It was a new era for 1979 Ohio State football. The Buckeyes had a relatively disappointing season in 1978 and it was followed by a disastrous ending in the Gator Bowl when legendary head coach Woody Hayes punched an opposing player and was fired. Earle Bruce was the new coach and had healing to do within the program, as well as get the tide turned against archrival Michigan, who had won the previous three games and Rose Bowl bids.
Bruce had a talented sophomore quarterback in Art Schlichter, who would finish in the top six of the Heisman voting three straight years and eventually be the second overall pick in the NFL draft before wrecking his career with a gambling problem. The offense was well-balanced, with Calvin Murray and Ricardo Volley sharing the rushing load and wide receiver Doug Donley catching 37 passes for 800 yards, the latter a high number by the standards of the time.
Ken Fritz was one of the best guards in the country and made All-American and in spite of all the turmoil, this was still Ohio State. But the pollsters didn’t see it that way and amazingly, given the lack of parity in college football at the time, the Buckeyes were unranked to start the year.
Ohio State opened with a 31-8 win over an average Syracuse team and quickly got back in the polls at #15. Then the Buckeyes went to mediocre Minnesota and fell behind 14-0. In what was perhaps a turning point for the program, Ohio State rallied and won 21-17. They rolled Washington State 45-29 and prepared for a nationally televised visit to UCLA.
The bad year the Bruins would have, finishing 5-6, was by no means apparent at this time, though they had lost to Houston already. UCLA was still ranked #17 and they bolted to a quick 10-0 lead. For the second time in the month of September, Ohio State faced a double-digit deficit.
Murray ripped off a 34-yard touchdown run and after three quarters the game was tied 10-10. UCLA got a field goal and drove deep into Buckeye territory before missing a chip shot field goal. Ohio State had the ball on their own 20 with 2:21 left. Schlichter calmly completed six straight passes, including the winning touchdown with 46 seconds The 17-13 win vaulted the Buckeyes to #8 in the rankings.
After a lackluster 16-7 win over Northwestern to open Big Ten play, Ohio State clicked into high gear. They blasted Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa by a combined score of 223-20 and moved up to #2 in the AP poll, trailing only unbeaten Alabama.
Now it was time to go to Ann Arbor. It hadn’t been a great year for the 13th-ranked Wolverines, but they had still only lost twice, to Purdue and Notre Dame. Ohio State needed the win just to get back to the Rose Bowl, to say nothing of the national title.
The Buckeye secondary allowed a deep touchdown pass to spectacular Wolverine wide receiver Anthony Carter and trailed 7-6 at halftime. In the third quarter, after being set up with good field position by a shanked punt, Schlichter threw a touchdown pass and even after the missed two-point conversion, they led 12-7.
Another deep ball allowed to Carter set up a Michigan touchdown and two-pointer and the game was 15-12. Ohio State turned to their special teams to win it. They went all-in for a punt block midway through the fourth quarter, exploiting what had been a Wolverine flaw throughout the year. Jim Laughlin blocked the punt, Todd Bell recovered it and scored. Ohio State won 18-15 and was returning to Pasadena.
Ohio State also moved to the top of the AP poll, while Alabama retained the top spot in the UPI poll. USC was ranked right behind the two 11-0 teams. The Crimson Tide would play Lou Holtz’s Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl early in the day. If the Tide lost, the Buckeyes and Trojans would take the field knowing they were playing for an undisputed national championship. And even if Alabama won, Ohio State would still play for a share of the crown.
The raw talent level of USC, their accomplishments of recent seasons and their relative homefield advantage led them to be a 7 ½ point favorite. And in spite of being eliminated by an Alabama victory in the early time slot, USC jumped out 10-0, with McDonald throwing a 53-yard touchdown pass. But Ohio State had come back all season long and they did again here, grinding out a 16-10 lead with five minutes left in the game.
But the Trojans’ Heisman-Trophy winning running back Charles White broke hearts across the state of Ohio. He tore off two runs that totaled 60 yards, then finished it off with a short TD run. USC won 17-16.
It was a crushing loss, but there was hope for the future. Where the real disappointment comes in is that Ohio State didn’t make it back to Pasadena until 1984, when they again lost to USC. It would be well into the late 1990s before the Buckeyes again made a serious run at a national championship. And it would be 2002 before they would actually win it all for the first time in the post-Woody Hayes era.