The John Cooper era couldn’t have kicked off any better. His first Buckeye squad had handled Syracuse 26-9 in the 1988 opener, and it was the first time since 1961 that Ohio State had committed no turnovers or penalties in a game. Even Buckeye Nation’s most cynical members, who had wondered how Cooper found time to coach between Big Bear and hot tub commercials, had to be impressed. But it only took seven days for the wheels to come off the wagon as the Buckeyes traveled to Pittsburgh and were handed a 42-10 butt-kicking by the Panthers, the most lopsided OSU loss since the 1986 40-7 debacle in Washington. Quarterback Greg Frey, who had gone 12 for 17 passing in the opener, regressed to 9 of 29 against Pitt, while the defense surrendered 504 yards, including 363 on the ground. Arguably, it was Ohio State’s worst one-week turnaround since 1967, when they followed up a 30-0 victory at Oregon by laying a 41-6 egg in Columbus against Purdue. Backup tailback Carlos Snow had provided the only highlight of the Pittsburgh loss with a 100-yard kickoff return for OSU’s only touchdown, but little did Snow know how much more of a focal point he would become the next Saturday.
Starting tailback Vince Workman, an offensive co-captain, was asked by the FBI on the Monday after the Pittsburgh loss to come to Chicago to testify before a federal grand jury investigating sports agents Norby Walters, Lloyd Bloom and Dave Lueddekke. Cris Carter’s dealings with Walters and Bloom had cost him his senior season of eligibility just the year before, and rumors were rampant that Workman was now in the same boat. In fact, the betting line for the OSU/Pitt game had been taken down for a day the previous week as word spread that an OSU runningback and linebacker were facing suspensions. Although Workman denied any wrongdoing, by the Wednesday before OSU’s third game with LSU it was reported that Workman had taken $2,000 from Lueddekke in the months leading up to the 1987 season. Athletic director Jim Jones declared Workman ineligible for the rest of the 1988 campaign, and the Buckeyes’ promising start against Syracuse had taken a seriously dark turn.
LSU had several streaks going as well- they had won 14 straight regular season road games dating back to November of 1984, while quarterback Tommy Hodson (who was 21-2 as a starter) had been on the losing end of ONE road game since junior high school. Hodson also had not been sacked in five straight contests. The only hit he had taken was in the week leading up to the Ohio State game when he had been rear-ended while driving his car in Baton Rouge. Hodson’s nose and forehead were cut when they hit the rearview mirror, but he would be ready to go against the Buckeyes. LSU’s fast start, coupled with the Bucks’ performance in Pittsburgh and the lingering Workman cloud, didn’t produce much optimism around Columbus as gameday neared.
A throng of 90,584 fans, the second-largest crowd to that point in Ohio Stadium history, packed the ‘Shoe for the nationally televised 3:30 kickoff. It was Hall Of Fame day also, and the new class included gridders Tom Perdue, a captain and academic All-American in 1961; Don Scott, a two-time All-American halfback in 1939 and 1940, and Jan White, the All-American end from the “Super Sophs”. Although Vince Workman was off the team, his presence was felt in the first quarter. After the Bucks forced LSU to kick on their opening series, Bobby Olive, who was fielding his first collegiate punt after taking over punt return duties from Workman, fumbled the ball and LSU recovered at the OSU 16. Tailback Eddie Fuller picked up four yards on first down, but right tackle Ralph Norwood was hit with a 15-yard personal foul penalty for a late shove on safety Jim Peel. The drive stalled and David Browndyke came on to boot a 37-yard field goal, giving the Tigers an early 3-0 lead.
Greg Frey got the Buckeye offense cranked up on their second drive, hitting a pair of third down passes to Jeff Ellis to move the ball to LSU’s 32. After Carlos Snow lost two yards, it was Frey to fullback Scottie Graham for 14 and a first down at the Tiger 20 as the first quarter ended. Despite seeing their team down by three, OSU fans had to be somewhat relieved as the Bucks had outgained their guests 104-37, aided by a 6 of 9 passing performance by Greg Frey. As the second quarter opened, offensive coordinator Jim Colletto sent in Confirm 63 Y Bench, a post route pass call for Bobby Olive out of his flanker position. Olive made a sliding catch of Frey’s throw at the one-yard line, and on the next snap Carlos Snow, on a play that would work time and time again in his career, took a pitch left into the endzone to put the Bucks ahead 7-3.
On LSU’s ensuing possession, Eddie Fuller converted a 3rd-and-3 situation with a 6-yard reception, but later on 3rd-and-4 from his own 42, Fuller was ruled out of bounds after what would have been a first down catch. Rene Bourgeois came on to punt, but Vinnie Clark broke through to block the kick. Linebacker and co-captain Mike McCray scooped up the loose ball on a friendly hop and took it 23 yards into the south endzone to widen the lead to 14-3. OSU’s special teams had struck for the second week in a row, and provided a bit of vindication for McCray. When the line for the Pitt game had been pulled due to rumors of an impending suspension for an Buckeye linebacker, McCray’s name had surfaced. It was guilt by association in a way as McCray had provided Cris Carter with a place to stay in the aftermath of his removal from the team in the summer of 1987. McCray had done nothing wrong off the field, and now had made a huge play on it.
The blocked punt had come courtesy of Vinnie Clark, who had also fought through off-the-field problems after sitting out his freshman year due to grades. Ironically, Clark’s blocked punt was the first kick he had stuffed since his junior year in high school at the Cincinnati Academy of Physical Education. In the Division 3 state championship game at Ohio Stadium, Clark’s block of an extra point had provided the winning margin in CAPE’s 7-6 win over Chagrin Falls Kenston.
Following McCray’s score, the Tigers got a little special teams magic of their own as Eddie Fuller returned the kickoff 59 yards to the Ohio State 31. On 2nd-and-9, Tommy Hodson fired to flanker Tony Moss, who gathered the ball in at the 22, spun out of a tackle and scooted down the east sideline into the endzone to complete the 30-yard play. Browndyke converted and just like that OSU’s lead was 14-10.
Late in the second period the Buckeyes had driven to the LSU 20, but on 3rd-and-3 Frey’s pass hit linebacker Ron Sancho in the helmet and caromed into the hands of Greg Jackson at the Tiger 13. Eddie Fuller, starting at tailback in place of Harvey Williams (who was redshirting with an injured knee after going over 1,000 yards in ’87), ran for 8 on first down but the Tigers picked up an easy 15 as David Brown was hit with a personal foul call. But that momentum appeared to go up in smoke as the Tigers were whistled for holding on the very next play. Hodson dialed up fullback Victor Jones for 7, then connected with Alvin Lee (who had snared 10 passes the previous week at Tennessee) for 6 and then 21 to advance the ball to the Buckeye 40. After an incompletion, Tony Moss hauled in an 18-yard aerial to move the sticks to the OSU 22. The Buckeye defense stiffened and with under a minute to go in the first half, the Tigers lined up for a 31-yard field goal try. Holder Chris Moock got the snap, jumped up and plowed up the middle for 5 yards and a 1st-and-goal at the 9. But Hodson couldn’t hook up with Fuller or Lee on his next two throws, and with the clock burned down to 3 seconds, Browndyke came on to drill a 27-yard field goal, cutting Ohio State’s lead to only 14-13 at halftime.
The Buckeyes received the second half kickoff, and aided by an unusual illegal block penalty on LSU, began with great field position at their 46. Scottie Graham’s 11 yard reception got the Bucks a first down at the Tiger 41, and on the next play Carlos Snow broke 4 tackles while motoring for 25 yards to LSU’s 16. With 3rd-and-3 at the 9, Frey was sacked by Ron Sancho for a loss of 9, so Pat O’ Morrow came on and booted his 6th field goal of the season in as many tries, opening up the Buckeye lead to 17-13.
Tommy Hodson brought the Tigers right back, covering 78 yards in only 6 plays to give his team its first lead since the end of the first quarter. Tony Moss lit the fuse with a 37-yard reception, then later on 2nd-and-10 from OSU’s 31, Eddie Fuller got loose down the seam and gathered in Hodson’s pass while backpedaling away from the line of scrimmage. Fuller’s super leaping effort was good for 28 yards to the Buckeye 3, and on the next play Fuller did the honors with a 3-yard burst to cap the drive. The point after was good and the Bayou Bengals took command 20-17.
Fuller continued to gouge the Ohio State defense on LSU’s next possession as he rumbled for 13, 6 and 7, while Hodson hooked up with Alvin Lee for 10 and Tony Moss for 16 on a screen, giving the Tigers a first down at the Buckeye 15. OSU’s defense stiffened and forced another David Browndyke field goal attempt. This one was good from 35 yards out, and after three it was 23-17 in favor of LSU.
Ohio State’s special teams struck another big blow on the ensuing kickoff as Carlos Snow brought the kick back 50 yards to the Tiger 42. Frey and Bernard Edwards teamed up for a big 13-yard completion, but the march stalled and Pat O’Morrow’s second field goal of the game reduced the deficit to 23-20, LSU. It was now time for the Tigers’ special teams to be heard from as kick returner Slip Watkins brought the kickoff back 42 yards to the Ohio State 45. Tight end Ronnie Haliburton converted a 3rd-and-7 with a 10-yard catch, and then it was Hodson to Tony Moss for 14 more, setting LSU up at OSU’s 18. Four rushing plays moved the ball to the 3, but Hodson misfired on two straight passes and in came Browndyke. Buckeye linebacker Andy Gurd jumped offsides on the field goal attempt, but Mike Archer decided against taking the flag. The Tigers wouldn’t have picked up a first down and the further the ball was towards the goal line, the worse the angle would be for his kicker. LSU declined the flag, and Browndyke hammered a 20-yard field goal, giving the Tigers a 26-20 advantage with 8:43 to play.
The Buckeyes could still do nothing offensively and gave the pigskin back to Hodson and Company with 7:03 left. Looking to drain the clock, Archer called Eddie Fuller’s number on four consecutive rushing plays, and the tailback advanced the ball to his 44, where it was 3rd-and-5. Hodson rolled to his right and fired into a crowd towards Moss, who had found a hole in the OSU zone defense at the Buckeye 42. But Hodson’s pass was high and Moss tipped it- right into the hands of Alvin Lee who gathered the ball in at the 32 and steamed down the west sideline for a touchdown. Browndyke’s PAT made it 33-20 with 4:29 to play, and folks began streaming out of Ohio Stadium, shaking their heads at Lee’s unbelievable catch.
For Ohio State to have any chance, they had to get a touchdown on their next possession, and the offense had only put the ball in the endzone once. But with the chips down Greg Frey moved the “O” 59 yards in 10 plays to cut into the lead. Things looked dicey when Ron Sancho again sacked Frey for a loss of 3 on a 2nd-and-5 call, but Bobby Olive got free on third down for 12 to keep the drive alive. Another 3rd-and-8 arose from the Tiger 24, and this time it was Jeff Graham snaring a 19-yard pass to give OSU a first-and-goal at the 5. On second down from there the Bucks crossed LSU up with a run up the middle by Snow, who took it in for his second TD of the day. With O’Morrow’s point after it was 33-27, and the Bucks had two timeouts left.
John Cooper elected to kick the ball deep instead of trying an onside boot and it went for a touchback. Eddie Fuller gained one yard, then OSU safety Jimmy Peel dragged Hodson down for a loss of 3, bringing up 3rd-and-12 at the Tiger 18. The Bucks had burned their last two timeouts after those two plays, and everyone in Ohio Stadium figured another run was coming. 1:43 remained, and one more run plus a likely delay of game call would leave the Bucks with under a minute to work with.
On third down, Hodson actually threw deep down the left side towards Alvin Lee, but the ball sailed out of bounds as Lee had cutoff the route. Why LSU threw the ball is to this day one of football’s great mysteries, but now the clock was stopped at 1:38 and Rene Bourgeois trotted on to punt. The Tigers took a 5-yard delay of game, and then Bourgeois fielded the long snap and ran out of the back of the endzone for a safety. Now LSU lead 33-29, and the Buckeyes would get the free kick- and one last chance.
LSU had the option to kick off or punt from the 20, and Mike Archer elected to let Bourgeois punt. Bobby Olive gathered the kick in at his own 32 and started up the middle before losing his balance. Planting his free hand to keep from falling, Olive straightened up, turned the left corner and was finally run out of bounds at the LSU 39. Ohio Stadium was alive with 1:24 to go, and those that had remained got even louder as Frey hit Jeff Graham for 16 yards to the Tiger 23. Carlos Snow gathered in a short, 3-yard catch and with no timeouts left the Bucks hurried to the line. Frey looked for tight end Jeff Ellis but the pass was tipped by Tiger linebacker Rudy Harmon and fell incomplete. Now it was 3rd-and-7, and offensive coordinator Jim Colletto decided to see if history could repeat itself. On Ohio State’s first scoring drive of the afternoon, Bobby Olive had caught a 19-yard pass to put the Bucks at LSU’s 1-yard line. Now, with OSU needing that 19 plus one to take the lead, Colletto sent in the same call- Confirm 63 Y Bench, Olive on the post.
Frey dropped back and let fly with a pass that was just a bit long. Olive laid out in the endzone and made a diving catch, making sure he got his arms under the ball. Ohio Stadium went absolutely berserk and the marching band and several fans poured onto the field. The Scarlet and Gray had scored 16 points in a minute and 18 seconds to incredibly take a 36-33 lead over LSU. The Tigers had one last shot from their own 34 but four passes gained only 3 yards and the fans stormed the playing field even though 7 seconds remained. After clearing the mass of humanity, the officials wound the clock and time ran out so the crowd could “officially” engulf the field.
The Buckeyes didn’t really have the talent to maintain the momentum they gained from the dramatic LSU win. They would finish 4-6-1 overall and 2-5-1 in the Big Ten, and to this day 1988 stands as Ohio State’s last losing season in football. The Bucks almost pulled another stunner on November 19th as they rallied from a 20-0 halftime deficit to lead Michigan 31-27 with less than 2 minutes to play, but TBGUN got the last laugh as John Kolesar gathered in the winning touchdown pass to knock off OSU 34-31.
1988 is a forgotten year in Buckeye football annals for the most part, but that one September afternoon deserves its place among Ohio State’s most dramatic comebacks of all time.