Earle Bruce was in his third year as head coach at Ohio State. After a sterling start to his tenure in Columbus with an 11-0 regular season in 1979, Bruce lost the national championship in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State lost the Fiesta Bowl following the 1980 season and continued a downward trend in 1981, settling for a Liberty Bowl bid. But beating Michigan soothes all wounds and the 1981 Ohio State football team put that feather in their cap before the year was over.
Ohio State was led by quarterback Art Schlichter, about to be top five overall pick in the coming NFL draft. Schlichter had a bit of a disappointing senior season though. His stats of a 52% completion rate, 7.3 yards-per-attempt and 17/10 TD-INT ratio were middle of the pack in the Big Ten. Not bad, but not the stuff of the Heisman contender he had been the previous two years and was expected to be again in 1981.
Schlichter’s primary targets were wide receiver Gary Williams, who caught 50 passes for 941 yards and tight end John Franks who caught 45 more. Franks would end up being a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Cedric Anderson, another big-play threat, rounded out the receiving corps.
Tim Spencer led the way in the ground game, rushing for over 1,200 yards and gaining 5.4 yards-per-carry. Jimmy Gayle was a solid #2 running back, with 732 yards at 4.8 a pop. The Ohio State offense was just fine—it was the defense that had problems. Ohio State had no defensive personnel show up in any of the All-American lists and they finished a woeful 83rd in the country in points allowed.
Ohio State opened the season ranked #11 and began by easily knocking off two mediocre opponents, Duke and Michigan State by 34-13 and 27-13 counts. The Buckeyes did not play well at subpar Stanford, but survived 24-19. The poor performance was a foreshadowing though. Florida State came to Columbus on October 3. The Seminoles were destined for a 6-5 year, but they won this game 36-27. Ohio State dropped to #18 in the polls.
Things didn’t get any better on a road trip to Wisconsin. The Buckeyes had beaten the Badgers 21 straight times, including consecutive shutouts, but this was an improved Wisconsin team that would win seven games and get a bowl bid.
In the final thirty seconds of the first half, Ohio State fumbled a punt to that set up a quick UW touchdown. Then Schlichter made an errant pitch to Spencer resulting in another turnover and a last-second Badger field goal. The Buckeyes trailed 24-14 late in the fourth quarter before a touchdown with 1:30 left made the final score cosmetically closer at 24-21. Ohio State disappeared from the national rankings.
A 34-27 win over a pretty good Illinois team restored some order and the Buckeyes then blew out lowly Indiana 29-10. Ohio State outgunned Purdue 45-33 and closed October atop the Big Ten standings at 4-1.
1981 was a year of change in the Big Ten after twelve years of things coming down to the Ohio State-Michigan game. This year, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois were all packed within a game of the lead. And the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot when they were upset 35-31 at mediocre Minnesota.
Even though Ohio State massacred winless Northwestern 70-6, the Rose Bowl was a longshot when the Buckeyes went to Ann Arbor on November 21. Michigan controlled its destiny for Pasadena, but if Ohio State won they needed help—Iowa needed to lose to Michigan State.
The Buckeyes trailed 3-0 in the second quarter and Michigan was driving, but Ohio State got an interception at their own 18-yard line to kill the threat. Then they put together a 13-play/82-yard drive to get a 7-3 lead.
Ohio State was able to run the ball, with Spencer gaining 110 yards in a battle with Michigan counterpart Butch Woolfolk, who won the conference rushing title. And the defense was finally coming through. Even though they gave up a couple field goals, the Buckeyes picked off two more passes. The biggest one came in the end zone by Kelvin Bell in the fourth quarter.
The turnovers allowed the Buckeyes to put together one more drive and they reached the Michigan six-yard line with less than three minutes to play. Schlichter had a run-pass option play called for him and made a nice pump fake to create space and then bolted into the end zone. Ohio State had a 14-9 win. Even though Iowa also won, the Buckeyes had beaten their archrival and redeemed the season.
A Liberty Bowl date with Navy came on December 30. Schlichter struck first, hitting Williams on a 50-yard touchdown strike and a blocked punt set up a Buckeye field goal. The Midshipmen clawed back to tie the game 10-10 in the second quarter, but Ohio State recovered a fumble to set up another touchdown and they led 17-13 at the half.
It was Ohio State’s turn for a special teams gaffe in the third quarter, as they allowed a blocked punt to the Mids and fell behind 20-17. Navy was getting a good running effort from Eddie Meyers, who rushed for 117 yards. But the prolific Buckeye offense fought back.
Spencer carried 22 times for 96 yards and he got valuable help from Gayle, who added 88 yards on 15 carries. It was Gayle who scored the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Schlichter tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Anderson for a touchdown that all but sealed the deal. Navy scored another touchdown and two-point conversion, but not until there were just eight seconds left and Ohio State won 31-28.
The victories over Michigan and in the Liberty Bowl ended the season on an up note, but Ohio State was settling into a pattern of three-loss seasons. That’s a pattern that eventually cost Bruce his job at the end of the 1987 season.