These are strange times for the Ohio State football program. The team is working through a 6-5 season with an interim coach and is an underdog heading into a matchup with a team they have beaten 7 straight times. Not only that, but The Game is being held during Thanksgiving Week and there are rumors of the next coach being already all but hired despite his public denials.
Still, there have been stranger weeks leading up to the annual showdown against the University of Michigan, perhaps none stranger than the week preceding the 1987 OSU-UM game. This was one in which a coach was fired, an AD resigned in protest, and the off-the-field events overshadowed the game itself, which had very little meaning for anyone other than the two programs involved.
Ohio State's 1987 season might have seemed like it was doomed from the start, as legendary head coach Woody Hayes passed away in March of that year. Later, star WR Cris Carter was ruled ineligible due to taking money from an agent. Another starting WR, Nate Harris, was dismissed from the team. Since the team had to replace two-year starter Jim Karsatos at QB, the passing game looked like it might struggle.
In fact, the offense in general struggled mightily to begin the season. Tom Tupa had been a 3-year starter as a punter, but this was his first year starting at QB and he did not impress in the early going. Fortunately, the defense returned 8 starters including All-American LB Chris Spielman. Also returning were CB's William White and Greg Rogan, and OLB's Eric Kumerow and Derek Isaman. The defense carried the team through the first four games unscathed, even though they tied LSU in Baton Rouge 13-13.
Unfortunately, the team needed more than defense to stop the suddenly-formidable Indiana Hoosiers, and they could not get it. In what coach Earle Bruce called "the darkest day I've seen in Ohio State football", OSU was humiliated at home by IU to the tune of a 31-10 score. Back in the 1951, in Woody Hayes' first season as head coach, Ohio State had lost to Indiana and the coach was so angry he declared that they would never lose to Indiana again. They never did during his lifetime, but after his death the magic ran out.
Bruce seemed to right the ship when OSU traveled to West Lafayette and tamed Purdue 20-17. In order to shore up the receiving corps, Bruce moved star RB Vince Workman to WR, and Workman responded with 4 receptions for 88 yards. It looked even better the next week as the offense erupted for 28 2nd half points in a 42-9 rout of Minnesota. Freshman RB Carlos Snow, who had rushed for over 7700 yards in high school, scored 4 touchdowns to ignite the team and thrill the home crowd. It appeared that things were looking up for the season.
Coming into a home game against Michigan State, OSU was 5-1-1 and had hopes of finishing strong and taking the Big Ten title. However, the offense fell apart after a strong start against the Spartans and ultimately fell 13-7. It didn't get any better the next week as OSU lost to an inferior Wisconsin team 26-24. The final blow came in the last home game of the season when Iowa came from behind to shock the Buckeyes 29-27. Iowa TE Marv Cook caught a 28-yard TD pass with 6 seconds left on a 4th-and-23 play to add insult to injury.
At this point, Ohio State was 3-4 in conference play and hopes for a bowl game were dimming. Meanwhile Michigan was 7-3 but only 5-2 in the conference and unranked. Michigan State had already wrapped up the Big Ten title and so there was not much on the line for the two teams other than pride. Not only that, but a huge drama was about to unfold in Columbus.
On Monday, OSU president Edward Jennings informed athletic director Rick Bay that coach Earle Bruce would be fired, and that the announcement would be made after the Michigan game. Bay had convince Bruce to stay in Columbus in December the previous year when Arizona was courting him for their open head coaching job, and he was offended that Bruce was going to be fired for no apparent reason with a year left on his contract. As a result, Bay decided not to wait and made the announcement that day, along with announcing his resignation as AD. The news was all over campus that day, and every student that was a football fan walked around in a fog for most of the day, wondering what was going to happen next.
With rumors and speculation about the next coach swirling around the program, the team united around their coach and on gameday they all appeared wearing white headbands with the word "Earle" written on them (probably inspired by Chicago Bears QB Jim McMahon's famous "Rozelle" headband). Coach Bruce was about to order them to take them off when he noticed what was written on them and thought better of it.
The Buckeyes got off to a slow start, and trailed 13-0 in the 2nd quarter before a key fumble by UM fullback Jerrod Bunch (forced by Michigan native Ray Holliman, pictured to the left). The turnover ignited the OSU offense and Tupa hit Columbus native Everett Ross with a 4-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 13-7. OSU was outgained 283-91 in the first half but they went to halftime trailing by only 6.
The defense stopped Michigan to start the 2nd half and Ohio State received the ensuing punt at their own 30. On the very first play from scrimmage, Tupa threw the ball to Snow out in the left flat, and the freshman cut between two UM defenders, got a few good blocks, and scooted 70 yards for the TD. The last UM player who had a chance at him was safety Doug Mallory, but Snow hesitated and cut inside of him to finish the run. Now with that one big play, the once-feeble OSU offense had staked the team to a 14-13 lead.
Later in the 3rd quarter, Michigan QB Demetrius Brown dropped back to pass and, pressured by Holliman, lofted a wounded duck deep down the middle of the field and it was intercepted by OSU safety David Brown. Brown returned it all the way to the UM 19 and it set up Tupa's 1-yard QB keeper to put Ohio State ahead 20-13. Unfortunately, kicker Matt Frantz missed the extra point and that would set up more drama in the quarter.
An OSU fumble set the Wolverines up with good field position at the Buckeye 46 yard line, and Brown drove them down to a tying touchdown with just over a minute remaining in the 3rd. In the 4th quarter, the two teams traded punts but OSU finally got the upper hand midway through the quarter when they drove 77 yards to set up a 26-yard FG by Frantz to put Ohio State ahead 23-20. During the drive, Tupa was momentarily dazed by a hit from a UM defender, and he had to leave the game with OSU facing a 3rd and 9. But backup QB Greg Frey came in and delivered a 19-yard completion to Workman to get the first down. After that, they moved in for the winning field goal.
Michigan drove for one final chance but it was ended when Leroy Hoard fumbled the ball away near midfield. From there, the Buckeyes ran all but 9 seconds off the clock and Michigan's last desperation heave fell incomplete as time ran out. The Ohio State players carried Bruce off the field on their shoulders and celebrated at midfield along with thousands of Buckeye fans who made the trip. It was not the most meaningful of OSU-UM games, but it was one of the most memorable.
OSU's 6-5-1 record was good enough for a bowl game, but the university decided not to pursue it and to focus instead on hiring the next head coach. But the glow of the win stayed with the program for several weeks afterward. Will there be a similar outcome in Ann Arbor this week? If there is, I predict a meltdown among the UM faithful that will make the word "epic" seem inadequate. And I'm sure Earle Bruce will be smiling.