There is an old tradition among American colleges and universities where one game each year is designated as a "Homecoming" game; that is, a game where old alumni and former players are especially encouraged to attend. The tradition dates back to the "border war" rivalry between Kansas and Missouri. In the early days of college football back in the late 1800's, it was common to play games at neutral sites in big cities where fan interest would be higher than it would in sleepy college towns. But in the early 1900's, conferences began to require that games be played on campus, and one such rule caused the KU-Mizzou game to be played on the campus of Missouri in Columbia. To make up for the expected drop in attendance, Mizzou's AD came up with the "Homecoming" idea. Other schools followed and a tradition was born.
In 1982, the Ohio State football team was probably uncertain whether coming home would be a good idea. That may seem strange, but there were some very strange events in the early part of the season, mostly bad events, and most of them had occurred in the old Horseshoe. On the other hand, the road had been kind to the team. At 4-3, Ohio State's season was at a crossroad, and the Homecoming game against Purdue would go a long way in determining whether this team was a real contender or just a pretender.
The season had began with a somewhat shaky win over visiting Baylor. OSU then started their Big Ten season with a resounding 31-10 victory over Michigan State. The win was mostly due to the play of the defense, which shut out MSU in the 2nd half and held them to only 2 yards of offense in the 4th quarter. This had to be very encouraging for head coach Earle Bruce, whose defense the previous year had been one of OSU's all time worst. The secondary was especially tortured in 1981, but new defensive backs coach Dom Capers solidified that unit and the extra experience gained by Garcia Lane, Kelvin Bell, and Shaun Gayle in particular appeared to be paying off.
But a dark cloud was hanging over the OSU offense, despite the 31 points scored against the Spartans. To be sure, the running game was humming along on all cylinders due to the return of experienced RB's Tim Spencer and Jimmy Gayle, plus bruising fullback Vaughn Broadnax. However, the passing game was a work in progress. New starting QB Mike Tomczak had shown promise in his brief opportunities playing behind Art Schlichter and Bob Atha the previous season, but in neither of the first two games of 1982 did he put together a completely solid performance. Fans were concerned, and rightly so.
The next three games, all played at home, would make that concern even more grave. Against Stanford, Tomczak threw 4 interceptions, including the one that set up John Elway for one of his patented late-game drives. OSU lost that one 23-20, with the last interception creating all kinds of criticism for Bruce from the fans. Things went no better for Tomczak the next week against Florida State, and he was benched in favor of Brent Offenbecher in the 34-17 loss. Offenbecher seemed to revive the offense, but in the end he threw 3 interceptions of his own to contribute to OSU's passing woes. The next week, Offenbecher started and played the whole game, but the offense hit rock bottom in a rain-soaked 6-0 defeat against Wisconsin. The heat on Bruce became intense, and fans began to wonder if the team would ever have an effective passing game again.
Going on the road for the next two games proved to be a tonic for the team. Bruce made the decision to go back to Tomczak, and with renewed confidence the young QB made his boss look like a genius. Tomczak hit flanker Cedric Anderson with a 74-yard TD pass on the first drive on his way to 247 yards passing in a 26-21 win over Illinois, thus out-dueling highly-regarded Illini QB Tony Eason. The next week at Indiana, the success of the running game meant that Tomczak did not need to pass much, but he hit 7 of his 9 passes for 145 yards including another TD bomb to Anderson, this one covering 72 yards. Tomczak's production combined with 327 rushing yards overwhelmed the Hoosiers, and Ohio State prevailed 49-25. Having had so much success on the road (away from the hostile gaze of fans who were demanding Bruce's head), the team was confident as they returned to Ohio Stadium to face Purdue on Homecoming weekend.
The confidence turned out to be well-founded. Tomczak came out firing early, tossing TD passes to Anderson and TE John Frank. After leading 17-6 at halftime, the Buckeyes crushed the Boilermakers in the second half on their way to a 38-6 victory. Having established some success with the pass, Purdue could not load up to stop the run, and this opened the floodgates for tailbacks Spencer and Gayle. Spencer finished with 168 yards on only 18 carries, and Gayle chipped in with 80 yards of his own. Overall OSU rushed for 335 yards on the day, with many of them coming on the quick option pitch. Mike Tomczak did not have the strongest of arms, but his ball-handling skills were top-notch. I attended the game as a student, and I remember one play quite vividly. Tomczak took the snap from center, faked to Broadnax on the dive play, and turned to his right, took one step, then pitched to Spencer as the defensive end committed. Spencer took the pitch and ran through a truck-sized hole around right end for a long touchdown run. Everything about the execution of the play was perfect, from the fake to the spin-pivot to the pitch.
Ohio State would go on to win all of their remaining games, including a 24-14 spanking of league champion Michigan. Due to a quirk in the schedule that gave Michigan 9 conference games while Ohio State had 8, the Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl while OSU was relegated to the Holiday Bowl and a match-up with Steve Young and the BYU Cougars. The Buckeyes represented the conference in style with a resounding 47-17 victory. The team thus finished 9-3 for the third straight season but the wins over Michigan and BYU restored the fans' confidence in Bruce. Tomczak would go on to have an excellent career at Ohio State, leading the team to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl bid as a senior. Spencer would finish the season with 1538 yards rushing on his way to earning team MVP for the 1982 season. He finished his career with 3553 rushing yards, which at the time put him 2nd on the all-time list, behind only Archie Griffin.