (he would finish with 115), motored from the Buckeye 16 down to the 3 where he fumbled the ball into the endzone. Curtis Wilson was right there to fall on it for the score and once more the game was tied, 14-14. It wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Keith Byars and John Wooldridge were back to receive the ensuing kickoff, and with the winds whipping as the ball was kicked, Byars initially yelled for Wooldridge to take the ball. But it didn’t drift as far as Keith expected so he hauled it in and set sail to the left. Seeing a group of white shirts to his right, Byars cut back that way and cruised 99 yards for the touchdown, giving the Bucks a 21-14 lead. The return came up just shy of Ohio State and Fiesta Bowl records, as Dean Sensanbaugher (103 yards, 1943) and Billy Wentz (100 yards, 1960) had longer Buckeye returns, while Missouri’s Mike Fink held the Fiesta Bowl record with a 100-yard return against Arizona State in 1972. Byars’ return was also the first in a long line of big special teams plays Ohio State would rack up in future meetings against the Panthers. Carlos Snow’s 100-yard kickoff return would be the Bucks’ only bright spot in a 42-10 loss in 1988, while Butler Bynote ignited a 63-28 OSU win in 1993 with an 89-yard TD return of the opening kickoff. David Boston would put the finishing touches on a 72-0 beating of the Panthers in 1996 with a 66-yard punt return score, which was all the more incredible since the Buckeyes only had seven blockers on the field with Boston.
Although Ohio State had the lead back, Byars’ return hadn’t allowed the defense to rest, and John Congemi took Pitt right back downfield to score as he dialed up senior flanker Dwight Collins for an 11-yard touchdown to narrow the margin to 21-20. Collins had come into the season on the verge of several Panther career receiving records, having had the benefit of working for the previous three years with Dan Marino, but injuries had limited him to only 26 receptions in ’83 for 361 yards. He would haul in 7 passes against the Buckeyes, but at the moment none were bigger than this score with 9:47 left. Curiously though, Foge Fazio decided to go for two but the Panthers came up short as “Pepper” Johnson tipped Congemi’s pass attempt for Curtis Wilson and linebacker Clark Backus was able to knock it down to preserve OSU’s one point lead.
The Buckeyes couldn’t get anything going offensively and punted back to Pitt, who took over on their 12. Congemi completed 5 of 8 passes on a 17-play drive that fizzled at the Ohio State 21. Not only was Pittsburgh facing a field goal situation in a windy stadium, but they were without their regular placekicker Eric Schubert. Schubert had injured his knee in the Panthers’ matchup with Syracuse back on October 29th and had missed the next two games. Then during Pitt’s first workout after landing in Phoenix, Schubert had re-injured the knee after catching a cleat in the turf of the practice field. Fazio had already gambled once and lost with the missed two-point conversion, so he sent in backup kicker Snuffy Everett and he was true from 37 yards away, giving the Panthers a 23-21 lead with only 2:39 to go. It was beginning to look like the Fiesta Bowl would join the Chuck Long/Dave Moritz pass, the Thomas Rooks run and “Lachey Right” in the line of 1983 Buckeye fourth quarter nightmares. And with Tomczak having gone 2 for 11 passing to this point in the second half after his white-hot start, the contest was turning out eerily similar to Ohio State’s last visit to Tempe after the 1980 season. Art Schlichter had thrown for 244 yards in the first half to help the Bucks to a 19-10 lead over Penn State, but in the final two quarters the Nittany Lions had made adjustments, held Schlichter to 58 2nd-half passing yards and scored 21 unanswered points to win 31-19.
Things looked even more bleak on the kickoff as John Wooldridge inadvertently touched his knee to the ground at his own 11-yard line while fielding the ball. Tomczak threw an incompletion, then hit Thad Jemison for a gain of only 3, bringing up a 3rd-and-7 at the OSU 14. Keith Byars, who had only caught one pass in the game for 7 yards, came through on third down with a 14-yard reception, giving the Bucks a first down at their 28. It was Byars for seven on a draw play, then backup tailback Roman Bates also scooted for seven and a first down at the OSU 42. Just as it appeared the offense was starting to cook, the deck went cold as Tomczak threw three straight incompletions. There was 1:21 to go in the game and the Bucks were facing 4th-and-10 with no timeouts.
The play call was ordinarily designed for tight end John Frank to go 8 yards and cut outside. But Frank made sure he was past the sticks, cut towards the Pittsburgh sideline and brought Tomczak’s pass in for a huge 13-yard pickup and a first down at the Pitt 45. Frank, who had been voted team MVP at the football banquet following the Michigan game, had scorched his hometown team with a clutch grab. But just as Buckeye fans were breathing a little easier, an incompletion and a 6-yard run by John Wooldridge brought up a 3rd-and-4 call with only 46 seconds left.
Coach Bruce decided to go with Split Louie Zoom Pass Left. Thad Jemison would be split left, with John Frank lined up next to the guard on the same side and both tackles together on the right side. Keith Byars would streak for the goal line between Jemison and Frank, while flanker Cedric Anderson would work from the right side. Byars had caught two passes for 70 yards in the Oklahoma game using the play, but Tomczak had decided to look for Anderson to try and get the first down. As he rolled right, Mike saw everyone covered- except Jemison. With Byars and Frank flooding the area, Jemison had gotten a step on cornerback Melvin Dean and Tomczak let fly. Jemison, who had waited three years behind Gary Williams for his chance to play as a senior, gathered in the pass for a 39-yard touchdown with only 39 seconds left, giving OSU a 28-23 lead.
The Panthers weren’t done yet. Taking over at his own 38, Congemi completed two passes, then scrambled to the Buckeye 24 with seven seconds remaining. But as the quarterback headed out of bounds, linebacker Rowland Tatum, who had knocked Oklahoma tailback Marcus Dupree out of that contest, hit him from behind. Congemi’s leg stuck in the ground and the result was a sprained ankle. Backup Chris Jelick came on but threw two incompletions and the Buckeyes had their 3rd straight bowl victory. The win also evened Ohio State’s all-time bowl record at 9-9 and wrapped up a fourth consecutive 9-3 season.
Congemi would be voted the game’s most valuable offensive player after going 31 of 44 for 341 yards and two scores. His 31 completions remain a Fiesta Bowl record to this day. Rowland Tatum’s 13 tackles would earn him the defensive player of the game award, while Pitt receiver Bill Wallace and Buckeye hero Thad Jemison tied a Fiesta Bowl record with 8 catches apiece, matching John Jefferson’s mark from 1975.
Ohio State’s 1983 season, overall, may be most remembered for the three tough losses, but the Scarlet and Gray had a dramatic bowl win to hang their hat on, and Thad Jemison had his name etched into Buckeye lore. The “Holy Buckeye” play at Purdue in 2002 would bear similarities to “Split Louie Zoom Pass Left”, and the Tomczak-to-Jemison strike would ignite a series of triumphant moments for the Bucks in the desert of Tempe.