USC and Ohio State had both been away from Pasadena for what was, by their lofty standards, far too long. After playing each other following the 1979 season, neither program had been back. Here’s a look back at the paths the Trojans and Buckeyes traveled through the 1984 college football season to a January 1 battle at the 1985 Rose Bowl.
The Trojans had made one major bowl game in the four years since their last Rose Bowl, a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State following the 1981 season. But with Ted Tollner having taken over for John Robinson prior to 1983, the program seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, having gone 4-6-1 in Tollner’s first year.
Consequently, USC opened a season unranked for the first time in twenty years. There was still no shortage of talent though. The linebacking corps was led by Duane Bickett, who went on to win Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Future NFL linebacker, defensive coordinator and head coach Jack Del Rio was at another LB spot and he made All-American. Talented sophomore defensive back Tim McDonald would eventually be an All-American himself.
The offense didn’t have the feared running back that the great USC teams of recent lore had offered. Fred Crutcher ran for over 1,100 yards and was certainly a solid runner. But he only averaged 3.8 yards-per-attempt and was more of a workhorse than a true dominant back.
Tim Green was mediocre at quarterback, completing 52% of his passes and getting 6.5 yards-per-attempt. The receiving corps was respectable, with Hank Norman and Joe Cormier each ranking in the top six of the Pac-10 in receiving yards, but on balance, the passing game wasn’t going to frighten anyone.
USC opened the season on September 8 with a tuneup win over Utah State and then had a couple weeks off. With a lot of early upsets in the polls, idle was the right place to be, and by the time the Trojans went to Arizona State on September 22 they had moved to #15 in the polls.
After beating the Sun Devils, USC suffered what looked to be a terrible 23-3 home loss to unranked LSU. While a loss of this magnitude, especially at home, could never be acceptable, LSU did prove to be much better than anyone anticipated, earning a Sugar Bowl berth. Regardless, the Trojans moved back into the land of the unranked.
USC won road games at Washington State and Oregon, both average teams and neither win particularly impressive. A hard-fought 17-14 home win over Arizona and future Trojan coach Larry Smith was more impressive, as the Wildcats were on their way to a seven-win season. USC nudged back into the national rankings at #20.
An easy win over lowly Cal and a pedestrian 20-11 win at Stanford pushed USC back to #14, but more important was the fact they were undefeated in Pac-10 play. It might not have been pretty, but a November 10 home game with #1 Washington had turned into a battle to clinch both a share of the conference title and a Rose Bowl bid.
Trojan placekicker Steve Jordan had a good pedigree—his brother Frank had been a hero for the 1978 team, delivering several clutch kicks, including a game-winner over Notre Dame. Steve didn’t have to come up with those kind of heroics, but he was clutch on this day in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Jordan nailed a 51-yard field goal to start the scoring and later added another. USC still trailed 7-6 at the half, but a short touchdown run by Crutcher and another Jordan field goal made it 16-7 and the defense took over. They intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter and secured the win that locked up a Rose Bowl return.
USC would still go to Pasadena on a low note. They were trounced by UCLA 29-10, and then lost at home to Notre Dame 19-7. A Trojan head coach had three jobs—beat UCLA, beat Notre Dame and win the Rose Bowl. Tollner had whiffed on the first two, but would still get a chance at the biggest of the three prizes.
Ohio State had missed the New Year’s stage for three straight years after their meeting with USC following the 1979 season. The Buckeye program restored a little momentum in 1983 when they reached the Fiesta Bowl and won it. The returned an excellent running back in Keith Byars to build the offense around.
Byars rushed for 1,764 yards and did so with a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. He had the most carries of any back in the Big Ten, the most yards and his YPA was still third. Byars’ 22 touchdowns were twice as many as the next man on the list.
He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie. It was a distant second, as Flutie had a dominant regular season and then a magical finish with his legendary desperation pass to beat Miami in the finale. But it’s worth noting that Byars was the runner-up by a landslide as well, easily outpacing candidates like Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, and BYU signal-caller Robbie Bosco, who posted huge numbers for the eventual national champion.
The offensive line was anchored by Jim Lachey, an All-American and future NFL mainstay with the Washington Redskins. Lachey would become one of the last of the “Hogs” and be an integral part of the franchise’s 1991 team that won the Super Bowl. As a diehard Redskins fan myself, I continue to wear Lachey’s #79 in my Wednesday Night men’s basketball league, making me perhaps the only basketball player in the history of civilization to wear #79. But I digress.
Another future NFL legend in Cris Carter was at wide receiver, and he finished with 41 catches for 648 yards, the latter good for sixth among Big Ten receivers. Mike Lanese wasn’t far behind at 41/618 respectively. John Woolridge had 633 receiving yards of his own, as quarterback Mike Tomczak spread the ball around.
Tomczak would go on to a long NFL career, ad he had a solid season in 1984. The completion percentage was a sharp 59%, he threw for nearly 2,000 yards and his 8.6 yards-per-pass was second in the conference.
Ohio State opened the season ranked #7, but they didn’t play well in a 22-14 home win over lowly Oregon State and slipped to #9. A bounceback win over Washington State—led by quarterback Mark Rypien, the man whose blind side Lachey would protect in the NFL—was a 44-0 rout and upsets elsewhere had the Buckeyes up to #5.
A home showdown with #14 Iowa was next and Ohio State was dominant. Byars ran for two touchdowns and even threw a 35-yard scoring pass. The Buckeyes had a 31-14 lead by the second quarter and they won 45-26. When they followed it up with a 35-22 win at Minnesota, in their first year under Lou Holtz, Ohio State was up to #2 in the nation.
But a trip to Purdue quickly undid the national title push. The Boilermakers had a future NFL quarterback of their own in strong-armed Jim Everett and they upset the Buckeyes 28-23. Ohio State was down to #8 in the polls.
They rallied with a 45-38 win over defending conference champion Illinois, and then won at Michigan State 23-20. But a 16-14 loss at Wisconsin closed October and seemed to dim the Rose Bowl hopes. All three opponents, the Illini, Spartans and Badgers were good teams, but this wasn’t what the Ohio State faithful had in mind.
When November began, Iowa was in first place with a 5-1 record, while Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue were all chasing at 4-2. Michigan, on a disappointing season was 3-3, as was Wisconsin.
Ohio State crushed winless Indiana 50-7 and then started to get some breaks, mainly thanks to the very Wisconsin team that had beaten them. The Badgers played Iowa to a tie and the conference lead was cut to a half-game. Ohio State then smoked two-win Northwestern 52-3 and Wisconsin did an even bigger favor by knocking off Purdue. Iowa was upset by Minnesota and suddenly the Buckeyes were in control.
Coming into the season finale with Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois were tied for first at 6-2. But the Illini were on probation and ineligible for the Rose Bowl. In either case, the Buckeyes owned the tiebreaker, so the stakes for them were the same—beat the Wolverines and go to Pasadena. The Illinois probation only meant that it would be Iowa as the beneficiary if Ohio State should lose.
Michigan, predictably, came out with one of its best efforts of a lackluster 6-5 season. Byars couldn’t find any running room in the first half and even going into the fourth quarter, Ohio State led just 7-6.
The great running back was able to get loosened up after halftime though, rushing for 71 yards after intermission and by the fourth quarter that took its tool. Tomczak converted a big 3rd-and-12 to key one touchdown drive, the Buckeyes added another score and won 21-6. They were up to #6 in the polls and would go to Pasadena playing for a top five national finish.
The Rose Bowl itself would produce a kicking display. Jordan set a bowl-game record with a 51-yard field goal in the first quarter. That record lasted exactly two quarters—Ohio State counterpart Rich Spangler booted a 52-yard field goal in the third quarter.
USC got a pair of first-half touchdown passes from Green to take control with a 17-3 lead. Ohio Stat crawled their way back and when Tomczak hit Carter on an 18-yard touchdown pass with 7:34 to play, the lead was down to 20-17. But the Trojan defense, with Del Rio winning game MVP honors, held on.
It would be the final Rose Bowl for both head coaches. Tollner reverted to struggling for a couple more years before being fired. Bruce only had three years left in Columbus, including a Cotton Bowl win a couple years down the line, but the angst of the faithful, fueled by losses like this one in Pasadena where his team was a favorite, pushed him out the door in 1987.