You know him as the sometimes incomprehensible partner to Mark May on the ESPN college football staff. Perhaps you even remember when he became a legend at Notre Dame while leading the 1988 Irish squad to a national championship. However, you probably do not remember the two years that Lou Holtz spent as the head coach of Minnesota in the mid-80's. Minnesota has not had much success against Ohio State in my lifetime, but the 1985 contest against Holtz's Gophers was one of the most memorable.
Ohio State began the 1985 season with mixed expectations. On the one hand, the offense was boosted by the return of Heisman Trophy runner-up Keith Byars at RB and sophomore stud Cris Carter at WR. They also had a strong defense led by senior LB Thomas "Pepper" Johnson, sophomore LB Chris Spielman, CB William White and Safety Terry White. But the offense needed to replace one critical piece: quarterback Mike Tomczak had departed after starting for 3 years. His replacement was junior Jim Karsatos, who had subbed for Tomczak against Illinois in 1983 (concussion) and against Oregon State in 1984 (broken leg).
Karsatos proved to be an excellent passer but had limited mobility. The offense was complicated even further when Byars went down in fall practice with a broken bone in his foot. His replacement, John Wooldridge, was a smaller back with a quick burst but without Byars' ability to break through potential tackles. The offense was shaky in the opening game at home against Pittsburgh, but Karsatos hit Carter with a short TD pass in the 4th quarter to seal a 10-7 win. In the first-ever night game at Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes could muster only 48 yards rushing against the Panthers. Clearly, not having Byars was hampering the offense.
Things improved dramatically the next week as OSU went on the road to face Colorado. Wooldridge rushed for 119 yards and Karsatos tossed 3 TD passes as the Buckeyes prevailed 36-13. The offense was even more impressive in week 3, racking up 497 yards in a 48-32 home win over Washington State. However, Wooldridge suffered a concussion in the 31-28 loss at Illinois in week 4, forcing coach Earle Bruce to go with freshman Vince Workman at RB. Workman rushed for 100 yards, but the defense melted down in the 4th quarter and the team suffered their first setback of the season. Defensive coordinator Gary Blackney's "bubble 3-4" defense (noseguard Larry Kolic was a former LB who sometimes dropped back from the line to pursue on running plays) was extremely effective against the run (stopping the Colorado wishbone, for example), but was having trouble against passing teams like Illinois. After they collected the usual victory over Indiana in week 5 (OSU had not lost to IU since 1951) by a score of 48-7, more trouble for the pass defense loomed in the form of Purdue.
Purdue had beaten Ohio State behind the passing of Jim Everett in 1984, and Everett proved to be a thorn in their side once again. He passed for 497 yards to lead the Boilers to a 27-27 tie in the 4th quarter. But Byars had returned to the line-up for the first time on the season, and he scored two TD's in the 4th and OSU prevailed 41-27. On the day, Byars rushed for 106 yards to help balance the passing of Karsatos. The one-dimensional Boilermakers were slowed by 5 turnovers, and the OSU defense shut them out after the 4th quarter surge. After the game, Ohio State rose to #9 in the rankings and 5-1 on the season, setting up a showdown with Minnesota in the Metrodome the next week.
Minnesota was having a fine season of their own in the 2nd year of Holtz's reign. They had won only 4 games the previous year, but they were competitive in many of those games and it was obvious that Holtz had lifted the team out of mediocrity. In 1985, his option offense was thriving under the leadership of sophomore QB Rickey Foggie, who had started as a freshman in 1984. Ohio State had won at Minnesota the previous season by a score of 35-22, but a scheduling quirk caused the Buckeyes to have to play in the Metrodome again in 1985. With Minnesota ranked #20 and on a roll, it was certain that the crowd noise would be deafening in the domed stadium. Ohio State was walking into a hornet's nest.
Holtz, a former assistant coach at Ohio State under Woody Hayes, had circled the game and had his players excited about playing the Buckeyes. It showed early in the game, as Foggie and the Gophers moved the ball consistently on the ground in the first quarter. But the OSU defense stiffened when it mattered, and Minnesota had to settle for a pair of Chip Lohmiller field goals to go up 6-0. The Buckeyes began to solve the crowd and the Gopher defense in the 2nd quarter, going up 10-6 on a 2-yard TD run by Byars and a 38-yard field goal by Rich Spangler. It looked like Ohio State would roll from there, but Holtz would have none of that.
Using the fullback dive plays and QB option runs that he would later perfect at Notre Dame, Holtz guided Minnesota as they began a long drive late in the 2nd quarter culminating in a 2-yard TD run by Foggie. The Gophers could not convert the 2-point attempt, but they were up 12-10 at halftime and the fans were back in the game with a vengeance. The stadium got even louder as Minnesota began the 3rd quarter from their own 11 and proceeded to drive 89 yards for another Foggie TD run, this one from 1 yard out. After the extra point, the Gophers led 19-10 and the crowd was in a frenzy.
Ohio State suffered another setback when Byars re-injured his foot and had to leave the game. But Karsatos showed the poise of a veteran as he led the team down the field on a 90-yard drive culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to TE Ed Taggert. The drive consumed much of the 3rd quarter and carried into the 4th, and OSU cut the deficit to 19-17. The Buckeyes got the ball back again when Foggie was intercepted by William White at the OSU 47 on the next possession. They began driving down the field again, and Vince Workman swept into the end zone from 16 yards out for a touchdown that put Ohio State up 23-19 (2-point conversion failed).
The home fans were getting restless, but Minnesota had one more drive in them. Starting from their own 9 yard line with less than 6 minutes to go in the game, the Gophers began a methodical march down the field using the option almost exclusively. As they drove into Ohio State territory, it looked as if the game would come down to this possession because they were using up all of the remaining time. On a 3rd down play from the OSU 14 yard line, Foggie faked to the fullback and began to option left. As the outside LB took away the pitch, Foggie turned down-field for a keeper. But right before he reached the first down marker at the 11-yard line, he was crushed by OSU's Chris Spielman who was pursuing from the inside. Foggie got up slowly, and had to leave the game after the hard hit. Minnesota now faced a 4th and less than a yard with only 48 seconds left. Reserve QB Alan Holt entered the game and handed to the fullback on the dive play. But he was stopped by Pepper Johnson for no gain and Ohio State took over. The Buckeyes ran out the clock and escaped the Metrodome with a hard-fought victory.
Ohio State would finish the 1985 season with a record of 9-3, losing to Wisconsin (again!) and Michigan before defeating BYU 10-7 in the Citrus Bowl. It was the 6th straight year that coach Earle Bruce finished 9-3, thus earning him the nickname "old 9-3 Earle". Karsatos was named team MVP and Pepper Johnson was named 1st team All-American. Byars would return briefly in the bowl game but ended up re-injuring his foot and left on OSU's second series. He would eventually recover and ended up being drafted by the Eagles in the 1st round of the 1986 NFL draft, 10th pick overall. His college roommate Johnson would be drafted by the Giants, thus setting up a rivalry that would play itself out for a few years in the NFC East. Carter would also be taken by the Eagles, but would find fame later in Minnesota as a member of the Vikings. Spielman had a legendary career at Ohio State, winning All-American honors and picking up the Lombardi Award in 1987.