Ohio State came into the 1978 college football season hoping to arrest a modest downturn. After four straight Rose Bowl appearances earlier in the decade, the Buckeyes had lost to archrival Michigan in both 1976 and 1977. The ’77 season ended with a Sugar Bowl humiliation at the hands of Alabama and Ohio State’s final #11 ranking was their first time out of the Top 10 since 1971.
But the 1978 Ohio State football team not only failed to stop the slide, it got worse and culminated with a bizarre Gator Bowl incident that ended the career of head coach Woody Hayes.
Hayes was going with a freshman quarterback in 1978. Art Schlichter would have a terrific career at Ohio State, finishing in the top six of the Heisman Trophy voting three times. And he showed his talent in this freshman campaign, throwing for what was then a respectable 1,250 yards on the season. But the young quarterback also showed his youth with 21 interceptions. His favorite targets were Doug Donley and converted quarterback Rod Gerald.
Ohio State always relied on the ground game in any case and it was a balanced attack that pushed the offense forward in 1978. Nobody ran for as many as 600 yards, but Paul Campbell, Ron Springs, Ricardo Volley and Calvin Murray were all viable contributors. The offensive line was anchored by All-Big Ten performers in Ken Fritz at guard and Joe Robinson at tackle.
The Buckeye defense was led by linebacker Tom Cousineau, a first-team All-American and soon to be the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Cousineau was supported on defense by Kelton Dansler at tackle and Vince Skillings in the secondary.
There was no reason to expect anything other than a vintage Ohio State team and the pollsters ranked the Buckeyes #7 in the preseason polls. But a September showdown at the Shoe with fifth-ranked Penn State showed problems. Schlichter threw five interceptions, Ohio State lost 19-0 and quickly fell to #16 in the polls.
You could dismiss that result on the grounds that it was the Buckeyes’ season opener, while a Nittany Lion team that would finish #4 in the country already had a game in. But after wins over Minnesota and Baylor, there was no explaining away what happened against SMU.
Again playing at home, Ohio State was lucky to escape with a 35-35 tie against the Mustangs. The Buckeye defense was carved up by SMU quarterback Mike Ford for 367 passing yards and it was the Mustangs who missed a late field goal that might have won it.
An optimist could still dismiss the slow start and point out that Ohio State hadn’t yet lost a conference game. That changed at Purdue a week later. The Boilermakers were a good team that would stay in contention for the Big Ten crown into November. Ohio State trailed 20-16 in the fourth quarter when a Schlichter interception deep in his own territory set up a Purdue touchdown that sealed the 27-16 loss. Ohio State was 2-2-1, unranked and reeling.
The Big Ten was never particularly deep in the 1970s and a soft schedule stretch followed. Ohio State got back on track with a 31-7 home win over Iowa. The Buckeyes crushed Northwestern 63-20. A visit to Wisconsin produced a 49-14 win. When Ohio State hammered Illinois 45-7, the pollsters returned the Buckeyes to the land of the ranked, at #19.
Ohio State was still in the mix for the Rose Bowl. When Michigan knocked off Purdue, it opened the door for the Buckeyes to control their own destiny for Pasadena. Ohio State nearly gave back the opportunity. They trailed 18-14 at Indiana before Hayes went into his deep stable of running backs and found another name, Ricky Johnson, who ripped off a 46-yard touchdown run to get the win.
The Big Ten race was in a three-way tie going into the final week of play. Michigan State joined Michigan and Ohio State with one loss (Purdue had played Wisconsin to a tie, along with losing to Michigan). But the Spartans were on probation and ineligible for Pasadena. The Rose Bowl bid would again come down to Ohio State and Michigan and the game was in Columbus.
But the Buckeye win streak was more the product of the schedule than real improvement. Ohio State was not as good as Michigan and this game showed it. The Wolverines won 14-3 and it never really seemed that close. Ohio State closed the regular season ranked #20 and settled for an invitation to the Gator Bowl to play Clemson.
On the Friday night before New Year’s, this was the marquee game of the college bowl undercard. Clemson was the ACC champ and ranked #7 in the country. The Tigers wanted to show they belonged, in an era when the ACC was seen as being at least a couple steps below other major conferences. The Buckeyes wanted to end their season on a good note and get some momentum going into 1979.
A good football game ensued. Ohio State was in control much of the first quarter, but would be haunted by not taking advantage of opportunities. They found themselves trailing 17-9 in the fourth quarter.
Schlichter rallied his team. The Buckeyes scored with a little over eight minutes left, although a missed two-point conversion kept the score at 17-15. Then Dansler recovered a fumble late in the game just inside Clemson territory. There was one more chance.
Ohio State nudged their way to the 24-yard line and faced 3rd-and-5. Field goal kicking in 1978 wasn’t nearly as efficient as it is today, so it was still worthwhile to throw the ball here. But it would have also been important to stay cautious. Schlichter didn’t see Clemson nose tackle Charlie Baum sniff out a screen and drop into coverage. Baum intercepted the pass and the game was essentially over.
But the fireworks were just starting. Baum went out of bounds at the Buckeye sideline. An enraged and frustrated Hayes hauled off and punched the opposing player. There was little commentary at the time from the ABC broadcast team of Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian, but this was also before the days of endless replays and camera angles. It would take until after the game for the fallout to begin. Hayes was fired. It was an unceremonious end to a brilliant career.
The proud Ohio State football program would have to pick up the pieces and start over. That’s exactly what they did. Earle Bruce, the head coach at Iowa State got the call to become Hayes’ successor. And in 1979, the Buckeyes went undefeated, returned to the Rose Bowl and came within one point of the national championship.