The Ohio State career of Greg Frey is a transitional marker in the school's football history, because it spans from the end of the Earle Bruce era to the first three years of John Cooper's reign as head coach. Frey did not start in 1987, Bruce's last season at the helm, but he played significant minutes in relief of starter Tom Tupa, most prominently when Tupa was briefly injured during the victory over Michigan. Frey was initially inserted as a change of pace when OSU was trailing eventual 1987 Big Ten champion Michigan State 13-7 late in the 4th quarter. He led the team down the field with urgency, and for a moment it seemed the brash young freshman was going to will the team to victory. But the drive stalled and a 4th down pass to Vince Workman fell incomplete. Still, the determination and skill shown in that drive were a preview of things to come for Frey.
In 1988 John H. Cooper took over as head coach and promised that changes would be made. One change that was imminent regardless of the coaching transition was a transition at the quarterback position. Tupa had exhausted his eligibility and was about to embark on his long NFL career (mostly as a punter, but sometimes at QB). Since Frey had been the primary back-up to Tupa in 1987, he was the primary candidate to start in 1988. After directing the team to a relatively easy (and mistake-free) victory over Syracuse, the team imploded on a road trip to Pittsburgh in a 42-10 loss. The following week, LSU came to town to finish the home-and-home series that had begun the previous season with a 13-13 tie in Baton Rouge. OSU appeared to be out-manned by the talented Tigers but they stayed close until a freak play resulted in a long LSU touchdown, putting them up 33-20 with only 4:34 remaining in the game. But Frey led the team right back and they scored to cut the lead to 33-27. Aided by a defensive stop and an intentional LSU safety, OSU roared back and Frey completed the comeback with a touchdown pass for a 36-33 victory. For Frey, as well as receivers Bobby Olive and Jeff Graham, it was a warm-up for bigger and better comebacks.
The 1989 season had been a roller-coaster ride in the early going, due to an offense that seemingly couldn't handle all of the wrinkles and schemes implemented by coordinator Jim Colletto. But after a 2-2 start, Colletto and Cooper trimmed the playbook severely and implemented a heavily ground-oriented offense in the next few games. The plan worked to perfection against Indiana and Purdue, resulting in consecutive victories for the first time in the season. But it all came apart on a road trip to Minnesota.
The problem with making a big comeback is that, prior to the comeback, you must have failed pretty significantly. On October 28th of 1989, Ohio State would have a first half performance that would fit neatly into the "Epic Fail" category. A combination of turnovers and special teams blunders would result in an opportunistic Minnesota team taking a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. And that's when it got ugly for OSU. The Buckeyes were driving for a TD that would cut the lead and stop the bleeding. On a 3rd-and-goal at the Minnesota 8 yard line, Colletto sent in a running play in an apparent attempt to catch the Gophers off-guard. But Frey spotted WR Jeff Graham with single coverage on the outside and he audibled to a fade pattern. Unfortunately, offensive guard Jeff Davidson didn't hear the audible due to the Metrodome crowd noise, and he pulled right like he would on a sweep. Gopher defenders surged through the hole in the line and crushed Frey as he was trying to throw, sending the ball into the air. Minnesota safety Sean Lumpkin caught the ball in the air and ran all the way to the house to put the Gophers up 24-0. It was insult to injury at that point.
Minnesota scored again to make it 31-0, but then right before halftime, the momentum shifted slightly toward OSU. The Buckeyes had gone 3-and-out and were ready to punt it back to the Gophers with 3 minutes left in the half, but on the punt Minnesota had 12 men on the field and the resulting penalty gave the ball back to Ohio State. Given a small break, Frey and the Buckeyes took advantage and drove down the field into scoring position once again. This time Carlos Snow ran it in from 3 yards out and Frey hit Graham on the 2-point conversion to narrow the score to 31-8. Things had gone as badly as they could in the first half, but the score right before halftime gave the Buckeyes renewed hope that they could make it all right in the second half.
With this confidence carrying over after the break, OSU drove 96 yards for a field goal to cut it to 31-11. Then after stopping Minnesota, they drove into scoring position again with Snow once again taking the ball into the end zone. The 3rd quarter ended with Minnesota still leading 31-18, but they were reeling from the offensive assault Ohio State was unleashing on them. With Frey completing passes not only to Olive and Graham but also to TE Jim Palmer (yes, they do occasionally catch passes at OSU) and with Snow relentlessly plowing forward in the running game, the Buckeyes were on a serious roll. Minnesota kicked a FG to expand the lead again, but then Snow scored again to cut the lead to 34-26 (2-point conversion good again). After Minnesota turned the ball over, Colletto reached into his bag of tricks and called a halfback pass from RB James Bryant. But Bryant's pass was intercepted and OSU gave the ball right back. The resulting FG put the Gophers up 37-26 with 5 minutes left in the game. But Frey was far from finished with his heroics.
Ohio State drove again into scoring position, but this time they were stuffed in the running game and were forced to try and throw for the end zone. Frey hit Graham again but he was tackled before reaching pay-dirt and suddenly OSU faced a 4th and goal from the Gopher's 1-yard line. Colletto called for the option, and Frey kept it and plunged into the end zone for the score. Another 2-point conversion cut Minnesota's lead to 37-34. Eschewing the onside kick, Cooper called for a deep kick and OSU eventually stopped Minnesota and forced a punt. The Buckeyes received the ball at their 27 with two minutes left, and the stage was set for a dramatic finish. Frey hit Snow for a first down, then hit Palmer on a 34-yard pass-and-run play to set OSU up deep in Minnesota territory. With a first down at the Gophers' 18-yard line, Frey saw single coverage on Graham again on the right side, and once again looked for the fade. This time the worn-out Gopher defenders failed to muster any kind of pass rush, and Frey calmly lofted the ball to a wide-open Graham for the game-winning score with only 51 seconds left. Watching the replay later on WOSU, I'll never forget the sight of Frey taking off his helmet and throwing his hands up in the air after the score. He later wrote that it was the easiest pass of the game, because he had no doubt that Graham was going to beat his man.
Frey would finish the game with 362 yards passing, and would ultimately end his career as the only Ohio State quarterback with over 2000 yards passing for 3 consecutive years. Snow had an amazing all-purpose game, accounting for 278 yards total offense and 3 touchdowns. For the game, Ohio State scored on 6 of their last 8 possessions and outscored Minnesota 41-6 over the last 30 minutes and 10 seconds. Graham had an excellent career at OSU, but perhaps played even better in the NFL. During his 11 seasons with 5 different teams, Graham caught 542 passes for 8172 yards and 30 touchdowns. But it's unlikely that OSU fans will ever forget the catch that concluded one of the greatest comebacks in college football history.