Ohio State came into the 1984 Fiesta Bowl on a low note, having finished third in the Big Ten and losing to Michigan. Pitt came to the Fiesta Bowl with every reason to feel good about themselves, having gone 8-2-1 in their first year post-Dan Marino. Let’s take a look back on the road these Rustbelt teams took through the 1983 college football season to make it to Tempe.
The honeymoon was over for Earle Bruce in Columbus. After taking Ohio State to an undefeated season in his first year in 1979, Bruce had lost the Rose Bowl that year and then failed to make any major bowl game—much less the coveted Rose—in the ensuing three years.
Bruce had good skill position talent on hand for 1983, and it started with running back Keith Byars. The big back ran for nearly 1,200 yards and one year later he would finish second to Doug Flutie in the Heisman Trophy voting. Byars was the workhorse of the Big Ten in carries and still finished a solid fourth in yards-per-attempt. His 20 touchdowns also led the conference.
Mike Tomczak had a long NFL career ahead of him, including quarterbacking some playoff teams. In 1983 at Ohio State, Tomczak completed a respectable 55 percent of his passes for a solid 8.2 yards-per-attempt. His top target with tight end John Frank, while wide receiver Cedric Anderson was a big play threat and Thad Jemison a solid third target.
The Buckeyes weren’t loaded defensively, but defensive back Kelvin Bell intercepted five passes. The high expectations that have been in Columbus seemingly forever were in place in 1983, as they were ranked ninth in the preseason poll.
If Ohio State and Oregon played a season-opener today, it would be a nationally televised affair, the rematch of the championship game in the first-ever College Football Playoff. In 1983, Oregon was still a subpar team and they came into Columbus for a perfunctory 31-6 trouncing that got the Buckeyes for their trip to second-ranked Oklahoma.
Frank made a key decision before the game—an observant Jew on Rosh Hashanah weekend, he would play. Whether it was the right move isn’t something for a non-Jew to comment on, but it was a big help for the football team. Frank caught two first-half touchdown passes and Ohio State stunned the crowd in Norman by taking a 21-0 lead by the third quarter. They won 24-14 in a game not as respectable as the score makes it sound.
Oklahoma would prove to be a four-loss disappointment, but for now, Ohio State was riding high and moved up to #3 in the national rankings.
But the start of Big Ten play brought problems and the Buckeyes dropped a tough 20-14 decision at seventh-ranked Iowa. Ohio State slipped to #8, before rebounding with wins over bad Minnesota and Purdue teams, scoring 102 points in the process. The Buckeyes were #6 going into Illinois on October 15.
The Illini were in the midst of a year that would see them reach the Rose Bowl and when they beat Ohio State 17-13, the Buckeyes were realistically out of contention. Not only would they miss the Rose Bowl again, they wouldn’t even play for the prize at Michigan on November 19.
Ohio State posted a pedestrian 21-11 win over a sub-.500 Michigan State team. Wisconsin was up next. The Badgers had beaten the Buckeyes each of the last two seasons and were in the mix to finish in the top three of the conference. The potential for a disappointing conference season to turn even worse was there when Bucky came to Columbus on October 29.
The running of Byars saved the Buckeyes. An up-and-down first half had Ohio State ahead 28-21, but Wisconsin immediately drove for a touchdown to start the third quarter, before missing the extra point. The Buckeyes took the game over from there.
Byars finished with 174 yards, while Tomczak was sharp and efficient, 12/14 for 162 yards. Ohio State controlled the line of scrimmage and pulled away to a 45-27 win. They followed it up with thumpings of lowly Indiana and Northwestern by a combined 111-24.
The Buckeyes might have been out of the Rose Bowl mix, but they were back in the Top 10 and the Sugar Bowl announced it planned to invite the winner of the OSU-Michigan as the foil for third-ranked Auburn.
Another opportunity was met with disappointment though. Ohio State lost 24-21 and Bruce’s decision to try a trick “fumble-rooskie” play (where the quarterback sets the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman scoops it up and goes running) blew up in his face, creating a turnover when the Buckeyes were driving to tie or take the lead.
It was Ohio State’s good fortune to be given another chance for redemption, as the Fiesta Bowl passed over 10-1 and sixth-ranked SMU for the marquee program out of Columbus. Now the Buckeyes needed to make the most of it.
Pitt was unranked to start the season, a departure from what had been expected of this program over the previous seven years when they had either Tony Dorsett at quarterback or Marino at quarterback, won a national title in 1976, been ranked #1 at various points and had two straight major bowl appearances on their resume.
John Congemi stepped in at quarterback, and while he didn’t fling it around like Marino had, the future Hall of Famer had endured an interception-prone senior season. Congemi had a sparkling TD-INT ratio of 16-8, while completing 59 percent of his passes. While there’s no comparison between these two quarterbacks in the bigger picture, Pitt was better off in 1983.
One reason was the running game, with consensus All-American offensive tackle Bill Fralic leading the way for Joe McCall, who ran for 961 yards. The receiving corps was balanced, with Bill Wallace and Dwight Collins. And the first game of the season made it apparent that Pitt wasn’t going to go quietly into the night.
The Panthers went to Tennessee to play former coach Johnny Majors, who had departed after winning the ’76 title. The Vols had one of the best defensive tackles of all-time in Reggie White. Pitt coach Foge Fazio knew something about defense himself and the game was low-scoring battle. Collins caught the game’s only TD pass and Pitt had a 13-3 road win over a team that would go on to an 8-3 season.
It still didn’t get the Panthers any love in the national rankings, although a 35-0 whitewash of Temple got Pitt up to #16. They suffered their first loss of the season, 13-7 at Maryland and moved out of the rankings. But it was another strong defensive outing against a Terps team that had Boomer Esiason at quarterback and would win the ACC.
The defense didn’t come through against Jeff Hostetler and seventh-ranked West Virginia in a 24-21 road loss. But the season began to turn decisively in Pitt’s favor at home against Florida State. It was the first of several games against top-flight running backs, in this case FSU’s Greg Allen, who got some All-American votes. Pitt won 17-16.
They followed it up with two road wins. It started with a 55-0 blasting of lowly Louisville and then a 21-14 win over Navy, who had another back with some All-American recognition in Napoleon McCallum. When Pitt edged an average Syracuse team 13-10 at home, it set up a November 5 trip to Notre Dame
It was another game against a top back in Allan Pinkett. The Irish were ranked #18 and making noises about the Fiesta Bowl spot themselves. But Pitt struck quickly. Congemi threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Wallace, the Panthers recovered a fumble, McCall scored and it was 14-0.
McCall went to rush for 116 yards and scored one more touchdown. Pitt’s stingy defense intercepted four passes and they won 21-16, moving back into the polls at #20. They rolled over Army to nudge up to #17 and the season ended with a 24-24 tie against archrival Penn State, who struggled to a four-loss season.
At 8-2-1, it’s also fair to say that Pitt could have been passed over for SMU as easily as Ohio State could have. It’s also fair to say that Pitt was a lot happier about their season than Ohio State when the Fiesta Bowl arrived.
Congemi threw for a first-half touchdown, while both Tomczak and Byars ran in, and Ohio State led 14-7 at the half. The score held into the fourth quarter when suddenly things got crazy. Pitt tied the game, but Byars, who told the press afterward how much he wanted this game, took the kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown.
Another touchdown pass by Congemi put Pitt into position to tie the game, but they opted for a two-point try that missed. No matter, the Panthers got the ball back and kicked a field goal with 2:39 left. Trailing 23-21 against a good defense, the Buckeyes looked ready to endure one more disappointment.
Tomczak, often underappreciated for his importance in the offense due to the excellence of Byars, responded to the moment. He pushed Ohio State just past the Pitt 40-yard line, closing on field goal range. But the field goal wouldn’t be necessary. The number 39 proved to be magic–Tomczak found Jemison a 39-yard touchdown strike with 39 seconds left and the Buckeyes had a 28-23 win.
For Ohio State, the road to redemption led to a Rose Bowl return a year later. For Pitt, the loss was the signal that the good years of their program were over, as they would not make a major bowl game until coming back to this same venue in 2004.