It's not often these days that a Big Ten team is ranked #1 in the nation. When it does happen, it's usually Ohio State. But there was a time when Hayden Fry had the Iowa program on top of the rankings and his quarterback, Chuck Long, was at the top of the list of Heisman Trophy hopefuls. But on a rainy November evening in Columbus in 1985, Long and the Hawkeyes came down to earth in a big way thanks to a ferocious Ohio State defense.
Iowa had started the 1985 season ranked #5 and had ascended to the top ranking in week 3. The lofty status was mainly due to the decision by Long to come back to Iowa for a 5th year of eligibility (he had red-shirted as a freshman). Long had a tremendous season in 1984, capped off by an MVP performance in the Freedom Bowl in which he completed 29 of 39 passes for a bowl-record 461 yards and 6 TD's as Iowa crushed the Texas Longhorns 55-17.
When Long declared that he would return for one more season, he became an instant Heisman front-runner for 1985. Joining him on the powerful Hawkeye offense was running back Ronnie Harmon, a versatile player who was as good a pass receiver as he was a runner. Anchoring the Iowa defense was standout linebacker Larry Station.
The Hawkeyes had worn the #1 ranking rather uneasily since they attained it, pulling out a come-from-behind victory in a home game against Michigan State and then looking shaky on offense in a 23-13 victory at Wisconsin. The #2 Michigan Wolverines rolled into Kinnick Stadium in game 6 and Iowa again looked shaky against the tough UM defense. But the defense kept Michigan from running away with the game and eventually Iowa mustered 4 field goals, one coming in the final seconds, to pull out another come-from-behind win. They were now 7-0 and still the top-ranked team, but they appeared to be vulnerable heading into the showdown with Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had entered fall practice in 1985 with their own Heisman front-runner, RB Keith Byars. Byars also had a tremendous season in 1984, but he broke his foot prior to the season and was never healthy the rest of the year. The doctors cleared him to play when OSU traveled to Minnesota, but after a few plays he re-injured the foot and was doubtful for the Iowa game. The Iowa coaches were uncertain as to whether Byars would play, but OSU coach Earle Bruce held him out and went with reserves John Wooldridge and Vince Workman at RB. In fact, Byars missed the rest of the regular season and returned only briefly in the bowl game before injuring the foot yet again.
With their top RB out of the game and with a forecast of hard rain that could start at any moment, Bruce decided to go with the passing game early and try to get out to a quick lead. The strategy seemed to work initially as QB Jim Karsatos hit WR's Cris Carter and Mike Lanese repeatedly for first downs as the team moved down the field. But the lack of a strong runner showed in the red zone, and OSU was forced to settle for field goal attempts on their first two possessions. Old-fashioned straight-on kicker Rich Spangler made the first but missed the second and OSU led 3-0 midway through the 1st quarter.
There had been rain off and on during the day, but the conditions were mostly dry in the first quarter. But Long was already having trouble moving the ball through the air, mostly because the deep drops of OSU linebackers into coverage. The Buckeyes' stalwart LB corps was led by veteran senior captain Pepper Johnson and the fiery sophomore Chris Spielman. Former LB Larry Kolic had switched to nose-guard and Ohio State employed a 3-4 defense that often looked more like a 2-5 because Kolic often dropped into the short zone for coverage on passing plays. After OSU missed the FG that would have put them up 6-0, Iowa was starting to drive. But as Long dropped back to pass, he didn't see Spielman drop deep into coverage. Long attempted a deep curl on the right side but Spielman stepped in front and picked it off.
Ohio State immediately attempted to capitalize on the turnover by going deep down the field, but Iowa was ready with a deep zone and they intercepted the Karsatos pass to get the ball right back. However, the exchange cost them quite a bit in field position, and after OSU forced a 3-and-out, Iowa had to punt from their own end zone. Bruce called for the all-out rush and safety Sonny Gordon streaked in and blocked the punt right out of the end zone on a fly. The safety put OSU up by the odd score of 5-0, but it turned momentum in the Buckeyes' favor and excited the home crowd. After another Long interception (this one by William White), OSU RB John Wooldridge burst through a hole on the left side and ran 57 yards for a TD to put OSU up 12-0. OSU CB Greg Rogan then picked off another Long pass and the Buckeyes drove to another Spangler FG to go up 15-0. At that point, the rain began in earnest.
Bruce's strategy of trying to get a quick lead before the rain came was looking brilliant at this point. Although Iowa scored before halftime to cut the lead to 15-7, OSU was clearly in control and the defense was stifling Iowa at nearly every turn. The 3rd quarter was scoreless, and it seemed that the rain was going to prevent any further fireworks. But in the 4th quarter, Iowa's Jay Norvell intercepted a Karsatos pass and returned it all the way to the OSU 19. The play put the Hawkeyes in good shape to cut their deficit or possibly tie the game. But the Buckeye defense rose up and forced Iowa coach Hayden Fry to make a decision on 4th-and-1 at the 10. Never one to shy away from a gamble, Fry called for a dive play to get the first down. But as Ronnie Harmon leaped in the air he was met by Spielman and driven back 3 yards. OSU regained possession and the rain-soaked crowd went crazy. Harmon was shaken up and did not return to the game.
On the next Iowa possession, OSU safety Terry White forced a fumble and put the Buckeye offense in good position. This time they took advantage and Vince Workman scored to put OSU up 22-7. With only 11 minutes left in the game, Iowa began to rally back, scoring from 3 yards out to cut the lead to 22-13. Fry elected to go for 2, but back-up RB Kevin Harmon was stopped for a loss by Gordon and the OSU faithful could sense the upset was imminent. When Iowa's normally-reliable kicker Rob Houghtlin missed a FG on their next possession, Ohio State was able to run some time off the clock, giving the ball back to Iowa with less than 2 minutes left. Long attempted to rally the troops again, but Spielman capped a terrific performance with his second interception and the crowd began to celebrate the victory.
Spielman finished with 19 tackles to go with his 2 interceptions, the first of several epic games he would have during his time at OSU. Karsatos passed for 151 yards in very difficult conditions, and fullback George Cooper rushed for 104 yards on 17 carries to lead the Buckeyes on the ground. But the stars were the defense, the weather, and the raucous OSU crowd. I was part of the crowd that day, and armed with an old poncho I stayed until then end. I don't remember ever having as much fun at a football game as I did at that one. Iowa would eventually win the Big Ten championship, and Long would finish 2nd in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Bo Jackson. Ohio State finished the season in mediocre fashion, losing at home to Wisconsin and on the road to That School Up North. But they defeated BYU in the Citrus Bowl 10-7, thus setting the stage for a better season in 1986. But despite the losses, the 1985 team will always be special because of that one Saturday when they humbled the nation's top-ranked team in a downpour.