Ohio State has not had many rollercoaster seasons like 1990. They had bounced back from a three-game skid and headed into Iowa City, unbelievably, with a chance to get back into a Big 10 race that they had been all but written out of just a month earlier.
The Buckeyes had gotten off to a slow start in the opener against Texas Tech. Freshman tailback Robert Smith, the gem of the ’90 recruiting class, hadn’t started that day but his insertion into the game sparked the team and the crowd. Smith tied the game at 10 with his first OSU touchdown in the third period, but it took a 50-yard punt return score by Jeff Graham to pull out a 17-10 win over the Red Raiders. After a solid 31-10 victory at Boston College, the Bucks let Southern Cal run all over them at the ‘Shoe two Saturdays later. USC tailback Ricky Ervins rolled for 164 of his 199 yards in the first half as the Trojans built a 21-10 halftime edge, then with Southern Cal up 35-20 late in the game, Raymont Harris scored to narrow the gap to 35-26 as the try for two failed. A thunderstorm was pounding the Columbus area as the game wound down, and the officials conferred with John Cooper and Trojan coach Larry Smith. OSU was obviously going to try an onside kick, and Cooper told referee Ron Winter that if USC recovered that he could call the game. The Trojans fell on it and the contest was awarded to ‘SC with 2:36 to play- the first time an Ohio State football game had ended prior to regulation since way back in 1912 when the Buckeyes, trailing Penn State 37-0 with 9 minutes to play, were pulled off the field by coach John Richards who felt the officials were letting the Nittany Lions get away with unsportsmanlike play.
More controversy swirled around Ohio Stadium the next week as Illinois dealt the Bucks a 31-20 loss. With the Illini leading 24-20 in the fourth quarter, OSU kicker Tim Williams attempted a 51-yard field goal which was blocked. Illinois tackle Mike Poloskey picked up the loose football and started to run, but as he was being tackled he lateraled the ball forward to Quentin Parker who took it the rest of the way for a touchdown. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see, either live or at home on TV, that it was without any doubt a forward lateral, but in these pre-instant replay days the officials let the play stand and it would be the final margin. In Bloomington the next Saturday the Buckeyes led Indiana 27-17 in the third quarter, but the Hoosiers battled back to tie it up and actually had the go-ahead touchdown nullified by a holding call. When Ohio State got the ball late in the game, Cooper kept it on the ground, much to the visible chagrin of the offense, to preserve the tie. Receiver Jeff Graham had to be restrained by assistant coaches as he came off the field after OSU’s final drive, and in a postgame interview Robert Smith called the game a loss. The Buckeyes were now at 5-2-1 and their Big 10 title hopes looked absolutely dashed.
Ohio State then turned the corner as the offense went full-throttle in pastings of Purdue (42-2), Minnesota (52-23) and Northwestern (48-7). Heading into play on November 10th, the Big Ten standings shaped up this way-
Iowa 5-0 7-1
Illinois 4-1 6-2
Minnesota 4-1 5-3
Ohio State 3-1-1 5-2-1
Michigan 3-2 5-3
Having recovered from their 2 losses and the Indiana tie, the Buckeyes had played their way into position for a Rose Bowl shot. They needed to win out, then needed Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota all to lose once more. Little did anyone know how much help OSU would get by nightfall on the 10th.
With Bo Schembechler retiring after the 1989 season, Iowa coach Hayden Fry was now the dean of Big 10 coaches. Coming off only his second losing season as Hawkeye coach (5-6 in ’89), Fry had Iowa unbeaten in the league with wins over Michigan State, Michigan and Illinois ALL ON THE ROAD! The 54-28 win over the Illini the previous week had been especially impressive, boosting Iowa to #6 in the AP poll. But Illinois’ loss was also a needed piece of Ohio State’s Rose Bowl puzzle, and with Iowa and Michigan looming on the schedule, John Cooper announced in the week leading up to the Iowa game that practice would be closed for the rest of the season.
Injury-wise, the news was mixed for the Bucks heading into Iowa City. Quarterback Greg Frey had gone out of the Northwestern game with bruised ribs in the 3rd quarter, leaving Kent Graham to finish the 48-7 win. Frey would be ready for the Hawkeyes but on Tuesday that week in practice Raymont Harris sprained a knee and would be ruled out for Iowa. Tight end Jeff Ellis had sprained an ankle in the tie with Indiana but was finally ready to go, and even coach John Cooper was on the mend, having undergone back surgery on October 21st. “Coop” had watched the October 27th Minnesota win from the Ohio Stadium press box but was back on the sideline for the Northwestern win on November 3rd – a victory that gave Cooper 99 career wins. The Bucks would look to provide their coach win #100 in Iowa City as a 5-point underdog.
Iowa had scored touchdowns on its first 5 possessions the week before in Champaign, and they picked right up where they left off shortly after the 11AM local time kickoff. With a 2nd-and-2 at the Iowa 28, Hayden Fry showed why he was called “The Fox”. Quarterback Matt Rodgers faked to his 255-pound tailback Nick Bell, then pitched to wingback Danan Hughes on a reverse. Hughes pulled up and fired deep to tight end Michael Titley, and although the pass was underthrown, Titley hauled it in for a 35-yard pickup to the Buckeye 37. The Hawks moved to OSU’s 24, where Rodgers drilled an 8-yard strike to receiver John Filloon. Filloon had to go to the turf to gather in the pass, and as he did Buckeye corner Vinnie Clark hit him in the head, tacking on a half-the-distance personal foul to OSU’s 8. After a 5-yard gain by Bell and a Hawkeye timeout, Matt Rodgers faked to fullback Paul Kujawa then followed him into the endzone for a 3-yard score to give Iowa a quick 7-0 lead.
Ohio State’s first drive commenced from their own 7 after Robert Smith and Dante Lee misplayed the kickoff. The Bucks managed one first down but Hawkeye defensive tackle Jim Johnson sacked Greg Frey for a loss of 8 to thwart the drive. Iowa took over at the Buckeye 46 after receiving Jeff Bohlman’s punt, but on 2nd-and-6 Kujawa fumbled when he was belted by Tom Lease, and Foster Paulk, starting for the first time in three games for Lance Price, recovered on the OSU 36. Iowa’s defense forced a 3-and-out, but a 55-yard punt by Bohlman and an Iowa clip on the return set the Hawks back to their own 10. After Nick Bell gained 4, Buckeye nose guard Greg Smith sacked Rodgers for a loss of 4 back to the 10. Bell could only gain 5 on a draw play and Iowa was forced to punt. Although OSU jumped offsides on the punt attempt, the Hawkeyes were still inches short and Fry chose not to roll the dice. Jeff Graham fair-caught Jim Hujsak’s punt at the Buckeye 41 and for the first time the Scarlet and Gray had decent field position.
Greg Frey had come into the game ranked #1 in passing efficiency in the Big Ten, and he finally got untracked with a 24-yard completion to Jeff Graham. Frey moved into second place on Ohio State’s career passing yards list with the strike and the Bucks had a first down at Iowa’s 35. Fullback Scottie Graham plowed for 2, then split end Bobby Olive made a super diving catch of a Frey pass at the Hawkeye 16. Butler Bynote, up to second-string tailback with the loss of Raymont Harris, picked up 2 on first down, then took an option pitch on the next play for 10, giving OSU a first-and-goal at Iowa’s 4. Bynote scooted for 3, but Graham and Robert Smith were stacked up for no gain and as the first quarter ended Ohio State faced a 4th-and-goal call at the Hawkeye 1, trailing 7-0.
As the second quarter opened, the Bucks lined up for the crucial 4th-down play, and with the Kinnick Stadium crowd bellowing, Frey asked referee Ron Winter for an official timeout to quiet the crowd and was refused (Of course, the only times Big 10 officials granted this was when a TBGUN quarterback asked for help in Ohio Stadium…Tom Quinn- YOU SUCK!). Frey took the snap, faked to Butler Bynote, then rolled right and cut into the endzone. Somehow only 2 seconds went off the clock on the play but the Buckeyes had tied the score at 7.
Iowa came right back, as Matt Rodgers found Sean Smith for a 20-yard pickup to quickly move the ball into OSU territory at the 42. The Hawkeyes continued to mix the run and pass to work the football down to Ohio State’s 8. Iowa was called for an illegal shift, but a 7-yard pass to Danan Hughes and a 1-yard run by Tony Stewart set up a 3rd-and-goal at the 5. Rodgers faked a counter run to Stewart, but freshman defensive end Jason Simmons didn’t bite and dragged Rodgers down for a huge loss of 12. Jeff Skillett was called on to boot a 34-yard field goal, and although OSU was flagged 5 yards for running into the kicker on Skillett’s successful boot, Hayden Fry chose to leave the points on the board and Iowa was back up 10-7.
The Bucks converted one first down on their next series with a Butler Bynote pass reception, but on a 3rd-and-14 play Hawkeye DT Matt Ruhland nailed Frey for a loss of 7, then punter Jeff Bohlman promptly threw more gas on the fire with a 24-yard punt, setting the Hawkeyes up at the Ohio State 46.
By this point Matt Rodgers had gone 8 of 8 passing for 76 yards, with his only “incompletion” coming on the previous possession when Iowa ended up being called for an illegal shift. With great field position, Rodgers aired it deep for Danan Hughes but missed for the first time. Undaunted, he came right back on the next play with an 11-yard strike to Michael Titley for a first down at OSU’s 35. From there, Hayden Fry kept it landlocked as two Nick Bell carries and four totes by fullback Lew Montgomery brought the Hawks to the Buckeye 1. Montgomery did the honors over the left side and with 2:17 to go in the half Iowa had a ten-point cushion at 17-7. It looked as though the Hawks would have a chance to expand the lead as the Buckeyes used all of 16 seconds to fire three incompletions, but a clipping penalty and a drop by a wide-open Danan Hughes brought up a 3rd-and-13 at the OSU 47. Nick Bell barreled through on a draw and got all but one foot of the needed 13 yards, but as Iowa lined up for the 4th-and-short play, they were whistled for procedure. Iowa went for it anyway on 4th-and-6 but nose guard Greg Smith wrapped Rodgers up, forcing an incompletion. John Cooper, vehemently arguing for a grounding call, was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct but with it being a dead ball foul the Bucks maintained possession and had 1st-and-25 at their 24 with 43 seconds left. Frey found Jeff Graham for 12, and although OSU had all three of their timeouts they didn’t use one and the clock burned down to 23 seconds. The second down pass to Scottie Graham was incomplete, but Robert Smith picked up 16 on a draw to give the Bucks a first down at Iowa’s 48 with 10 seconds left. Lining up three receivers to the right, Frey stepped up and fired for Smith who was surrounded by four Hawkeyes. Cornerback Merton Hanks went up for the pick but the ball caromed off his chest at the 16- right into the hands of Jeff Graham who sped untouched into the endzone as time ran out. Tim Williams booted the PAT and miraculously Ohio State only trailed 17-14.
Both defenses took over in the third quarter. The Bucks could only muster 17 yards on their first 3 possessions while Iowa managed 19 on their initial trio of drives. A Frey-to-Olive pass play of 20 yards put OSU in Iowa territory, but 2 penalties, 3 incompletions and a punt later the Hawks took over at their 24. Matt Rodgers found a wide open Michael Titley for 28 yards to the Buckeye 48, then later hooked up with backup tight end Alan Cross for 22 more to the OSU 15. On a busted 2nd-and-8 play Jason Simmons buried Rodgers for a loss of 7, but on 3rd-and-15 from the 20 Matt found Nick Bell circling out of the backfield and hit him at the goal line in a bad place- the hands. Bell dropped the sure six and it was left to Jeff Skillett to hike the lead to 20-14 with a 37-yard field goal, the only points by either team in the third period.
After an Ohio State 3-and-out, Iowa took over at the Buckeye 20. Two runs by Tony Stewart and a 15-yard facemask call on OSU gave the Hawks a first down at their 42, then it was Stewart for 10 and then 14 and Iowa was set up at the Buckeye 34. It looked like the drive might bog down as the Hawkeyes faced a 3rd-and-9, but fullback Lew Montgomery popped through the line on a quick hitter for 12 and a first down at the 21. It was back to Stewart and he sprung loose for 6, 8 and 6 to put the ball inside OSU’s 1. Montgomery nudged over for the score to make it 26-14, and it stayed there as a reverse to Hughes on the 2-point attempt was halted by the Buckeye defense.
Ohio State still couldn’t get the offense going on their next series as a holding call and another Matt Ruhland sack of Frey stymied the drive. Iowa took over following a punt at their 23 and with the way the Hawkeye ground game had clicked on the preceding possession things didn’t look promising. But the OSU defense came up big as Matt Rodgers, rolling to his right on a 3rd-and-2 keeper, was dropped just shy of the first down by Jason Simmons and Steve Tovar. Then it was the special teams’ turn as Foster Paulk, leading a ten-man rush, blocked Jim Hujsak’s punt. Iowa picked up the loose football and started upfield but the play was ruled dead at the Hawks’ 24. From there it only took 3 plays for the Buckeyes to light the scoreboard as Frey threw a 21-yard dart over a diving Merton Hanks into the hands of Bobby Olive in the endzone. With the PAT, the Bucks now trailed 26-21 with 6:34 to play.
After granting Iowa one first down on the ensuing drive, Rodgers threw late over the middle and was picked off by Lance Price, who returned it to Iowa’s 44. Frey and Olive immediately hooked up for 15, but Hayden Fry’s defensive corps rose to the challenge, dropping Frey for a loss of 9 on an option then tipping a 3rd-down pass. Facing a 4th-and-16 from the Hawkeye 35, Ohio State called their second timeout of the half, then appeared to have thrown the game away as Jason Olejniczak intercepted a Frey aerial in the endzone intended for Bernard Edwards.
Rodgers and Co. went to work on the clock with Stewart scrapping for 1 yard, but on the next play Jason Simmons grabbed Stewart in the backfield and the tailback was swarmed under for a loss of 6. On 3rd-and-15 Montgomery got the call but could only manage one yard and OSU called their final timeout with 1:04 to go. The Buckeyes jumped offsides to spot Hujsak five yards, but he hit a low kick that Jeff Graham fair caught at the Hawkeye 48. Ohio State had no timeouts and 59 seconds to navigate the 48 yards, and on first down Frey rolled to his right to evade the blitz and fired over the middle to Olive for a huge 23-yard pickup. Frey then found Jeff Graham for 7, but in the middle of the field, and by the time OSU lined up again the clock had ticked to 24 seconds. A short throw to Scottie Graham was incomplete and the clock stopped at 18 seconds. With great protection on the next snap, Frey threw down the middle to Jeff Graham, who turned and lunged to the Iowa 3 with 13 ticks on the clock. The Bucks hurried to the line and with the entire Buckeye sideline signaling for Frey to spike the ball, Greg threw a corner route towards Jeff Graham that was incomplete. Fortunately, the clock stopped but only 7 seconds remained and what’s worse is that Graham had his man beaten and could’ve scored had Frey’s pass not sailed out of bounds.
Frey sent Bobby Olive wide right and had Jeff Graham in the right slot. In almost a mirror image of the play that beat Minnesota a year earlier in the record comeback, Graham broke towards the corner, but this time Frey locked in on Olive. The pass was high but Olive made a leaping grab and landed just inside the endline for the touchdown. One second remained on the Kinnick Stadium clock and Ohio State led for the first time all day at 27-26 as bedlam broke out on the Buckeye sideline. A dead ball unsportsmanlike flag was thrown, but who really cared? To prevent any runback of a blocked extra point kick, Frey took a knee on the two-point conversion.
Iowa’s return of the ensuing squib kickoff produced 3 forward laterals and the final second burned off, giving Ohio State a dramatic upset and earning John Cooper his 100th career collegiate win.
The Bucks had taken a huge step in their Rose Bowl quest, and they got even more help later that afternoon as Michigan dealt Illinois their second straight loss 19-17 and Michigan State knocked off Minnesota 28-16. Iowa was now 5-1 in Big Ten play with OSU just behind at 4-1-1. The Bucks would need to win out and get one more Iowa loss to head west.
Going into the Iowa matchup, Robert Smith had needed 68 yards to break Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record. The Hawkeye defense had held Smith to 51, but the next week against Wisconsin, Robert not only broke the record but rambled for 171 yards to lead OSU to an easy 35-10 win over the Badgers. Smith’s rushing total would stand as his career high until a 175-yard effort against Indiana in 1992.
On Thanksgiving Saturday, the Buckeyes had a high-noon visit in the ‘Shoe from TBGUN, while Iowa would kick off at 2:30 against Minnesota. The Bucks and Wolves were tied at 13 late in the fourth when OSU began a last-ditch drive. A huge completion from Frey to Olive to the Buckeye 44 was wiped out on a holding call, leaving the offense with a 3rd-and-1. Scottie Graham couldn’t get it, and on fourth down Frey was to run “four base”, an option play, but Michigan buried Greg before he could even start down the line. J.D. Carlson booted a field goal in the dying seconds to give UM a 16-13 win, ending Ohio State’s Rose Bowl chances. Just to rub dirt in the wound, Minnesota beat Iowa 31-24 in what would have been the final piece of OSU’s Pasadena puzzle. Four teams finished tied at 6-2 in the league, but despite losing 2 of their last 3, Iowa was awarded the Rose Bowl trip since they defeated the other three teams they were tied with. The Hawkeyes’ loss to the Bucks also deprived them of a piece of history- as Iowa took over following the Olejniczak’s interception, ABC showed a graphic stating that NO team had ever beaten Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois in the same season. The Hawks fell one second short of pulling it off, and to this day only the 1994 Penn State powerhouse led by Kerry Collins and Kijana Carter can lay claim to that feat.