Coming off their first losing season since 1966, as well as back-to-back years without a bowl appearance, Ohio State had nowhere to go but up in 1989. For the first time since 1986, the Buckeyes would have an experienced quarterback calling the signals as Greg Frey began his second year as a starter. Fellow juniors Carlos Snow and Jeff Graham returned at tailback and flanker, respectively, while the offensive line was anchored by seniors Jeff Davidson, Tim Moxley and Joe Staysniak. Most of the defensive holes were up front, but the Bucks were buoyed by the return of linebacker Derek Isaman, who had taken 1988 off to try out for the Olympic boxing team. The entire secondary returned intact with corners David Brown and Vinnie Clark joining safeties Jimmy Peel and Zack Dumas. Second-year head coach John Cooper also had both kickers returning- punter Jeff Bohlman and placekicker Pat O’ Morrow.
The Buckeyes got off to an impressive start with a 37-13 win over Oklahoma State, a game that had some of the bloom taken off of it when Barry Sanders opted to turn pro after the ’88 season. The next week OSU headed west and was blasted by Southern Cal 42-3. Trojan QB Todd Marinovich, a redshirt freshman who had taken over for Rodney Peete, punctuated the win with an 87-yard touchdown bomb to John Jackson. The gutsy throw, coming on a third-and-short play, was at the time the second-longest TD pass ever given up by a Buckeye defense.
The next week in Columbus, the Bucks raced out to a 31-7 lead on Boston College, then had to make a fourth down stop inside their own 5 to preserve a 34-29 win. The following Saturday at Champaign in the Big 10 opener, Jeff Graham returned a punt for a score to narrow Illinois’ lead to 17-14, but that was as close as the Scarlet and Gray would get as the Illini pulled away for a 34-14 win. Indiana (35-31) and Purdue (21-3) both fell victim to OSU at the ‘Shoe, so as the Buckeyes headed to the Metrodome on October 28th, they stood at 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the league.
Ohio State held Minnesota to a 3-and-out on their opening possession, but then the wheels started coming off the wagon as the Gopher punt hit Buckeye blocker Rich Huffman. Scott Streiff recovered the live ball for Minnesota at the OSU 28, and three plays later tailback Darrell Thompson broke two tackles and went in standing up from 13 yards out. It was the senior Thompson’s first career TD against Ohio State and the Maroon and Gold had a fast 7-0 lead.
Carlos Snow dropped the ensuing kickoff, but was able to corral it and motor for 40 yards to the Gopher 49, but nothing came of the drive as Greg Frey was sacked on 3rd-and-12. After forcing a Minnesota punt, OSU picked up one first down out to their own 32, but from there Minnesota’s sack leader Eddie Miles nailed Frey and forced a fumble which defensive tackle Bob Coughlin recovered at the Buckeye 22. Three carries by Darrell Thompson advanced the ball to the 5, and three plays later on a fourth-and-goal quarterback Scott Schaffner ran a draw for 3 yards and an apparent touchdown. But a holding call wiped out the score and Minnesota settled for a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Carlos Snow again burned the Gopher kickoff coverage team with a 78-yard return to the Minnesota 9. On second down Frey hit a diving Brian Stablein on the numbers in the endzone but Stablein couldn’t pull it in, and it came back to haunt OSU on the very next snap. Frey checked off for an apparent swing pass to the right, but as guard Jeff Davidson pulled that way Gopher DT Mike Sunvold came right through Davidson’s spot and drilled Frey before he could set up. The ball popped into the air and safety Sean Lumpkin snared it in midair and sprinted 85 yards the other way for a touchdown. As the disastrous first quarter ended, the Buckeyes had all of 8 yards in total offense and trailed Minnesota 17-0.
The Gophers began their first drive of the second period at their own 27, and on 2nd-and-5 Schaffner hooked up with receiver Paul Hopewell for 25, with a 5-yard facemask call on the Buckeyes for good measure. After backup tailback Steve Rihm picked up 9 on first down, Minnesota lined up in the wishbone for the 2nd-and-1 call from OSU’s 29. Schaffner faked the handoff then hit Rihm, who had circled out of the backfield, at the 1. Rihm tiptoed into the endzone and with 9:50 left in the half it was now 24-0, Minnesota.
Ohio State picked up one first down on the ensuing series, but then a Greg Frey pass was tipped and intercepted by linebacker Joel Staats at the Buckeye 44. In eight plays (seven on the ground), Minnesota moved to the OSU 5, where they took a timeout facing 3rd-and-goal. On the next play, Schaffner fired over the middle on a quick slant to Zanesville, Ohio native Chris Gaiters for the score. 4:29 remained in the first half and the Gophers now led 31-0. And when the Bucks went 3-and-out on their next drive, it appeared that the 42-10 debacle at Pitt in ’88 and the September butt-kicking at USC were gonna be nailbiters compared to this.
But just then, ever so subtlely, the tide began to turn. Minnesota was caught with 12 men on the field during Jeff Bohlman’s punt, and the 15-yard flag gave the Bucks a first down at their 35. On the next play Frey went deep towards Jeff Graham, but Gopher DB Fred Foggie interfered and just like that OSU was at midfield. Two Carlos Snow runs moved the ball to Minnesota’s 37, and then Frey connected with Bobby Olive- who hadn’t played the previous week against Purdue- for 30 and a first-and goal at the 7. The Gophers weren’t about to give up the shutout without a fight and forced a fourth-and-goal situation at the 1, but Carlos Snow finally got the Bucks on the board, plowing over a defender for the score. Frey and Graham hooked up for the two-point play and at halftime Minnesota had a 31-8 lead. The Buckeyes would get the ball to start the second half, and if anything Snow’s late TD had provided a much-needed confidence boost, but the fact remained that this Ohio State unit was not a second-half club. In fact, through 6 games OSU had been outscored 33-7 in the fourth quarter alone. It was time to reverse that trend and climb out of the hole.
The Buckeyes took the second half kick and moved to Minnesota’s 9 yard line in just 7 plays, but just like the final drive of the first half, the Gopher defense stiffened, and Pat O’Morrow came on to kick a 25-yard field goal. It was O’Morrow’s first successful field goal in conference play and shaved Minnesota’s lead to 31-11.
The Gophers came into the game with 10 fumble recoveries on the season, which they had padded to 12 in the first half with the punt that hit Rich Huffman and the Greg Frey drop. Conversely, the Maroon and Gold had not fumbled at all in 1989 to this point, but on their first play after the O’Morrow field goal, Rich Frimel stripped the ball away from Darrell Thompson and Steve Tovar pounced on it at the Gopher 23. But the Buckeyes couldn’t stand their own good fortune as Jaymes Bryant, subbing for Carlos Snow who had injured his wrist, threw an ill-advised option pass that was picked off by Fred Foggie at the Minnesota 4. Gopher coach John Gutekunst went to his money man, tailback Darrell Thompson, and the big senior carried 6 straight times for 51 yards to put his team at the OSU 45. But on 3rd-and-4 from the 39, Buckeye DE Srecko Zizakovic knocked down a Schaffner pass to force a punt. It was downed at the 1-yard line, so Frey and Co. had 99 yards of Metrodome turf to cover.
After punching out to the 12, Jeff Graham hauled in a 26-yard pass to the Buckeye 38. Carlos Snow had returned to the lineup and he picked up 8, then his backfield mate Scottie Graham gained 7 to give the Bucks a first down at Minnesota’s 47. Frey moved the chains again with a 21-yard strike to Greg Beatty, then Snow and Scottie Graham picked up another first down on the ground. From the 16, Frey passed to Snow in the endzone for the score and as the third period concluded, the Buckeyes had whittled the deficit to 31-18. After being outgained 195 yards to 73 in the first half, Ohio State had piled up 170 yards to the Gophers’ 61 in the third quarter.
Following a 43-yard return of the ensuing kickoff by Chris Gaiters, Minnesota moved to the Buckeye 15 in 9 plays, where Brett Burgland booted a 32-yard field goal to put the Gophers up 34-18 with 11:24 left. Ohio State answered right back, ignited by a 45-yard kickoff return by Dante Lee to Minnesota’s 46. On 3rd-and-8 from the 44, it was Frey to Beatty for 17 and a big first down. On the very next play, Carlos Snow provided a little déjà vu from the 1987 win up in Ann Arbor as he took a screen from Frey down the left sideline for a 27-yard touchdown. Once more OSU went for 2, and after the receivers cleared out the right side, Snow slipped into the flat and caught the conversion pass, putting the Scarlet and Gray within eight at 34-26
The Buckeye defense forced a 3-and-out, but on OSU’s ensuing series they faced a 3rd-and-11 at their own 32. Center Greg Beatty didn’t realize Greg Frey had set up in the shotgun, and thinking his QB was behind him, Beatty hit himself in the rump with the snap. Sean Lumpkin came up with the fumble at the Buckeye 29 and it looked like OSU’s sixth turnover of the day might just doom them. However, the Ohio State defense, aided by a holding call on the Gophers, was able to keep Minnesota from picking up a first down. With the ball on the Buckeye 25, Burgland drilled a 42-yard field goal and with under 5 ½ minutes to go it was 37-26, Gophers.
Starting from his own 32, Greg Frey used all his receiving weapons, hitting Snow for 8, Jeff Graham for 14, Greg Beatty for 22 and Brian Stablein for 16. Suddenly, the Bucks were at the Minnesota 8, but on second-and-goal from there an apparent touchdown pass to tight end Jim Palmer was wiped out by a holding call. Fred Foggie barely missed an interception on the next play so Frey was now looking at 3rd-and-goal from the 18. He found Jeff Graham for 17 huge yards to the one, and with 3:08 to go the Bucks called time. A field goal would narrow the margin to 8, and then OSU would need a defensive stop, a touchdown and another two-pointer just to get a tie. John Cooper decided to go for it, and on fourth-and-goal Frey optioned left and dove over for the score. Again the Buckeyes went for 2, and from the right slot Jeff Graham hauled in a Frey aerial to cut the gap to three points at 37-34.
Facing their most critical offensive possession of the game, Minnesota had to go without Darrell Thompson. Two runs by backup Steve Rihm picked up 5 and the Bucks called their second timeout with 2:14 left. On the next play Rihm caught a pass in the right flat but Steve Tovar grabbed him with one hand and threw him to the ground for a loss of one. Ohio State called their final timeout and after Jeff Graham returned the punt 7 yards to his 27, the Bucks had 1:52 to try and cap an unbelievable rally.
On first down Greg Frey, getting great protection, found Carlos Snow crossing over the middle. Carlos snagged the pass and got out of bounds at the Buckeye 45, stopping the clock at 1:44. Frey then stood in the pocket until the last possible second and fired to Brian Stablein, who made a brilliant diving catch at the Gopher 36. Now with 1:37 to go, the Minnesota pass rush finally got to Frey and he was dropped for a loss of 14. With no timeouts left, OSU hurried to the line and Frey found Jim Palmer along the left sideline. Palmer spun out of a tackle and lumbered down the sideline all the way to the Gopher 15 before being bounced out of bounds with :56 seconds left. With the Minnesota defense completely on their heels, Jeff Graham faked a post route from the right slot and broke towards the corner. Frey put it right on the numbers and in the words of Jack Kramer on WOSU’s TV coverage “..the Buckeyes have completed a miraculous comeback at the Metrodome”. Graham was so open that Kramer shouted “Touchdown!” before Jeff had even caught the ball. O’Morrow tacked on the critical PAT and Ohio State, who had trailed 31-0 with only 10 seconds to play in the first half, had stunned the Gopher faithful by fighting back for a 41-37 lead.
It wasn’t over yet, though. Scott Schaffner hit split end Pat Tinglehoff for 17 to the OSU 39, and the Gophers called time with :15 seconds left. Then it was Schaffner to Tinglehoff again down the middle for another 17-yard pickup and Minnesota called their final timeout with 7 seconds left. Schaffner was at least within striking distance of the endzone, and some Buckeye fans (OK, maybe just me) were wondering if one running play after the big Palmer catch would’ve burned some clock or at least forced the Gophers to spend a timeout.
On the final play, Schaffner danced around before firing into the back left corner of the endzone, where Steve Rihm had gotten behind the OSU defense. The pass was a little high, and although Rihm got a hand on it, the ball fell to the turf and the clock ran out.
Ohio State had equaled the greatest comeback in college football history by erasing the 31-0 deficit. In 1984, Maryland had fell behind to Miami, FL by the same score before rallying for a 42-40 win. Now five years later the Bucks had put together their finest second half of the 1989 season when they desperately needed it. OSU would go on to finish the regular season at 8-3 and for the first time in three years would go bowling, losing the Hall of Fame Bowl on New Year’s Day to Auburn 31-14.
The 1989 season as a whole may not conjure up much discussion among Buckeye fans, but that one unbelievable afternoon in Minneapolis was about as dramatic as it gets. The bottom line was that the Bucks didn’t quit. They fought their way out of the biggest hole in NCAA history, overcoming 6 turnovers to set a standard for come-from-behind achievements.