Former Ohio State head coach John Cooper had his share of memorable seasons at Ohio State, but 1999 was not one of them. In fact, many Buckeye fans would probably like to forget the 6-6 campaign which preceded Cooper's last season at the helm for OSU.
Coming off of the stellar 1998 season in which the Buckeyes had been ranked #1 for much of the season, and which concluded with a 24-14 Sugar Bowl victory over Texas A&M, much more was expected from Ohio State. While it is true that the program lost several stars and many key performers from that great team, they were expected to march on and at least contend for the Big Ten crown, if not greater glory. This is, after all, The Ohio State University, a place where fans expect the football program to reload after a great season, not rebuild.
The team got off on the wrong foot in the opener, losing to a rejuvenated Miami team in the Kickoff Classic 23-12. The potential replacements for departed starting QB Joe Germaine had been a disappointment, and neither Austin Moherman nor Steve Bellisari had firmly grabbed the reins of the position. However, they rebounded nicely at home in a night game against UCLA and the sterling performance of Bellisari had given hope that they season could be salvaged after all.
Arriving in Columbus for game 3 was the Ohio Bobcats, an opponent that Ohio State had not faced since 1902. OSU was 4-0 vs. Ohio, outscoring them 95-0 in the process. Resuming the series after 97 years, this game was expected to be more of the same, with the Las Vegas line installing Ohio State as a 43-point favorite. Bobcat fans had long been accustomed to leaving games after the half-time show regardless of the opponent, with their famed "Marching 110" being the only highlight of the football program. The current team was 0-2, having lost to Division 1-AA foe Northern Iowa the week before. All signs pointed to a typical early season blowout for the Buckeyes.
Nevertheless, Ohio State did not come out of the gate quickly. After the teams exchanged field goals, Ohio drove to OSU's 3-yard line and Chad Brinker ran it in from there to give the Bobcats a 10-3 lead late in the 2nd quarter. Predictably, the boo birds came out for the lackluster Buckeye squad, and Cooper exhorted them to start playing harder or face the possibility of losing to an Ohio school for the first time since 1921. Starting from their own 34, the Bucks moved crisply to the Ohio 43. From there Bellisari hit WR Kenyon Rambo with a 23-yard completion. As he went to the ground, Rambo fumbled the ball away to OU, but the referees ruled that his knee was down prior to the fumble. Shortly afterward, Bellisari connected with Rambo again for a 15-yard touchdown, and the game was tied 10-10 going into halftime.
At halftime, the visiting OU fans got to witness something that they rarely see: an opponent marching band that upstaged their own. The performance by TBDBITL seemed to wake up the OSU football squad, as they made quick work of the Bobcats in the 3rd quarter. OSU RB Michael Wiley carried in for a TD from one yard out to put the Buckeyes up 17-10, and then the OSU defense stifled Ohio's option attack and forced a 3-and-out. OU coach Jim Grobe gambled on 4th down by calling a fake punt, but Ohio State was not fooled, and they sacked punter Dave Zastudil for a 9-yard loss down to the Ohio 15. From there, Wiley broke through the Bobcat defense on the first play and scored his second touchdown of the game. After another Bobcat 3-and-out, OSU scored again when Bellisari hit Rambo for a 68-yard TD pass on the second play of the drive. After nearly an entire half of offensive ineptitude, the Buckeyes had scored 21 points on only 4 offensive plays, going up 31-10 and effectively putting the game away.
Ohio State would eventually win the game by a score of 40-16. Rambo was the star of the game, pulling in 7 receptions for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns. In his first start at QB, Bellisari had seemingly established himself as the first option, but many still had doubts about the QB situation. Those doubts grew after an unimpressive performance against Cincinnati the next week, and they became enormous after the team was humiliated at home by Wisconsin 42-17 in the Big Ten opener. Bellisari was thoroughly outplayed by UW QB Brooks Bollinger in that game, setting the stage for what would turn out to be a very long season. Ohio State's season ended with a come-from-ahead 24-17 loss at Michigan. In that game, Ohio State led 17-10 and had a first and goal at the UM 6 yard line. But they went nowhere after that and missed the ensuing field goal, giving momentum back to the Wolverines and fueling their comeback. It was a perfect summation of the team's offensive futility throughout the season.
Meanwhile, up in Youngstown, a new future for Ohio State football was being forged in the person of Youngstown State coach James Patrick Tressel. While Ohio State was home during bowl season (in those days, a winning record was required to qualify for a bowl), the YSU Penguins played in the Division 1-AA National Championship game. Only 2 years and a few months later, Tressel would be announced as the new head football coach at Ohio State, thus beginning a new golden era for the OSU football program.