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.