Flashback: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin, 1990

By Joe Beale on October 13, 2010 at 1:00p
"Are we ahead?" Cooper had his way with the Badgers

Coach John Cooper had a tumultuous career as the head man at Ohio State. It began with a rocky 4-6-1 season in 1988, punctuated by accusations of not being "an Ohio guy" and criticism for doing too many commercials. The 1989 season went much better, but there was still a perception that his team had won only the games they "should win", and not risen much above what any other guy could have done in the same position. In his third season in 1990, it was time for Cooper to show that his leadership could make a real difference, and the team could achieve what most fans clamored for: a Big Ten title and trip to the Rose Bowl.

The team returned several starters on defense, including LB Steve Tovar, DE Alonzo Spellman, and DB's Vinnie Clark and Mark "Bo" Pelini. But the offense lost most of the starting line, plus RB Carlos Snow would miss the entire season after surgery to remove a tumor from his hip. The offense did return starting QB Greg Frey and receivers Jeff Graham and Bobby Olive, and there was much hope that promising redshirt freshman Raymont Harris and true freshman Robert Smith could jump-start the running game. However, it appeared that the defense would have to carry the team for a while before the offense got into full gear.

The season began with a less-than-satisfying 17-10 victory over Texas Tech. It was the first game played on the new natural grass field at Ohio Stadium (they had just replaced the old artificial turf that summer) and the team appeared to be slow and plodding. One player who stood out was Smith, who burst on the scene with a 2-yard touchdown run around the right side in the 3rd quarter. Smith later admitted that he was so nervous after the TD that he actually threw up on the sideline. But the run tied the score at 10-10 and the freshman would finish with 188 total yards on the day.

Smith continued to shine in a 31-10 victory at Boston College, rushing for over 100 yards for the first time as a Buckeye. But back to back home losses to USC and Illinois put a damper on what was an encouraging start. A tie on the road at Indiana added to the pain, and suddenly Cooper was facing the wrath of fans who were calling for his head. Fortunately, the team rattled off 4 straight Big Ten victories, the last of which was a hard-fought come-from-behind thriller at Iowa. In that one, Greg Frey had hit Bobby Olive with the game-winning TD pass with only 1 second remaining in the game. Going into another road trip to Wisconsin, the team was on a roll and filled with confidence.

Playing at Camp Randall Stadium has traditionally been a tough task for Ohio State. Cooper's predecessor Earle Bruce had lost there 3 times in 9 years, with turnovers always playing a big role. But on this day the Badgers did not put up much of a fight. Barry Alvarez was in his first season as head coach at Wisconsin, and there was much work to do to get the team back to competitiveness after the late 80's decline. Less than 45,000 fans showed up for the game, and they watched the Buckeyes roll over UW 35-10. Smith rushed for 171 yards, breaking Archie Griffin's school record for rushing yards as a freshman and becoming the first freshman in Ohio State history to rush for more than 1000 yards. Jeff Graham returned a punt 81 yards for OSU's final touchdown. 

The 5-game winning streak enabled Cooper to get back into the good graces of fans and alumni, but that was short-lived. The season finale at home against Michigan ended in a 16-13 loss, as OSU squandered a 13-6 2nd half lead. With the game tied 13-13 and less than 2 minutes remaining, Cooper elected to go for it on 4th down, only to see UM stop Greg Frey on an option pitch and take over at the OSU 29. From there, they kicked the winning field goal, thus ending the Rose Bowl quest and earning the ire of fans once again. Two years later in a similar situation, Cooper would elect to punt the ball away and Ohio State settled for a 13-13 tie against their rivals. Cooper justified the decision after the game with comments about how fans "want to gamble with my chips". No doubt the coach had 1990 in mind.

The team would finish 1990 in 5th place in the Big Ten and ended up playing in the Liberty Bowl against Air Force. A lackluster effort ended with a 23-11 loss, and Cooper would endure the scorn of fans for another off-season. Overall the team finished the season 7-4-1, despite outscoring their opponents 349-220. Robert Smith would quit the football team for one season (citing academic concerns), but then returned in 1992 and had an outstanding year. He left after his junior season and went on to have an excellent, albeit short, career in the NFL. Smith, along with teammate Cris Carter, was one of the first former Buckeyes to use the now-famous "THE Ohio State University" declaration when being introduced as part of the starting line-up for the Vikings. He now works as an analyst for ESPN.

Cooper would go on to coach for 13 seasons at Ohio State before being fired after the 2000 season. Despite his well-documented troubles with Michigan, Cooper had no problems with Wisconsin, finishing with a record of 8-2-1 against the Badgers, with 6 of those wins coming against Alvarez. Wisconsin finished 1-10 in 1990, but Alvarez soon turned the program around, finishing 5-6 the next two years before going 10-1-1 in 1993 including a Rose Bowl victory. 


Comments Show All Comments


Please... no more COOPER...   I lived that nightmare once.  Thanx.

Chris Lauderback's picture

Haha! Sorry bout that. My personal explanation is the skull sesh pic was from his most glorious moment at the helm.

Joe Beale's picture

We're trying to keep in the Halloween spirit by scaring you guys.  Or something like that. 

cronimi's picture

No kidding!  Having spent my 4 years on campus during the early Cooper era, seeing him still makes me cringe.  It is good to remember how good we Buckeyes have it these days.  Our best season when I was in school was 8-3-1 -- now we (almost) take 10-win seasons as a given.

Nick Buckeye's picture

For those with ESPN Insider, KC Joyner says "Terrelle Pryor is vastly overrated".


The short version is he pads his stats against lesser opponents, but does put up elite numbers against good teams.  He compares him to Andre Dawson when he won the 1987 NL MVP.

RoweTrain's picture

Just another ass-clown doing what they do best over at espn.  Hater in the building...

"Just bow up and go out and play." ~ D. Lee

"As it stands right now, I know I am the best athlete in college football." ~ B. Miller

cal3713's picture

Well, it is true that his two worst throwing days came against our only two competitive opponents.  Hopefully he addresses this criticism against Wisconsin and Iowa.

RoweTrain's picture

That seems strange.  His worst throwing games were against better competition, weird.  But he can't take his passer rating from those two games and compare them to everyone else's (whether they had weak competition or not) and have a valid argument.

"Just bow up and go out and play." ~ D. Lee

"As it stands right now, I know I am the best athlete in college football." ~ B. Miller

Joe Beale's picture

If anyone has padded his stats against weak competition, it's Denard Robinson.  The reason he's been able to do that is because those weak teams were hanging around with UM to the very end most of the time, thus precluding the possibility that RichRod would pull him out and go with Forcier or Gardner.  TP has missed several padding opportunities (like the 2nd half against IU) because his team has been so far ahead that it would make little sense to play him. Not so with "shoelace".

Buckeye Black's picture

Well, he didn't really throw against Illinois, so that game can be excluded.  He only threw for 200+ yards against Miami on what, 12 completions?  It was a wet day, which would explain Pryor doing his thing on the ground against that Florida speed.

Joe Beale's picture

Miami played a lot of man coverage, which resulted in TP taking off and running on many pass plays.  Against Illinois, the wind had an effect, as did the injury.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I don't have ESPN Insider, but . . . Generally speaking, most "elite" players pad their stats against lesser defenses and put up lower numbers against the better defenses. That's the point: defenses that allow opposing players to rack up big numbers probably aren't good, themselves. KC Joyner should get a gold star for stating the obvious and then applying it to TP.

For example, Heisman winners will usually have a big game or two against good opponents, but otherwise pad their stats against cupcakes. We remember the one or two big games on the big stage and forget the few so-so numbers against some of the other good defenses.

In Vince Young's huge 2005 season, he threw two INTs against Ohio State and probably would/should have lost if the Buckeyes offense had its act together at that point. He threw 2 INTs against Texas Tech (ranked 20th at the time) and was held to 254 total offense, low by his standards. He had a mediocre game against unranked rival Tex AM, 1 INT & 1 TD, 181 total yds. He was only 15 - 30 passing in the game against Okla State, when they were down big in the 1H but came back in the 2H.      

RedQueenRace's picture

"If after that statement from K.C., if you'd like to read the rest of the argument, you need to be an ESPN Insider."

Lulz.   Oh yeah, that article should be taken as serious analysis.

Trolling for subscribers.  I'm not taking that bait.

RBuck's picture

Can you even imagine being 4-6-1 or even 7-4-1 again? We are indeed in the "golden era".

Long live the southend.

741's picture

Ah, those halcyon days when a 13-13 tie was declared "the greatest win in Ohio State history" by then unviversity president Gordon Gee...

BuckeyeChief's picture

Screw Robert Smith. Dude is my least favorite former Buckeye of all time.

"2014 National Champions...deal with it!!!"

Normal Buck's picture

Same here.  Impressive medical practice he has going.