Woody Hayes had taken Ohio State to four straight Rose Bowls from 1972-75. The 1976 Ohio State football team was still loaded and ranked #4 to start the season. They were certainly good, as evidenced by the fact they won a major bowl game. But some notable losses, including the one loss no Buckeye fan will tolerate, set the stage for a marginal decline over the remainder of Hayes’ legendary tenure in Columbus.
The Buckeyes had All-Americans on each side of the ball in offensive tackle Chris Ward and defensive end Bob Brudzinski, and they controlled the tempo of games with a powerful ground attack. Jeff Logan ran for over 1,200 yards to lead the team and powerful fullback Pete Johnson ground out over 700 more. The two quarterbacks, Jim Pacenta and Rod Gerald only threw a combined 94 passes all season long.
Ohio State opened the season by blasting Michigan State 49-21, and some upheaval among other top teams quickly moved the Buckeyes to #2. The next game was a trip to Penn State, the first one Ohio State would ever make to Happy Valley.
The Buckeyes played opportunistic football against the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions. They forced a pair of turnovers in the red zone, built a 12-0 lead and then hung on after Penn State rallied. Ohio State forced one more turnover with 1:41 left and secured a 12-7 win.
But a letdown did the Buckeyes in back home in Columbus. They faced a Missouri team that was decent, but on their way to a 6-5 season, the Tigers should not have been able to compete with Ohio State. Instead, Hayes’ team suffered a 22-21 loss and skidded back to #8 in the polls. The schedule didn’t get easier with a visit from fourth-ranked UCLA. The Buckeyes settled for a 10-10 tie.
The national championship was gone, with a loss and a tie, and Ohio State took it out on their next six Big Ten opponents. The conference only had one other winning team beyond OSU and Michigan, and that team—Minnesota—was only 6-5.
Ohio State won 34-14 at Iowa, and then knocked off Wisconsin in Camp Randall, 30-20. The Buckeyes came back home and played some tough defense in a 24-3 win over Purdue. A road trip to play Lee Corso’s Indiana team resulted in a 47-7 blowout. The Buckeyes crushed Illinois 42-10.
They were #8 in the polls and the big part of the season was at hand. The road trip to Minnesota was the appetizer that would set up Michigan’s visit.
The Buckeyes and Gophers traded field goals and it was tied 3-3 in the second quarter. Ohio State then marched 73 yards for a touchdown. After the missed extra point, it was 9-3 going into the locker room.
Even though the Buckeye offense never even mounted a serious drive again, the defense took over. Minnesota capitalized on a bad punt to reach the Ohio State 11-yard line in the third quarter, but that ended with a missed field goal. A Gopher quarterback named Tony Dungy was kept on the run most of the afternoon by Buckeye pressure and the 9-3 score held. It wasn’t an inspiring win by any means, but it kept Ohio State unbeaten in league play. It clinched at least a share of the conference title, since Michigan had lost to Purdue. And it set up the Buckeyes to play for a Rose Bowl bid.
Another bitter home loss awaited. The game was scoreless in the first half when Gerald threw an interception in the end zone just prior to halftime. That was the last time Ohio State seriously threatened to win the game, as Michigan took over the second half and won 22-0. The Buckeyes dropped to #11 but got a chance at redemption when the Orange Bowl came calling.
The Buckeyes would be playing a team for whom the ticket to South Beach was anything but a consolation prize. Colorado shared the Big Eight title and was an upstart in this game. And the Buffaloes opened the scoring with a 26-yard field goal. Then they converted a 4th-and-2 from the Buckeye 11-yard line into a touchdown pass that gave them a surprise 10-0 lead.
Ohio State’s passing attack was inept Gerald completely only two passes on the night. The Buckeyes lost the turnover battle 4-2. But their powerful running game alone was enough to turn the momentum. A 36-yard touchdown run up the middle by Logan cut into the lead and a field goal tied it up. Before the half was over, Ohio State drove 99 yards for a 17-10 lead.
The defense was settled in, the Colorado offense was going nowhere, and Ohio State kept adding to the lead. A short field goal made it a two-score margin, and a final tack-on touchdown finished it off at 27-10.
Any season that ends at #6 in the polls and a major bowl victory has to be considered a good one. But the culture of Ohio State and Michigan is different, and that difference was even more dramatic in the 1970s than it is today. They measured themselves by each other. The Buckeyes lost to the Wolverines again in 1977 and were then hammered in the Sugar Bowl. They lost to Michigan in 1978 and settled for the Gator Bowl. In that Gator Bowl, Hayes’ career came to an infamous end over his confrontation with an opposing player on the sidelines.
The 1976 Ohio State football season is marked as the last major bowl victory in Hayes’ illustrious career. But it’s also marked as the beginning of the end for Woody.