On the way to seven national titles, 34 B1G championships, and the sixth-most wins in college football history (837), Ohio State fans have seen literally dozens of truly special single-season offensive performances turned in by Buckeye greats.
Reflecting on some of those special performances during a hops-fueled debate a few weeks back, myself and a couple buddies were trying to determine exactly which Buckeye of the modern era (loosely defined as 1970 to today) indeed had the most dominant offensive season.
We quickly ran into issues comparing monster seasons by quarterbacks like Troy to receivers like Glenn to running backs like Archie, so when a pretty girl slowly sauntered by the table, no doubt turned on by our gawks, we completely forgot what we were discussing and ended up chatting about how cute it looks when couples chooses to sit on the same side of a booth.
But back to football. I figured I might as well do a little bit of digging in an effort to identify, by skill position, exactly which Buckeye greats had the most transcendent single-season offensive performance. Today, we'll take a look at the running backs followed by the wide receivers next week before rounding things out by examining the quarterbacks.
As I scanned my memory bank, various publications and the records books, three individual seasons by running backs initially jumped out as worthy candidates: Eddie George's ridiculous 1995 season earned him a Heisman, Keith Byars went off like the mob in 1984 and Archie picked up his first Stiff Arm trophy following an incredible 1974 campaign.
Somewhat surprisingly, I was able to eliminate Griffin's '74 season fairly quickly – one that was good enough to win a Heisman – despite the fact he led the country with 1,695 rushing yards, posted the best single-season yards per carry in Ohio State history (6.6), scored 12 touchdowns for a team that also had Pete Johnson on the roster, and ripped off 11 games of 100+ rushing yards.
With Griffin on the sidelines, that left Eddie '95 and Byars '84 to battle it out for the best single-season effort by a running back in OSU history.
Byars entered the season with lofty expectations coming off a sophomore campaign that saw him rush for 1,199 yards and a man-sized 22 touchdowns.
He came out of the gate strong, helping the 6th-ranked Buckeyes fend off the upset-minded Oregon State Beavers as he rushed for 182 yards on 34 carries in a come-from-behind 22-14 win. Two weeks later, in a 45-26 victory over Iowa to open conference play, Byars put the nation on notice with 120 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, another via a toss from Mike Tomczak, and as a final act, he hit Mike Lanese with a 35-yard touchdown pass that scrambled the eggs on Hayden Fry's sailor cap.
Byars found the end zone two more times the following week, racking up 164 yards against the Gophers and the Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies doppelganger known as Lou Holtzth. After an upset loss the next week in West Lafayette, the Buckeyes found themselves in a 24-0 hole to Illinois before Byars produced what was then the greatest single-game performance in the history of Ohio State football.
Byars keyed a 21-point 2nd quarter with a 16-yard touchdown gallop and a four-yard plunge just before halftime to cut the Illini lead to three. Following a turnover on the opening kickoff, Byars found the end zone once more putting the Buckeyes in front, 28-24.
A Hawkeye field goal would immediately trim the lead to a point but Byars wasn't feeling an upset. Moments later, he took a handoff 67 yards toward the left sideline and produced one of the signature plays in Buckeye lore as he lost his left shoe around the 40 but still managed to record his fourth touchdown of the afternoon.
With the defense in full-sieve mode and the game tied at 38, Byars had just enough energy to score on a short touchdown run with less than a minute to play, winning the game, and capping a 39-carry, 274-yard, five-touchdown performance that undoubtedly made 2nd-year running backs coach Jim Tressel proud.
Byars would continue to pad his stats against Sparty, Indiana and Northwestern, setting up a chance for Ohio State to clinch the outright B1G title and a trip to the Rose Bowl if they could get past Michigan. On cue, Byars carried the offense, scoring all three touchdowns (two in the 4th quarter) for the Buckeyes in a 21-6 win, racking up 113 yards in the process. The Rose Bowl didn't work out so well for Keith or the Buckeyes but his exploits that season are still worthy of all-time best consideration.
The Dayton product led the nation with 1,764 yards rushing, a mark that stood as the best in school history until Eddie came along, and in all-purpose yards. Byars also racked up a national-best 22 rushing touchdowns (24 total) and his 147.0 rush yards per game average is ranked 2nd in OSU history.
His exploits earned him a controversial 2nd-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting but he still managed to capture B1G Player of the Year honors and first-team All-American status.
As incredible as Byars was during his junior season, Eddie's 1995 campaign was slightly better, making it the most dominant performance by an OSU running back you've ever seen.
Before breaking things down, here's the relevant data:
|Player||RUSH YDS||RUSH YPG||% TEAM RUSH YDS||REC YDS||RUSH + REC YDS||RUSH + REC YPG||TD|
Like Byars a decade earlier, Eddie also faced huge expectations after rushing for 1,442 yards and 12 scores the previous season. He wasn't a preseason Heisman candidate but he was now a proven commodity in an offense ripe to explode with Bobby Hoying at quarterback, a relative then-unknown Terry Glenn stretching the field like Gumby on speed, Ricky Dudley doing work underneath and Orlando Pace anchoring a gigantic line.
Behind Eddie's 99 rushing yards and another 44 through the air with two touchdowns, Ohio State began the season with a 38-6 win over Boston College in the Kickoff Classic. George's performance earned him MVP honors.
(Side note: I also remember this game because of the ridiculous postgame comments made by BC offensive lineman Pete Kendall. Despite losing by 32 points he offered, "I'm still not impressed by their defense at all. I don't know how they held us to 6 points. We moved the ball at will, it seemed like . . . I don't know how we didn't score more. I'm baffled. I'm waiting to see the film. I'm dying to see it. I didn't have any respect for the way they played at all.")
In his next outing, Eddie would become the first back in OSU history to post at least three games in his career of 200+ yards rushing as the senior blew up for 212 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-20 win over the 18th-ranked Washington Huskies, putting him squarely at the forefront of the early season Heisman talk.
The following Saturday, Eddie would settle for 122 yards on the ground as the Buckeyes blitzed Pitt with an aerial assault that tallied seven touchdown passes in a 54-14 laugher.
With Mark May's alma mater embarrassed once more, the 7th-ranked Buckeyes set their sights on Lou Holtz and his visiting 15th-ranked Fighting Irish. Behind Eddie's 207 yards rushing and two touchdowns, Ohio State ran away from the outclassed Irish in a 45-26 decision.
The brutal schedule continued as the Buckeyes handled #12 Penn State, 28-25, in Happy Valley behind Hoying's three touchdown passes and Eddie's 105 yards, including a game-winning six-yard touchdown run in the closing minutes.
A trip to Camp Randall to face #21 Wisconsin served as a reward for the win in State College. Ohio State trailed, 9-7, at the break but Eddie came to the rescue in the 2nd half.
George hauled in a two-yard touchdown pass from Hoying early in the 3rd quarter to give Ohio State a short-lived 13-9 lead and later, with OSU trailing, 16-13, entering the final quarter, Eddie took over. George carried it six straight times for 35 yards including a one-yard touchdown run to make it 20-16 good guys and after a Wisconsin punt, Eddie took the 2nd play of the drive 51 yards to paydirt, securing a 27-16 win. His final statline read 141 yards on the ground with three touchdowns.
Following a 104-yard, one-touchdown performance in a yawner over Purdue, George went on an absolute tear. He racked up four touchdowns in the 1st half in a 56-35 thrashing of Iowa and hit Minnesota for three more scores including an 87-yard touchdown run before making history the following week in a 41-3 steamrolling of Illinois.
In the single greatest individual performance by an Ohio State Buckeye, Eddie tallied three touchdowns and ran for a school-record 314 yards against the 10th-ranked run defense in the land anchored by Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy.
George ripped off 128 rushing yards in the 1st quarter alone and had 180 at intermission. Then, erasing any chance at an Illinois comeback, ED-DIE!! took a handoff on the opening play of the 2nd half and raced 64 yards for six. With the entire Illini defense aware of who was getting the rock, George pounded out another 70 yards over the final 1.5 quarters to complete the once-in-a-lifetime show.
Squarely at the front of the Heisman pack, George played sparingly in a 42-3 spanking of Indiana with The Game just one week away but Eddie still totaled 130 yards rushing with a pair of touchdowns.
Against Michigan, the Buckeyes looked like a completely different team than the one that had started the season with 11 straight wins. With the D giving up 313 yards to Tim Biaka^$@*&!, the offense wasn't much better in a 31-23 defeat. Eddie did manage 104 yards and a touchdown that cut Michigan's lead to 17-15 in the 3rd quarter but dropped balls and missed tackles cut short a dream season.
In one of the more painful finishes, even by Cooper era standards, Ohio State made it a two-game losing streak to finish the season, falling to Peyton Manning's Tennessee Volunteers, 20-14, in a soggy Citrus Bowl. Eddie ran for 101 yards and a touchdown but nobody was celebrating his post-Heisman performance.
Still, when the smoke cleared on his unbelievable season, George led the country and set a school record with 1,927 yards rushing while winning the Heisman, Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp trophies and also earning the B1G Player of the Year honors.
Eddie also set school records with 148.2 rushing yards per game, 12 straight 100+ yard rushing games, three 200+ yard rushing games and became the only Buckeyes to go for over 300 yards. Tallying 71% of the squad's rushing yards, George averaged 5.9 yards per carry, good for 6th best in school history.
All in all, while Byars but up very comparable numbers, I have to go with Eddie as having the best single season by a modern era OSU running back. He separates himself a bit with that 5.9 yards per carry compared to Keith's 5.2 and the three games of 200+ yards including the 314 against a legit Illinois defense showed just how much better he was than his peers in an awe-inspiring individual season.