The 1980 Ohio State football team came into the season riding high. They had narrowly missed sharing the national title in 1979, the first year under coach Earle Bruce. The Buckeyes entered 1980 as the preseason #1 team in the country.
Junior quarterback Art Schlichter posted the second of three straight top 6 finishes in the Heisman Trophy voting. His 1,980 passing yards were third in the Big Ten behind only Purdue’s Mark Herrman and Illinois’ Dave Wilson, both of whom played in pass-happy attacks. Schlichter’s 8.5 yards-per-attempt were second in the conference and his 15/9 TD-INT ratio was good by the standards of the time.
Schlichter had two solid receivers in Doug Donley and Gary Williams and the offensive line was led by guard Joe Lukens, who got some All-American recognition. But perhaps no one mattered more to the offense than running back Calvin Murray.
Murray churned out over 1,200 yards and won the Big Ten rushing title. Even more impressive, he did it with efficiency, averaging a conference-best 6.5 yards-per-rush. And when Murray needed a break, Tim Spencer stepped in and produced 577 yards.
The defense wasn’t quite as decorated, but still had All-American linebacker Marcus Marek. Ohio State came out of the gate fast with a 31-21 win over Syracuse and a 47-0 blasting of Minnesota.
Those were wins over mediocre teams, but you couldn’t say the same about Arizona State. The Sun Devils came to Columbus ranked #20 and ended the season with seven wins. Both offenses cut loose, combining for over 1,000 yards and over 50 first downs. Schlichter threw two touchdown passes to Donley and another to Williams. The final was 38-21 and the Buckeyes remained atop the polls.
Another Pac-10 foe came to the Shoe a week later though, and the offense disappeared. UCLA, ranked #11, pressured Schlichter constantly. The Bruins sacked him five times and the quarterback had to leave early in the fourth quarter due to a combination of a slight concussion and poor play. A 17-0 loss sent Ohio State down to #9 in the rankings.
The Big Ten wasn’t very good this year and the next six games saw just one opponent with a winning record and that was Indiana who finished 6-5. The Buckeyes beat the Hoosiers 27-17 and on November 8 they had to survive a shootout with Illinois, 49-42.
Otherwise, the conference schedule leading into the finale with Michigan didn’t offer any challenges. There was 63-0 blasting of Northwestern, a 48-16 rout of Michigan State, a 41-7 demolition of Iowa and a historic 21-0 shutout at Wisconsin.
The latter game was history-making, because as a ten-year-old growing up just outside Madison, it was the first college football game I ever attended. I also learned that when attending an outdoor sporting event in cold weather, wear multiple pairs of socks.
Purdue was a legitimate challenger for the Big Ten title, but they were the one conference foe not on the Ohio State schedule. The Boilermakers lost to Michigan, so the traditional finale between the Buckeyes and Wolverines had the clarity of being for the undisputed conference title.
Ohio State had moved up to #5 in the rankings. Michigan was #10. But the Wolverines were coming on strong after two early non-conference losses and their defense completely dominated the game. The Buckeyes D was awfully good in its own right, but Ohio State lost 9-3. They settled for the Fiesta Bowl, ranked #11 at the end of the regular season.
The Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the major bowl that it is today—that was still a year off. But this game was the highlight of the bowl undercard in 1980. You had Ohio State, Penn State—then an independent–and a Top 10 finish at stake for both teams on the day after Christmas.
After spotting the Lions a 7-0 lead, the Buckeyes controlled the rest of the first half. Especially Schlichter. The quarterback went 15/22 for 214 yards and threw three first-half touchdown passes. Two went to Donley and another to Williams. The only downer for Ohio State was two missed extra points, and the game went to halftime at 19-10.
But the second half went downhill. Schlichter only went 5/13 for 58 yards and threw two interceptions after intermission. Ohio State had net zero total yards in the third quarter. Penn State cut the lead to 19-17.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lion running game was gashing the Buckeye defense. Ohio State gave up over 350 rushing yards on the game and two rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The Fiesta Bowl ended as a 31-19 loss.
The Buckeyes slipped to #15. Ohio State’s three-loss season started a trend. They lost at least three games each year through 1986. Those years included a Rose Bowl trip and victories here at the Fiesta Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, but that wasn’t the Buckeye goal. Bruce was fired after a 6-4-1 season in 1987.