Ohio State had missed the New Year’s stage for three straight years after their meeting with USC following Earle Bruce’s electric first season of 1979. The Buckeye program restored a little momentum in 1983 when they reached the Fiesta Bowl and won it. The 1984 Ohio State football edition got back to the Rose Bowl.
Bruce returned an excellent running back in Keith Byars to build the offense around. Byars rushed for 1,764 yards and did so with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. He had the most carries of any back in the Big Ten, the most yards and his YPA was still third. Byars’ 22 touchdowns were twice as many as the next man on the list.
He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie. It was a distant second, as Flutie had a dominant regular season and then a magical finish with his legendary desperation pass to beat Miami in the finale. But it’s worth noting that Byars was the runner-up by a landslide as well, easily outpacing candidates like Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, and BYU signal-caller Robbie Bosco, who posted huge numbers for the eventual national champion.
The offensive line was anchored by Jim Lachey, an All-American and future NFL mainstay with the Washington Redskins. Lachey would become one of the last of the “Hogs” and be an integral part of the franchise’s 1991 team that won the Super Bowl. As a diehard Redskins fan myself, I wore Lachey’s #79 in my Wednesday Night men’s basketball league over twenty years later, making me perhaps the only basketball player in the history of civilization to wear #79. But I digress.
Another future NFL legend in Cris Carter was at wide receiver, and he finished with 41 catches for 648 yards, the latter good for sixth among Big Ten receivers. Mike Lanese wasn’t far behind at 41/618 respectively. John Woolridge had 633 receiving yards of his own, as quarterback Mike Tomczak spread the ball around.
Tomczak would go on to a long NFL career, and he had a solid season in 1984. The completion percentage was a sharp 59%, he threw for nearly 2,000 yards and his 8.6 yards-per-pass was second in the conference.
Ohio State opened the season ranked #7, but they didn’t play well in a 22-14 home win over lowly Oregon State and slipped to #9. A bounce back win over Washington State—led by quarterback Mark Rypien, the man whose blind side Lachey would protect in the NFL—was a 44-0 rout and upsets elsewhere had the Buckeyes up to #5.
A home showdown with #14 Iowa was next and Ohio State was dominant. Byars ran for two touchdowns and even threw a 35-yard scoring pass. The Buckeyes had a 31-14 lead by the second quarter and they won 45-26. When they followed it up with a 35-22 win at Minnesota, in their first year under Lou Holtz, Ohio State was up to #2 in the nation.
But a trip to Purdue quickly undid the national title push. The Boilermakers had a future NFL quarterback of their own in strong-armed Jim Everett and they upset the Buckeyes 28-23. Ohio State was down to #8 in the polls.
They rallied with a 45-38 win over defending conference champion Illinois, and then won at Michigan State 23-20. But a 16-14 loss at Wisconsin closed October and seemed to dim the Rose Bowl hopes. All three opponents, the Illini, Spartans and Badgers were good teams, but this wasn’t what the Ohio State faithful had in mind.
When November began, Iowa was in first place with a 5-1 record, while Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue were all chasing at 4-2. Michigan, on a disappointing season was 3-3, as was Wisconsin.
Ohio State crushed winless Indiana 50-7 and then started to get some breaks, mainly thanks to the very Wisconsin team that had beaten them. The Badgers played Iowa to a tie and the conference lead was cut to a half-game. Ohio State then smoked two-win Northwestern 52-3 and Wisconsin did an even bigger favor by knocking off Purdue. Iowa was upset by Minnesota and suddenly the Buckeyes were in control.
Coming into the season finale with Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois were tied for first at 6-2. But the Illini were on probation and ineligible for the Rose Bowl. In either case, the Buckeyes owned the tiebreaker, so the stakes for them were the same—beat the Wolverines and go to Pasadena. The Illinois probation only meant that it would be Iowa as the beneficiary if Ohio State should lose.
Michigan, predictably, came out with one of their best efforts of a lackluster 6-5 season. Byars couldn’t find any running room in the first half and even going into the fourth quarter, Ohio State led just 7-6.
The great running back was able to get loosened up after halftime though, rushing for 71 yards after intermission and by the fourth quarter that took its tool. Tomczak converted a big 3rd-and-12 to key one touchdown drive, the Buckeyes added another score and won 21-6. They were going to the Rose Bowl.
A vintage opponent in USC was waiting. But this anything but a vintage Trojan team. They had four losses, including their final two regular season games to UCLA and Notre Dame. The Buckeyes were ranked #6 and smelling the top five national finish that would surely be theirs if they won the game.
Except it didn’t work out that way. Even though Ohio State kicker Rich Spangler set a Rose Bowl record in the first half with a 52-yard field goal, those were their only points of the first half. The Buckeyes dug themselves a 17-3 hole. They kept fighting and when Tomczak hit Carter on an 18-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter, the deficit was cut to 20-17. But the comeback bid ended there.
Little did anyone know that Bruce had only three years left in Columbus. He won the Cotton Bowl two years later, but the angst of the faithful, fueled by losses like this one in Pasadena where his team was a favorite, pushed him out the door in 1987. Ohio State did not make it back to the Big Ten’s most prestigious stage until 1996.