The 1977 Orange Bowl was a consolation prize for the Ohio State Buckeyes, who had gone as high as #2 in the polls during the 1976 college football season, but lost their shot at the national title and then lost the Rose Bowl bid to Michigan. The Buckeyes met the Colorado Buffaloes, a program for whom this prime-time date in Miami was anything but a consolation prize. Let’s look back on the road Ohio State and Colorado took to reach this game.
Woody Hayes had taken Ohio State to four straight Rose Bowls from 1972-75, although the Buckeyes lost three of them, including the most recent to UCLA, which cost Ohio State a national championship. They were still loaded for bear and ranked #4 to open the 1976 season.
The Buckeyes had All-Americans on each side of the ball in offensive tackle Chris Ward and defensive end Bob Brudzinski, and they controlled the tempo of games with a powerful ground attack. Jeff Logan ran for over 1,200 yards to lead the team and powerful fullback Pete Johnson ground out over 700 more. The two quarterbacks, Jim Pacenta and Rod Gerald only threw a combined 94 passes all season long.
Ohio State opened the season by blasting Michigan State 49-21, and some upheaval among other top teams, quickly moved the Buckeyes to #2. The next game was a trip to Penn State, the first one Ohio State would ever make to Happy Valley.
The Buckeyes played opportunistic football against the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions. They forced a pair of turnovers in the red zone, built a 12-0 lead and then hung on after Penn State rallied. Ohio State forced one more turnover with 1:41 left and secured a 12-7 win.
But a letdown did the Buckeyes in back home in Columbus. They faced a Missouri team that was decent, but on their way to a 6-5 season, the Tigers should not have been able to compete with Ohio State. Instead, Hayes’ team suffered a 22-21 loss and skidded back to #8 in the polls. The schedule didn’t get easier with a road trip to fourth-ranked UCLA, but the Buckeyes ground out a 10-10 tie in Los Angeles.
The national championship was gone, with a loss and a tie, and Ohio State took it out on their next six Big Ten opponents. The conference only had one other winning team beyond OSU and Michigan, and that team—Minnesota—was only 6-5. Ohio State had to win a 9-3 battle with the Gophers, and rolled into their traditional season-ending battle with Michigan undefeated in league play and still ranked #8 nationally.
Another bitter home loss awaited. The game was scoreless in the first half when Gerald threw an interception in the end zone just prior to halftime. That was the last time Ohio State seriously threatened to win the game, as Michigan took over the second half and won 22-0. The Buckeyes dropped to #11 and the decision of the Orange Bowl to take them over higher-ranked UCLA was controversial.
The rationale of the Orange Bowl was about business—Ohio State would bring more fans than UCLA, and the bowl committee wanted an Eastern/Rustbelt presence to balance off Colorado. But it has to be said that even on the football merits, Ohio State had played UCLA to a tie on the road and it was reasonable to argue the Buckeyes simply deserved this bid.
Colorado’s path to Miami was quite different. Bill Mallory had taken over a struggling program and gotten a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation in 1974, but there were no signs of the Buffs being ready to challenge Nebraska, and certainly not Oklahoma, who had won the last two national championships. Colorado was unranked to start the 1976 season, and a road loss to what would prove a good Texas Tech team didn’t raise anyone’s expectations.
The Buffs bounced back with a win at Washington and then beat a bad Miami team at home. A rout of Drake sent Colorado into the Big Eight schedule, which they opened with a 24-12 loss to Nebraska.
Colorado bounced back with a 20-10 win at Oklahoma State, moving them into the Top 20 and a 33-14 rout of #16 Iowa State gained the Buffs further credibility. Oklahoma was coming to Boulder on October 30, and while the Sooners weren’t a vintage Barry Switzer powerhouse, they were still ranked #13.
The Buffaloes pulled off a 42-31 upset and the Big Eight race was officially in chaos. Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma State were each 3-1 in league play, with Oklahoma and Iowa State both giving chase at 2-2. The Orange Bowl bid, which went automatically to the league champ, was in the grasp of more than half the conference as November opened.
Colorado gave some of their progress back with a 16-7 loss at Missouri—the Tigers, even though their season was disappointing, still managed to beat both entrants in the Orange Bowl in 1976. The Buffs quickly responded with a blowout of Kansas and the conference race was now a four-way tie at the top.
That Mallory had his team still holding a chance at the Orange Bowl bid with one game left was still amazing. He had only one All-American, defensive back Mike Davis. Quarterback Jeff Krapple only completed 44 percent of his passes. The offense relied on 1,200-yard rusher Tony Reed. Now this team needed to just beat Kansas State and get some help.
Colorado upheld their end of the bargain in Manhattan, winning a wild game. They had won a share of the league crown, as had Oklahoma State. One more team was poised to claim a piece of what would be a tri-championship, and it was going to be the winner of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, played six days later on Black Friday.
The Buffs needed the Sooners to win—since Colorado had beaten both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, they would win the tiebreakers for the Orange Bowl nod. A Nebraska win, and the higher-ranked Cornhuskers would likely go to Miami. OU did its part to help the Cinderella story with a win, and the Buffs were going to South Beach.
Colorado looked like they might continue this magical ride a little longer when they jumped on top of Ohio State early in the Orange Bowl. The Buffs got an early field goal and they converted a big 4th-and-2 on the Buckeye 11 for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead. And they would win the turnover battle 4-2.
But in spite of falling behind, losing the turnover battle and having a completely inept passing game, the Ohio State running game was just too good. Logan bolted 36 yards up the middle for one touchdown and a field goal tied it up in the second quarter. Before halftime, Ohio State went on a 99-yard touchdown march that was capped off with a Johnson TD run. It was 17-10 at half, and the Buckeyes continued to control the second half, winning 27-10.
Mallory would go on to more success as a head coach, here, at Northern Illinois and at Indiana, but he never again reached a major bowl game. More surprising is that this game is the last big bowl Woody ever won. His team lost the Sugar Bowl the next year at Alabama, and one year later was the infamous Gator Bowl defeat where he punched an opposinag player and got fired. Had this been known at the time, the 1977 Orange Bowl win would have been more than just a light ending to a day when the national champion had already been crowned much earlier.