John Cooper came to Columbus in 1988 after Earle Bruce stumbled to a 6-4-1 finish in 1987. But at least Bruce had produced Rose Bowl teams in 1979 and 1984. Cooper’s first year with the Buckeyes produced a losing season. 1989 saw improvement and an eight-win regular season. But that wasn’t why Cooper was hired. The 1990 Ohio State football team came close to getting where they were supposed to—Pasadena—before coming up just short in the end.
Robert Smith was the focal point of the Buckeye offense and the running back rolled up over 1,100 yards at better than six yards a pop. Raymont Harris, another running back with the NFL in his immediate future, ran for over 500 yards. Dan Beatty, the top center in the Big Ten, anchored the offensive line.
The quality of the running game covered up for a passing game that was so-so. Greg Frey was at quarterback and completed his 50 percent of his passes—a stat not as bad as it would be today, but still pedestrian. Frey’s top targets were receivers Bob Olive and Jeff Graham, the latter making All-Conference.
Vinnie Clark spearheaded the Buckeye defense from the secondary and he intercepted seven passes. Steve Tovar was an All-Big Ten performer at linebacker. Ohio State wasn’t stacked with talent the way they often are today, but they were pretty good and ranked 26th nationally in both points scored and points allowed.
The Buckeyes were ranked #17 in the preseason polls. They played a couple bad teams in Texas Tech and Boston College to get started and posted wins of 17-10 and 31-10 respectively. That set the stage for USC to come to Columbus.
USC had gotten the Pac-10’s Rose Bowl bid three years running and this would be a good early measuring stick for where Ohio State was. The results weren’t promising. Even though this Trojan team would slip, they still came to the Shoe and won 35-26. A week later, Illinois, a contender in the Big Ten, came in and won 31-20.
Ohio State was out of the national rankings. They had lost two straight games—at home, no less. A visit to Indiana—a competitive, bowl-bound team under Bill Mallory now loomed large. That game ended in a 27-27 tie. We were midway through October, the Buckeyes were 2-2-1 and were looking for answers.
A road trip to play a lousy Purdue squad was a needed tonic and produced a 42-2 win. Minnesota was up next. The offense exploded on a good team that would win more than they lost in 1990 and the Buckeyes won 52-23. A home game with lowly Northwestern ended with an easy 48-7 win.
Iowa was in command of the Big Ten race, having just thumped Illinois on the road and sitting on a 5-0 conference record. Ohio State paid a visit to Iowa City with a chance to turn the race around.
With eleven minutes to play, it wasn’t going well. The Buckeyes trailed 26-14. Then Frey hit Olive with a 21-yard touchdown pass. Defensive back Lance Prince intercepted a pass and set up the Ohio State offense with a short field at the Iowa 44-yard line. When that drive died just outside the red zone, things looked bleak.
But the defense held. Iowa shanked a punt. The Buckeye offense got the ball back on the Hawkeye 45-yard line with 0:59 left.
Frey hit Olive with a 23-yard pass. Two more completions to Graham put the ball on the three-yard line. Then, with one second left, Frey found Olive in the back of the end zone. Ohio State won 27-26 and the race was on in the Big Ten.
Iowa was still in first place, but Ohio State was just a half-game back. Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota were all one game out.
A date with an awful Wisconsin team, just started its rebuilding program under Barry Alvarez, was ideal for a team coming off a big win. Ohio State went to Madison and won 35-10. Iowa held serve.
We were going to the final Saturday of the season, two days after Thanksgiving. The Buckeyes were hosting Michigan in the noon EST time slot. Iowa was playing Minnesota, who had fallen by the wayside, a couple hours later. The Rose Bowl bid would go to either Iowa or Ohio State.
A hard-fought defensive battle in Columbus saw Ohio State and Michigan tied 13-13 with 1:47 left. The Buckeyes faced a fourth down on their own 29-yard line. A tie was the same as a loss as far as Ohio State’s Rose Bowl hopes went, so there was really no other choice but to go for it. Cooper did, it missed and Michigan kicked a field goal to win.
Iowa ended up losing later on, although we should note that they became aware of Ohio State’s loss by the second quarter, so it’s difficult to say what might have happened had the Buckeyes won and kept the pressure on. But officially, failing to beat Michigan, kept Ohio State from Pasadena.
There was still a chance to close the season on a good note. The Buckeyes were ranked #24 and going to the Liberty Bowl to play Air Force. But another opportunity was missed. Ohio State lost to a less talented team 23-11 and ended the season out of the polls.
The 1990 Ohio State team was all too typical of what came out of Columbus in the Cooper Era. They had good moments and were a good team. But they couldn’t beat Michigan and they couldn’t win bowl games. It took Cooper until 1996 to finally reach the Rose Bowl.