After going to four straight Rose Bowls from 1972-75, Woody Hayes’ program had slipped behind Bo Schembechler and Michigan in 1976. The Buckeyes continued the pattern in ‘77. They were good, but they lost all of their biggest games—including the only one that matters to fans in Columbus and Ann Arbor. The 1977 Ohio State football season was a harbinger for the end of Hayes’ legendary tenure.
Woody, as always, built his success around the running game. Ron Springs ran for almost 1,110 yards. Jeff Logan was a good complementary runner and an All-Big Ten fullback. The offensive line had an All-American in tackle Chris Ward. Tight end Jimmy Moore was All-Big Ten, and in this scheme, it certainly wasn’t about his ability to catch passes. Moore could block and the running game could muscle people. Ohio State quarterbacks, led by Rod Gerald, only completed 66 passes on the season.
The defense ranked fourth nationally in points allowed and had three All-Americans in the lineup—Aaron Brown up front, Tom Cousineau at linebacker, and Ray Griffin in the secondary. Kelton Dansler was all-conference at defensive tackle, while Mike Guess earned that same honor at defensive back.
Ohio State was ranked #5 in the preseason polls. An unimpressive tune up over a bad Miami team ended with a 10-0 win. The Buckeyes then had an early conference test against Minnesota. The Gophers were bowl-bound and would upset Michigan later in the season. But on this September afternoon in Columbus, Ohio State’s muscle was too much. Springs ran for 146 yards. Gerald added 64 more and threw a touchdown pass. The final was 38-7 and the Buckeyes moved up to #4.
The stage was set for a massive showdown against third-ranked Oklahoma. In a wild game, Ohio State fell behind 20-0 on their home field. They rallied and came back to lead 28-20. After the Sooners scored a late TD, the Buckeyes stopped the two-point play and appeared to have the game won. But they failed to cover the onside kick and were beaten on a last-play field goal. The 29-28 crusher was a blow to their national title hopes and pushed them down to #6 in the polls.
Ohio State closed the non-conference portion of their schedule by beating up a bad SMU team, 35-7 on the road. They came back home to play Purdue. The Boilermakers had a potent passing game, led by quarterback Mark Herrmann. Ohio State simply ran over them. Springs rolled up 151 yards. Freshman running back Joel Payton scored four touchdowns. The final was 46-zip.
That started a string of wins against sub-.500 Big Ten teams. The Buckeyes went to Iowa and won 27-6. They easily won at Northwestern, 35-15 Back-to-back shutouts followed, 42-0 over Wisconsin at home, and 35-0 against Illinois in Champaign.
Indiana finished the year 5-5-1 and was coached by Lee Corso, but the Buckeyes rolled the Hoosiers too, 35-7. They were back to #4 in the polls and the money part of the season had arrived.
Michigan was ranked #5 and the winner of the head-to-head battle would stay alive for the national championship in the Rose Bowl. Playing on the road, the Buckeyes were ready. Between the 20-yard lines they dominated play. But the red zone was problematic. The first three trips inside the Michigan 20-yard line produced two field goals and a lost fumble. The Wolverines’ two red zone trips ended in touchdowns. Ohio State trailed 14-6 late in the game.
There was no overtime in college football prior to 1996, so the best the Buckeyes could hope for was a tie when they began their last drive. But a tie, while killing national title hopes, would still put them in the Rose Bowl, thanks to Michigan’s loss to Minnesota.
Ohio State got in the red zone one more time. And one more time, they came up empty. Another lost fumble effectively ended the game at 14-6. An enraged Hayes knocked over an ABC sideline cameraman, an incident that was an ominous foreshadowing of when he would hit a Clemson player in the following season’s Gator Bowl and lose his job as a result.
There was still a chance at redemption. The Buckeyes’ 9-2 finish and #9 national ranking were enough to get a Sugar Bowl bid to play third-ranked Alabama. But the afternoon in New Orleans was an utter disaster. Even though the Tide fumbled the ball an astonishing ten times, Ohio State only recovered two of them. And they did nothing else well. The result was an embarrassing 35-6 loss and a final #11 finish in the polls.
The end of the Hayes era was drawing near. While the aforementioned Gator Bowl incident was the reason, there’s also no question Ohio State was starting to slip behind Michigan. 1977 was the last major bowl trip in the great head coach’s amazing career and a sign that the end was near.