Drive-Thru: Ohio State at Stanford (1981)

By Vico on July 24, 2014 at 10:45a

Ohio State's non-conference schedule had a western flavor after Woody Hayes arrived in 1951. Home-and-homes with the Pac-8 included California (1953-1954, 1971-1972), Stanford (1955-1956), Washington (1957-1958, 1965-1966), USC (1959-1960, 1963-1964), UCLA (1961-1962, 1975-1976), Oregon (1967-1968), and Washington State (1973-1974). Hosting Oregon State for just one game in 1974, Ohio State was a trip to Corvallis short of cycling through the Pac-8 on home-and-home series under Woody Hayes.

Not many games with the Pac-8 schools in that stretch resonate with Ohio State fans. There are a variety of reasons for this. One, the power of the Pac-8 was constituted in just three programs. UCLA, USC, and Stanford represented the conference in all but one Rose Bowl from 1966 to 1980. 

Two, the veneer of Ohio State football cracked in the mid-1960s.  Ohio State football was not a national conversation for a few years after Woody Hayes' 1961 national championship team. That stretch from 1962 to 1967 included three losses at UCLA (1962), at USC (1964), and at home to Washington (1966). That 1962 loss at UCLA came when Ohio State was the no. 1 team in the country.

Third, with television for college football in its infancy, few matchups could command a national telecast involving Ohio State and a Pac-8 school. The big exception here is Ohio State's publicized 1975 trip to Los Angeles to play UCLA in the Coliseum. If for not the disaster of a rematch in the Rose Bowl that same season, that beatdown of UCLA would be folklore for every generation of Ohio State fans.

When Ohio State and Stanford scheduled a home-and-home for 1981 and 1982, it was conceivable this could become a national attraction. Unsure when exactly the series was formalized, it is possible the matchup was put on the books in 1977. Ohio State, still coached by Woody Hayes, was projected to square off against Bill Walsh, who just churned out a 9-3 season in his first year on the farm.

Fast-forwarding to 1981, the matchup would no longer be one of coaching giants. Woody Hayes was fired for punching a Clemson player in the 1978 Gator Bowl loss and Bill Walsh jumped to the NFL in 1979 after two seasons at Stanford. Hayes' replacement, Earle Bruce, at least managed well enough out the gate. Ohio State was one failed fourth-down conversion in the 1980 Rose Bowl from starting Bruce's tenure with an undefeated national championship campaign. Ohio State won nine games in Bruce's second year. 

Stanford struggled to replace Walsh. Walsh's replacement, Rod Dowhower, finished 1979 with a 5-5-1 record before he took an offensive coordinator job with the Denver Broncos. Paul Wiggin replaced Dowhower and started 6-5 in 1980 before opening 1981 with a two-game skid to Purdue and San Jose State.

Still, Ohio State's visit to Stanford in 1981 commanded a national television spot (albeit with ESPN's fledgling network) for the quarterback matchup. Ohio State and Stanford happened to pull in the highest rated prospect in 1978 and 1979, respectively. Woody Hayes won Art Schlichter's signature in 1978 over other offers from Michigan and Penn State by offering, infamously, to move starting senior quarterback Rod Gerald to wide receiver. Fielding over 60 offers from across the country, John Elway chose to play football and baseball for Stanford. The two met in a game billed as a quarterback duel between two Heisman Trophy candidates.

Ohio State fans who have watched or remember Bruce-era football games remember an offense with one of the best quarterbacks in college football commanding an offense begrudgingly giving up Hayes' "three yards and a cloud of dust" philosophy. Schlichter was brilliant when necessary but the offense was never designed to have him put up gaudy stats. For example, Schlichter finished fourth and sixth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1979 and 1980 despite attempting around 200 passes both seasons. On average, he threw for under 165 yards a game in 1979 and 1980, well short of statistics from other quarterbacks of his era like Purdue's Mark Herrmann and Brigham Young's Jim McMahon.

Elway, on the other hand, had the misfortune of being the best quarterback in college football on some awful teams. I struggle to think of many recent comparisons for a brilliant quarterback on teams so terrible. In 1981, Elway finished first in the Pac-10 in pass completions and completion percentage. He was even no. 2 nationally in completion percentage. Stanford, however, was 4-7 in 1981. Because of "the play" in 1982 at California, Elway never quarterbacked a winning team and never played in a bowl game. He graduated in 1982 as a consensus All-American quarterback, Pac-10 player of the year, and Heisman Trophy runner-up on a 5-6 football team.

Thus, the game that unfolded did not meet its hype as a quarterback duel. Ohio State's offense had explosive abilities with Tim Spencer at tailback, Art Schlichter at quarterback, and the woefully underrated John Frank and Garry Williams at tight end and split end. However, it never quite knew how to put it all together.

Stanford was a one-man show and a scary one at that. My dad, in attendance for this game, would tell stories of how terrifying John Elway was as a quarterback for Stanford, foreshadowing the heartbreak Elway had in store for Cleveland Browns fans among the Ohio State faithful. However, his brilliance with his arms and legs could do only so much against a pass rush Stanford could not block. His ability to exploit the most glaring weakness of Ohio State football in 1980 and 1981, the secondary coached by Nick Saban, could only be seen in flashes this game.

Down 24-6 in the fourth quarter, Ohio State fans saw those flashes as Elway led Stanford to 13 unanswered fourth quarter points. Ohio State's offense was beginning to discombobulate and its defense was having difficulty containing Elway in the pocket. The Buckeyes were saved by two important events late in the fourth quarter. First, Glenn Cobb hit John Elway after a swing pass that knocked the wind from the Stanford quarterback. His backup, Steve Cottrell, was substituted for him for the drive but did not have that same effect against a rattled Ohio State defense. Stanford punted.

In its final possession of the game, John Elway led a drive that showed promise of being a game-winner before a Stanford tailback fumbled a swing pass with less than a minute left. Marcus Marek recovered the fumble and Art Schlichter kneeled to a 24-19 win. After the final whistle sounded, Art Schlichter and John Elway met for an innocuous post-game handshake that belied how complex their intertwined stories were for the trajectory of the NFL to follow. 

Alas, that is a different story to be told of Schlichter and Elway's roles in the history of the Colts, Browns, Ravens, and Broncos' franchises. Schlichter was the better man on the better team this day in 1981. You can watch the Drive-Thru compilation of that clip here.


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TheShookster's picture

Schlichter > Elway...and also never forget Braxton > Russell Wilson

These are facts.

He ain't even stretch doe!!

+4 HS
CarolinaBuck's picture

There simply is no way Art Schlichter was better than John Elway on any level at any time.

+5 HS
TheShookster's picture

Sarcasm my dear friend.

He ain't even stretch doe!!

+1 HS
umbyosu's picture

Watched the game at the Shoe as a Freshman at OSU; however, as great as Art was, I have no amibition to view his past.

NitroBuck's picture

Given the NFL talent on those Stanford teams, it is surprising they had losing seasons.  Schlichter had the winning game that day, but Elway got revenge the next season in Columbus.  I hate to say it, but the quietest moment I've ever experienced in the 'Shoe was right after Elway hit a long, game winning TD pass in the closing seconds.  One moment everyone was screaming while he was being chased out of the pocket, the next moment...dead silence.

Ferio.  Tego.

+1 HS
Floyd Stahl's picture

And this was precipitated on Ohio State's previous drive when all they had to do was run out the clock. Coach Bruce called a play where inexperienced sophomore Mike Tomczak had the option to run or pass. He went for the home run ball and was picked off in the end zone, thus leading to Elway's game-winning drive.

gljackman's picture

I was at this game in Palo Alto, as I had a former high school team mate playing for The Buckeyes. For a long time OSU fan it was a great memory and it was the only time I have seen The Buckeyes play live, but that will change this year as I am going to the VA Tech game at The Shoe. I can't wait, only 42 days away! O H

+3 HS
Davep160's picture

Being a Browns fan I always hated Elway as a young person.   He was a pretty good scrambler while young and had that cannon for an arm.   It wasn't until I got older where I really respected his game and how good he really was.   

+5 HS
Young_Turk's picture

I was at that game.  There was all kinds of hype about Elway, and he managed to exceed all the hype.  Funny, I remember that game as a loss.  Not sure why.  I was also in Cleveland Municiple Stadium for The Drive.  John Elway is front-and-center in all my football nightmares.  

The Drive was torture, the equivalent of being tied to a slow-moving treadmill that is slowly, inexorably moving your neck closer and closer to the pendulum.  I can describe how loud it was, especially for every 3rd down and 4th down play during the drive, but I could never describe how quiet the stadium was once we lost.  It was like 80,000 people, right in the middle of a giant party, learning about the assassination of JFK all at the same time,   


+2 HS
drtz's picture

Torture that is similar to watching Vince Young in 2005...

Michael Citro's picture

It's always bittersweet for me to watch old footage of Schlichter. He was the first ever "football hero" of my own. As a kid, Archie's Buckeyes more or less were my dad's. I came of age during the Schlichter years and loved watching Art throw the football.

His much-publicized downward spiral after OSU has affected the way I think about him as a person. But it's still fun to see these films and remember how it felt to be his fan and to cheer on those teams.

Art was the QB for my first OSU game I attended in person in 1980 against Illinois (I was a boy scout there to serve as an usher in C Deck, but I sat on the steps and watched the game instead). It was kind of a big deal, passing-wise:

tennbuckeye19's picture

John Elway was an awesome player, no doubt. One of the best quarterbacks I've seen play.

But, if I saw the guy, I'd shake his hand, ask him for his autograph and if he'd take a picture with me, then I'd give him a swift kick to the groin on behalf of all Browns fans. It would only be right.

+3 HS
WildcatLT's picture

Hate to nit pick but that was my man Chris Riehm who decked Elway.  You can see Cobb making the tackle on the tailback near the sidelines.


Hovenaut's picture

I was really out of touch with OSU football at the time - my family had recently moved to Va - but didn't Schlicter set the single game passing yards record against Florida State that same season?

Too lazy to look up. Had completely overlooked the fact he and Elway squared off. 

NitroBuck's picture

Yup.  That Florida State game was the following week after the trip to Palo Alto.  It didn't turn out well either, as it seemed like our defense still had jet lag.  I still hate the sound of those tomahawk chop drums.

Ferio.  Tego.

bellarebuckeye's picture

That was one hot day.I was sitting right in the middle of the student section wearing my Archie jersey.

Alex Boones Liver's picture

In the game of life, Elway wins...

Seattle Linga's picture

I was at the Drive so it's hard for me to cheer for the Slow White Bronco