John Cooper walked the sidelines in Columbus for 13 seasons. His teams were generally pretty good, contended for Big Ten titles and occasionally more than that. His teams also came up short in the season’s biggest moments and usually left the fan base with a sour taste in their mouths at the end. The 1993 Ohio State football team very much fit that description in all aspects.
Cooper had a good offensive line keyed by tackles Korey Stringer and Jason Winrow, both of whom got recognition in the All-American voting. Raymont Harris, a running back who later played with Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, rolled up 1,344 yards. When Harris didn’t carry the ball, it went to Butler By’not’e, a Big Ten champion sprinter who added 474 yards.
Ohio State didn’t have to throw a lot, which was good, because Bobby Hoying had pedestrian numbers at quarterback. But they had a big-time playmaker on the outside in wide receiver Joey Galloway. With his 47 catches at an astonishing twenty yards a pop, the future NFL wideout and current ESPN analyst kept defenses from getting too comfortable focusing on the run.
Hoying’s shortcomings kept the offense at 30th in the country in points scored. That was fine though, because the defense was better. Dan Wilkinson, known as “Big Daddy” was an All-American defensive tackle, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and became the first overall pick in the NFL draft the following spring. Wilkinson keyed a defense that ranked 12th nationally in points allowed. Defensive back Walter Taylor was a beneficiary of the discomfort opposing quarterbacks felt with his five interceptions.
Ohio State was ranked #17 in the country. Michigan had won at least a share of the last five Big Ten championships. Penn State had just arrived in the league and was a national contender. The Buckeyes were seen as good, but not anything for a program with their standards to get super-excited about.
After a 34-7 win over mediocre Rice opened the season, Ohio State got a chance on the national stage. They hosted 12th-ranked Washington in ABC’s prime-time game. Brent Musberger was calling the game and I’d be interested in a broadcast review that counted the number of times he said the words “Big Daddy” in very dramatic tones. Not only was it very Brent-ish, it was justified—Wilkinson was dominant.
The Buckeyes took a 14-3 lead, with Harris on his way to 102 yards and Galloway catching a 35-yard touchdown pass. Washington cut the margin to 14-12 with eleven minutes to play. By’not’e’ put it away with a 49-yard gallop that sealed the 21-12 win. Ohio State moved up to #11 in the polls. After blowing out lowly Pitt 63-28 a week later, the Buckeyes were in the top 10.
Big Ten play started against a bad Northwestern team and produced another easy win, 51-3. Mediocre teams in Illinois and Michigan State were up next. Ohio State wasn’t dominant, but won both games, by scores of 20-12 and 28-21 respectively. The Buckeyes went to Purdue, who was absolutely awful, and won 45-24.
Ohio State was up to #3 in the nation and the money time of the season had arrived. A home date with Penn State was next, followed by a road trip to surprising Wisconsin who was making their first foray into contention under Barry Alvarez. The Buckeyes would then host Indiana, a tough bowl-bound team that would win eight games. After that came to the trip to Ann Arbor. Time to find out how good this Ohio State team really was.
Against Penn State, the answer seemed to be “awfully darn good.” Playing in a cold and snow that got worse as the game went on, Harris pounded his way to 151 yards on the ground. Ohio State’s defense forced five turnovers. The biggest came in the second quarter. Leading 10-6, Taylor intercepted a pass at his own 35 to stop a Lion drive. Hoying led the offense down the field, hit Galloway with a 25-yard touchdown pass and Ohio State never looked back. They won 24-6.
Florida State and Notre Dame were 1-2 in the polls and headed toward a showdown with each other. The bowl commitments of the time meant that Ohio State had to play the Pac-10 champ in the Rose Bowl. So they needed help. They needed the team that won the ND-FSU game to then turn around and lose. It seemed like a longshot this late in the season. But with the perspective of history we know that’s exactly what happened.
Could Ohio State take care of business? They went to Wisconsin. The Buckeye offense couldn’t get going. With under five minutes to play, they trailed 14-7 and were pinned on their own 1-yard line. In an astonishing drive, keyed by Galloway’s explosiveness, Ohio State went the distance in four plays and 46 seconds.
Prior to 1996 there was no overtime in college football, so Cooper had a decision to make. Kick the extra point and a likely tie? Or go for two and the win. The Buckeyes needed a W to stay in the national title race. But they would keep control of the Rose Bowl bid with a tie. Cooper kicked the extra point.
It almost bit OSU in the rear end. Wisconsin drove down and had a chance at a makeable field goal on the game’s final play. The Buckeyes blocked the kick. They slipped to #5 in the polls, but the 14-14 tie meant that they were still just two wins from Pasadena, a trip they had not made since 1984.
Indiana was a tough sandwich opponent, dropped right in between Wisconsin and Michigan and the Hoosiers played tough. Harris was tougher though, running for 162 yards and leading the way to a 23-17 win.
All that was left was to go to Michigan and this was a struggling Wolverine team, coming in at 6-4. They were out of the Big Ten race, which was now down to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
With everything on the line, the Buckeyes could not have played worse. They lost 28-0. This writer, living in Wisconsin, was watching the game with fellow Badger fans and we couldn’t believe our good fortune. Ohio State just melted down from the opening kickoff. It was never a game.
The Buckeyes slid to #11 in the polls. Even worse, they didn’t get any respect from the bowls in what was still a good 9-1-1 season. They settled for the Holiday Bowl and a date with a fairly pedestrian BYU team.
Ohio State’s Tim Patillo blocked a punt, returned it for a touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead. The Buckeyes led 21-7 in the second quarter, but the normally reliable defense sprung leaks and this was a 21-21 game at halftime.
The offenses slowed down and that score held deep into the fourth quarter. Ohio State reclaimed the lead at 28-21 when Harris got his third touchdown of the night with just over four minutes to play. Again, the normally reliable defense sprung a leak and the Cougars drove to the Buckeye 6-yard line with a 1st-and-goal.
Ohio State forced two incompletions. Then, on third and fourth down, coverage broke down, and BYU receiver Tim Nowatzke was left wide open. Nowatzke dropped one pass and was underthrown on another. The Buckeyes survived.
The nature of the victory, especially in a minor bowl, didn’t do a lot for Ohio State. They stayed at #11 in the final rankings. In all its good and all its disappointment, the ’93 Buckeyes were very much in the John Cooper tradition.