The honeymoon was over for Earle Bruce in Columbus. After taking Ohio State to an undefeated season in his first year in 1979, Bruce had lost the Rose Bowl that year and then failed to make any major bowl game—much less the coveted Rose—in the ensuing three years. The 1983 Ohio State football season needed to see a move back in the upward direction.
Bruce had good skill position talent on hand for 1983, and it started with running back Keith Byars. The big back ran for nearly 1,200 yards and one year later he would finish second to Doug Flutie in the Heisman Trophy voting. Byars was the workhorse of the Big Ten in carries and still finished a solid fourth in yards-per-attempt. His 20 touchdowns also led the conference.
Mike Tomczak had a long NFL career ahead of him, including quarterbacking some playoff teams. In 1983 at Ohio State, Tomczak completed a respectable 55 percent of his passes for a solid 8.2 yards-per-attempt. His top target with tight end John Frank, while wide receiver Cedric Anderson was a big play threat and Thad Jemison a solid third target.
The Buckeyes weren’t loaded defensively, but defensive back Kelvin Bell intercepted five passes. The high expectations that have been in Columbus seemingly forever were in place in 1983, as they were ranked ninth in the preseason poll.
Oregon was a subpar team and they came into Columbus for a perfunctory 31-6 trouncing that got the Buckeyes for their trip to second-ranked Oklahoma.
Frank made a key decision before the game—an observant Jew on Rosh Hashanah weekend, he decided to play. Whether it was the right move isn’t something for a non-Jew to comment on, but it was a big help for the football team. Frank caught two first-half touchdown passes and Ohio State stunned the crowd in Norman by taking a 21-0 lead by the third quarter. They won 24-14 in a game not as respectable as the score makes it sound.
Oklahoma would prove to be a four-loss disappointment, but for now, Ohio State was riding high and moved up to #3 in the national rankings.
But the start of Big Ten play brought problems and the Buckeyes dropped a tough 20-14 decision at seventh-ranked Iowa. Ohio State slipped to #8, before rebounding with wins over bad Minnesota and Purdue teams, scoring 102 points in the process. The Buckeyes were #6 going into Illinois on October 15.
The Illini were in the midst of a year that would see them reach the Rose Bowl and when they beat Ohio State 17-13, the Buckeyes were realistically out of contention. Not only would they miss the Rose Bowl again, they wouldn’t even play for the prize at Michigan on November 19.
Ohio State posted a pedestrian 21-11 win over a sub-.500 Michigan State team. Wisconsin was up next. The Badgers had beaten the Buckeyes each of the last two seasons and were in the mix to finish in the top three of the conference. The potential for a disappointing conference season to turn even worse was there when Bucky came to Columbus on October 29.
The running of Byars saved the Buckeyes. An up-and-down first half had Ohio State ahead 28-21, but Wisconsin immediately drove for a touchdown to start the third quarter, before missing the extra point. The Buckeyes took the game over from there.
Byars finished with 174 yards, while Tomczak was sharp and efficient, 12/14 for 162 yards. Ohio State controlled the line of scrimmage and pulled away to a 45-27 win. They followed it up with thumpings of lowly Indiana and Northwestern by a combined 111-24.
The Buckeyes might have been out of the Rose Bowl mix, but they were back in the Top 10 and the Sugar Bowl announced it planned to invite the winner of their game against Michigan as the foil for third-ranked Auburn. Even the loser would get a nice consolation prize in the Fiesta Bowl.
Another opportunity was met with disappointment though. Ohio State lost 24-21 and Bruce’s decision to try a trick “fumble-rooskie” play (where the quarterback sets the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman scoops it up and goes running) blew up in his face, creating a turnover when the Buckeyes were driving to tie or take the lead.
Ohio State’s final chance at redeeming this season would come in Tempe. The ideal opponent in that regard would have sixth-ranked SMU and their 10-1 record. But the Mustangs were not good television. Pitt was 8-2-1 and a nice story, having continued to win after the departure of Dan Marino to the NFL. The Buckeyes and Panthers would meet in the Fiesta Bowl.
John Congemi was the new Pitt quarterback and he threw a first-half touchdown. Ohio State got rushing TDs from Tomczak and Byars and led 14-7 at the half. The score held into the fourth quarter when suddenly things got crazy. Pitt tied the game, but Byars, who told the press afterward how much he wanted this game, took the kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown.
Another touchdown pass by Congemi put Pitt into position to tie the game, but they opted for a two-point try that missed. No matter, the Panthers got the ball back and kicked a field goal with 2:39 left. Trailing 23-21 against a good defense, the Buckeyes looked ready to endure one more disappointment.
Tomczak, often underappreciated for his importance in the offense due to the excellence of Byars, responded to the moment. He pushed Ohio State just past the Pitt 40-yard line, closing on field goal range. But the field goal wouldn’t be necessary. The number 39 proved to be magic–Tomczak found Jemison a 39-yard touchdown strike with 39 seconds left and the Buckeyes had a 28-23 win.
Ohio State had a big win and they got to #9 in the polls. It still wasn’t the wins the good people of Columbus wanted, but it was partial redemption. And the Buckeyes went back to the Rose Bowl a year later.