Woody Hayes had been in Columbus for over two decades. He had national titles under his belt from 1954 and 1968. The 1973 Ohio State football team nearly gave him a third. Even coming up short, they still gave Woody his fourth Rose Bowl triumph. And along the way, they played one of the most legendary—and controversial—tie games in college football history.
The Buckeyes were anchored by the stingiest defense in the country. Randy Gradishar was an All-American linebacker, bound for a solid NFL career in Denver. Van DeCree was another All-American at defensive end. There were All-Big Ten players at each level of the defense—Pete Cusick up front, Rick Middleton at linebacker and Neal Colzie in the secondary.
With a defense like that, it’s easy to see why Woody eschewed the passing game and played it extremely safe—even by the standards of this run-heavy era—on offense. Cornelius Greene played quarterback and attempted just 46 passes all season.
But Greene was good with his legs, running for over 700 yards. And there was no need to throw the ball much when you could hand it off to Archie Griffin. The sophomore back who would win Heismans in both his junior and senior seasons, ran for nearly 1,600 yards in this ’73 campaign and averaged over six a pop.
All-American offensive tackle John Hicks was so well-regarded nationally that he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting—a distant second, but the last time an offensive lineman has ever placed so high in the Heisman race. Ohio State’s offense ranked fourth nationally in points scored.
The Buckeyes were #2 in the opening polls and began the season at home against Minnesota. This era of Big Ten football is rightly remembered as one where Ohio State and Michigan were clearly head-and-shoulders above the field. But in 1973, the Gophers were just as clearly the third-best team and would win seven games. This was no easy way to begin a season.
Only Ohio State made it look easy. Griffin rushed for 249 yards. Colzie brought a punt back 78 yards to the house. Minnesota’s only points came when they returned a kickoff for a touchdown. And the Gophs had plenty of opportunities to return kickoffs—Ohio State racked up eight touchdowns in a 56-7 romp.
By the time the Buckeyes played again on September 29, they were #1 in the country. They hammered a bad TCU team 37-3 and they beat mediocre Washington State 27-3. Three more subpar Big Ten teams were next on the schedule. Ohio State shut out Wisconsin 24-0, went to Indiana and racked up a 37-7 win, then buried Northwestern 60-zip for the home crowd.
Illinois and Michigan State were mediocre opponents that would each finish 5-6 on the year. The Buckeyes opened November by winning 30-0 in Champaign. A week later, at home against the Spartans, that Ohio State defense put another goose egg on the board—a 35-0 win. A 55-13 rout of hapless Iowa completed what amounted to a long tuneup for the games everyone was waiting for—the road trip to Ann Arbor and then (hopefully), a Rose Bowl rematch with USC.
Michigan was also undefeated and ranked #4, so the rivalry game had national title implications both ways. Ohio State came out ready to go and was controlling the game in the first half. Griffin, along with big fullback Pete Johnson shared the load on the ground and led a touchdown drive. The Buckeyes added a field goal and led 10-0 at the half.
In the second half, Woody—even by the standards of this year’s team—got ultra-conservative. Michigan got momentum. They got a field goal. The Wolverines drove down to the Ohio State 10-yard line and faced fourth-and-inches. They converted. The game was tied 10-10.
The Buckeyes were now back on their heels. A tie would be devastating to their national title hopes in a year where Notre Dame and Alabama were both unbeaten and headed for a Sugar Bowl showdown. It was also believed in the moment that a tie would kill their Rose Bowl hopes. The Big Ten had a long tradition of not allowing the same team to go to Pasadena in consecutive years. Ohio State had gone in 1972. While that rule had been thankfully lifted prior to this season, there was an understandable belief that the conference would default to the old rule if a tie in this game created a co-championship.
What’s more, the tie almost became a non-factor. Michigan started another drive as the clock got under two minutes. Ohio State’s defense held and a 58-yard field goal try that was hopeless from the start ended up missing. But Greene threw an interception and gave the Wolverines another chance. This time, they lined up for a 43-yard try. But it missed again. The 10-10 tie was in the books.
The Rose Bowl bid would be settled by a vote of the Big Ten athletic directors. Woody seemed resigned to the fact his team’s season was over—conference schools were also prohibited from going to any other bowl besides the Rose, so everything hinged on this vote.
But in what proved to be pleasant surprise in Columbus, Ohio State won the vote. The backroom intrigue and implications of this vote have made for documentaries. To say Michigan coach Bo Schembechler was upset would be an understatement. But the Buckeyes were going back to the Rose Bowl.
A year earlier, Ohio State had been blown out by USC in a Rose Bowl game that settled the national championship. This one didn’t have those stakes, with the Buckeyes now ranked #4 and the Trojans at #7. But there was considerable pressure on Ohio State from within—the conference ADs reportedly voted for them because of a belief the Buckeyes gave the league a better chance to win. Now they had to back it up.
After spotting USC an early field goal, Pete Johnson ran in for a go-ahead touchdown. The great Buckeye defense showed soft spots in the second quarter. The Trojans added another field goal, then scored a touchdown when star running back Anthony Davis threw a TD pass off a trick play. The subsequent two-point conversion had Ohio State down 14-7. Even when Johnson scored again to tie the game by halftime, Davis answered with a TD of his own in the third quarter.
Trailing 21-14 and conference pride on the line, the Buckeyes took over. Griffin got rolling and finished the game with 149 yards. Ohio State scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to take a 28-21 lead. They scored two more in the fourth quarter, the last a 47-yard gallop from Griffin that sealed the deal. A decisive 42-21 win vaulted the Buckeyes to #2 in the final polls behind Sugar Bowl-winning Notre Dame.
Woody still had five more years to coach in Columbus and he would win Big Ten championships each of the next two seasons. But this 1973 Ohio State football team holds a special place in program lore as the last time the great head coach won in Pasadena.