The 1975 Ohio State team was one that entered with some questions, but answered them early on and went on a run for the ages. It was rumored that if OSU won the national championship in 1975, legendary coach Woody Hayes would retire after this, his 25th season, closing his long and glorious career with a final triumph and closing out the careers of several outstanding seniors. The title was not meant to be, but there were many accomplishments and high moments during the season.
Going into the season, there was much concern about how many players had departed, as the team had only 9 returning starters. The offensive line was fairly decimated, but the defense as a whole was in worse shape, losing 9 starters on that side alone. But the return of an outstanding offensive backfield helped to allay those concerns.
Tailback Archie Griffin had rushed for 4139 yards in his first three seasons, helping to lead the team to three Rose Bowl appearances. Griffin's 1695 yards in 1974 had not only earned him Big Ten MVP status for the second year in a row, but he also won the coveted Heisman Trophy award. Griffin was a small back, but he had a quick burst and delivered a lot of power for a player his size. Mature beyond his years, Griffin was a leader on and off the field.
He was joined in the backfield by versatile QB Cornelius Greene, an outstanding runner in his own right and a great team leader. At fullback, the Buckeyes had lost Champ Henson, but his backup, Pete Johnson, was a massive runner who could take on a defensive tackle just as easily as a linebacker. In fact, Johnson's talents were only hinted at in the previous two seasons, but in 1975 everyone would find out how effective he could be.
Also returning to the backfield was senior wingback Brian Baschnagel. Baschnagel had been primarily a running back in high school, but Hayes took advantage of his receiving skills by splitting him out on most plays. He proved to be a reliable target, while providing occasional big-play ability. Against SMU his junior year, Baschnagel scored twice on reverse plays, a 44-yarder and another for 64 yards. Baschnagel was also an excellent blocker, providing extra room for Griffin and Greene.
The defense returned only 2 starters, but there were several promising youngsters waiting to step up including future NFL stars Tim Fox at safety and Bob Brudzinski at DE. Archie's younger brother Ray Griffin got the start at one corner while Craig Cassady, the son of OSU legend Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, started on the other side. Nick Bounamici and Ken Kuhn provided experience and leadership for the group. And they would need every bit of that leadership to get through a tough early schedule.
The team opened the season by traveling to Michigan State for the second straight year. The previous year's game against the Spartans was both painful and controversial. OSU had been up on MSU 13-3 with only 9 minutes remaining in the game. But then the wheels fell off as the Spartans took the lead on two huge touchdown plays: a 44-yard pass and an 88-yard run. With barely over 3 minutes left to mount a comeback, Ohio State drove down the field but could not get a play off from the one yard line before time expired.
On the previous play, OSU fullback Champ Henson had carried from the 5-yard line down to the 1. But the Spartan players delayed as much as possible while officials attempted to get the ball spotted for play. As the clock was ticking down to zero, Ohio State managed to snap the ball but Greene could not handle the snap. On the ensuing fumble, Baschnagel picked up the ball and ran it into the end zone. OSU players celebrated a touchdown, while MSU players claimed that time had run out. It took nearly an hour of conferences and conversations before the officials finally agreed that time had expired before OSU snapped the ball.
This time around, the result was much different. Ohio State dominated the 11th ranked Spartans from start to finish, crusing to a 21-0 victory. The young defense came through in spectacular fashion as they held MSU to only 173 yards of offense and 11 first downs. Pete Johnson scored two TD's from close range and Greene hit WR Lenny Willis with a 64-yard TD pass. Archie Griffin rushed for over 100 yards for the 22nd consecutive game and Craig Cassady celebrated his first start by grabbing three interceptions. It was sweet revenge and a real confidence builder, but a bigger challenge was looming the next week.
On tap in week two was a home game against the Nittany Lions of Penn State. This would be the first meeting between Woody Hayes and the Lions’ Joe Paterno. It was the second straight game against a ranked opponent, as PSU came into the week ranked 7th. Ohio State had met Penn State four times previously but had never beaten them. Three of those losses were under the leadership of Hayes, and thus revenge was once again a key factor. Paterno had taken the helm at State College in 1966 after 15 years on the staff as an assistant. Like Hayes, he was a stickler for details and stressed solid, fundamentally sound football. It was difficult to predict which team would win on this day, but everyone expected to see a clean, well-played contest.
Ohio State took the opening kickoff and methodically drove 80 yards for a touchdown. Pete Johnson went the last 3 yards to score his third touchdown on the young season. One of the biggest plays of the drive was a 49-yard run by Baschnagel on a reverse. The Penn State defense was reeling, but their offense managed to put together a few plays on the next drive, thus allowing the defense to regroup. The drive stalled in OSU territory, but it was enough to set up 2-time All-American soccer player Chris Bahr for a 55-yard field goal. Bahr nailed the kick, the first of his four 50+ yard kicks on the season on his way to football All- American status. The kick set a new stadium record, but it would stand only until 1981, when Michigan State’s Morten Anderson would break it by booting a 63-yarder (skip to 1:10 on the video).
OSU place-kicker Tom Klaban returned the favor on their next possession with a 45-yard field goal, but after that the Nittany Lion defense settled in and found their bearings. Ohio State had trouble moving the football for the rest of the half, while Bahr kicked another field goal to cut the lead to 10-6 at halftime. In the 3rd quarter, Penn State once again moved into Ohio State territory but again the Buckeye defense stiffened and forced yet another Bahr field goal. But now the score was 10-9, and the faithful in the stands were getting restless. It was time for the senior leaders on offense to step up, and they did in a big way.
Led by the running of Griffin and the clutch passing of Greene, Ohio State moved confidently down the field. Then, from the 11-yard line, Pete Johnson crashed through the Penn State line for a game-clinching touchdown. The OSU defense shut out the Lions the rest of the way and the Buckeyes cruised to a solid 17-9 victory, the first win ever against Penn State. Archie Griffin went over 100 yards rushing again, thus running his consecutive game streak to 23. The young defense was stingy all day long, holding the Nittany Lions without a touchdown for the first time in their last 27 games. They were aided by the clutch punting of Tom Skladany, who average over 47 yards on the day and continuously stuck PSU with bad field position.
The team would keep winning throughout the season and eventually made it to the Rose Bowl again, this time with an undefeated record. But a 23-10 loss to UCLA, a team they had crushed on the road earlier in the season, ended their hopes for a final national championship to send Hayes into retirement as a winner. Hayes decided not to retire, and coached three more seasons before being forced to resign after attempting to punch an opposing player in the 1978 Gator Bowl.
Griffin would set a new NCAA record for career rushing yards with 5589 yards, and would go over 100 yards for 31 consecutive games, a record that still stands today. He would also pick up his second Heisman Trophy, becoming the first, and still the only, two-time winner of the award. Griffin also attained All-American status, along with teammates Fox, Skladany, and lineman Ted Smith. It was the second straight All-American season for Griffin and Skladany.
Pete Johnson would end up leading the nation in scoring with 25 TD's, including 5 in one game against North Carolina. The season concluded an outstanding four-year run for the OSU program, as they compiled a record of 40-5-1 during that span. They won or shared the Big Ten title and went the the Rose Bowl all four years and went 3-0-1 against hated rival Michigan.
Penn State would regroup and win 7 of their next 8 games to finish 9-2 and earn a berth in the Sugar Bowl. However, their season ended with a 13-6 loss to eventual #3 Alabama. Ohio State finished at #4 in the rankings, the third straight season they had finished in the top 5.