Drive-Thru: Illinois at Ohio State (1980)

By Vico on July 31, 2014 at 10:45a

To bide the time between the end of the basketball season and the start of the football season, I like to watch old Ohio State football games and upload condensed versions of them to YouTube for Ohio State fans to enjoy. I call this a "Drive-Thru" and will try to make these a semi-regular feature on Eleven Warriors. This week's installment is an Ohio State game at home to Illinois in the 1980 season. This game, already covered at Eleven Warriors as a Flashback feature, has an ignominious distinction in Ohio State lore. Ohio State won 49-42 but conceded an NCAA single-game passing record of 621 yards to Illini quarterback Dave Wilson.

This game should have been a blowout. Ohio State was the preseason no. 1 team. It fell to no. 2 after an unconvincing 31-21 win against Syracuse to open the season. It stumbled to no. 9 after a home shutout loss to UCLA and sunk one spot further after another unconvincing 27-17 win against Lee Corso's Hoosiers. However, Ohio State was riding high at no. 7 coming into this game after two straight demolitions of Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined score of 69-16. It rolled 603 yards of offense on that Spartans team. Even that 27-17 limp effort against Indiana was preceded by a 63-0 win over Northwestern in Evanston.

Meanwhile, Illinois was en route to a 3-7-1 season under Mike White and had lost three straight, including a heartbreaking 21-18 loss to Minnesota on Homecoming. This should have been a disaster for the Illini.

It looked that way in the first quarter. Illinois' start to this game was brutal. Dave Wilson fumbled Illinois' first play of the game but recovered. He was drilled a few plays later by outside linebacker Keith Ferguson in a manner most resembling a reverse DDT. The ensuing fumble was retrieved by cornerback Vince Skillings for what should have been a scoop and score. However, the play was ruled dead after Skillings recovered the fumble. Ohio State scored three plays later on a crossing route to Gary Williams.

Illinois' second possession ended with another fumble. Art Schlichter, who started this game completing his first dozen passes, quarterbacked a drive utilizing the woefully underappreciated wide receiver tandem of Gary Williams and Doug Donley. Donley got Ohio State's second score of the game on a corner route.

Illinois' third possession got deep into Ohio State's territory before it unraveled in three plays and ended in a punt. Ohio State was methodical in scoring again, this time with a Tim Spencer goal-line dive to start the second quarter.

Illinois' fourth possession got deep into Ohio State's territory again before it ended with a interception by John Epitropoulos, the father of current Buckeye wide receiver Frank, who wears his dad's number (33). The Ohio State drive that followed ended with touchdown toss to tight end Brad Dwelle. 

Ohio State started this game 28-0 with four straight touchdown drives on offense, looking every bit the part of the no. 7 team in the country. Illinois started the game with four drives that ended in disaster, three of which were turnovers. Illinois did, however, get on the board before halftime on its next offensive possession.

Ohio State led 28-7 at intermission but all was not well at halftime for Ohio State's defensive coaches. Ohio State's defensive backs coach, Nick Saban, noticed something was amiss in the halftime statistics.

"We were up, 28-7, at the half, but when I got back to the sideline and put on my head set, I hear our defensive backs coach, Nick Saban, say to me, `You know they had 275 yards of total offense?'" recalled then Ohio State defensive coordinator Dennis Fryzel. "That was something like 10 yards more than we were averaging giving up for an entire game."

A total defensive implosion followed after Ohio State's offense started the half with another touchdown drive. Illinois scored on its first drive of the third quarter but missed the extra point. Up 35-13, Schlichter bobbled a fake hand-off to Tim Spencer on Ohio State's next drive. Illinois recovered and scored again. It also completed a two-point conversion to cut the score to 35-21. 

Ohio State punted. Illinois scored again. Ohio State led by just one touchdown.

Ohio State's offense, in shell shock like the rest of the team, was ready to go three and out and punt. Fortunately, Illinois muffed the return and Ohio State recovered the ball. Ohio State scored on the ensuing drive leading into the fourth quarter and led 42-28. However, Illinois scored on its next possession to make it, again, a one-touchdown game.

Ohio State scored on its next drive, which was punctuated by a pass interference penalty on a deep heave by Art Schlichter. Before 1984, this used to be a spot penalty regardless of distance (much like in the NFL). Illinois safety Rick George interfered with Doug Donley on a play Illinois' recap labeled "controversial". However, Illinois coach Mike White and safety Rick George made a bigger meal of that play than it was in actuality.

Unfortunately, that was as close as the Illini would get. On the following possession, Ohio State scored quickly on the heels of a controversial pass interference call on Rick George.

"It was a long pass down the sidelines to Doug Donley and they said I interfered with him," remembered George, who later became a coach on Mike White's staff and today is the President of the PGA's Champions Tour. "I certainly didn't think I did and Coach White and I argued so much we had another penalty tacked on."

For as clueless as Ohio State's defense looked in the second half, Illinois' defense was hopeless all game. Doug Donley and Gary Williams were impossible problems for Illinois' secondary.

Up 49-35 in the fourth quarter, Illinois' next drive ended when wide receiver Mike Martin fumbled away what would have been a huge touchdown play.

When Wilson hit Mike Martin on a deep pass down the sideline four plays into the next possession, it looked as if the Illini would strike quickly again. With Martin looking towards the end zone, he was caught from behind.

"That play will always stay in my mind forever, because I fumbled the ball," recalled Martin. "I was streaking down the sideline and I saw nothing but the end zone, but the guy came from out of bounds, grabbed my arm and pulled the ball loose."

A few Illinois drives later, the Illini would cut the game to 49-42. However, just eleven seconds remained in the fourth quarter. After Illinois failed to recover the onside kick, Art Schlichter took a knee to conclude a 49-42 Ohio State win.

This was no ordinary defeat for the Illini or win for Ohio State. Dave Wilson's 49/63 passing day for 621 yards and six touchdowns matched or broke a few NCAA passing records. He matched the attempts mark set by Chick Hixon of Southern Methodist against Ohio State in 1968. He matched the completions mark set by California's Rich Campbell earlier that 1980 season. He also matched the total plays mark (76) set by Mike Stritling of Tulsa against Memphis State in 1968.

He also broke the passing yards record set by Brigham Young's Marc Wilson against Long Beach State in 1977. Dave Wilson's career day stood as an NCAA single-game passing record until it was broken in 1988 by Utah's Scott Mitchell.

Years later, Dennis Fryzel, who maintained a mentor relationship with Nick Saban long after Fryzel stopped coaching in 1981, playfully attributed the record day to some chicanery on Illinois' coaching staff.

"To this day, I have never had a chance to ask Mike White about this, but they had to have binoculars on their sidelines or something," laughed Fryzel. "We would change our defense to a five-under man with a cover-two, and every time we did that, Wilson would check into all kinds of these pick routes. Nick Saban and I joke around all the time that Mike White or somebody had to know we were in that type of defense."

From my vantage point, the problem was more basic. Defensive backs were routinely out of position. Vince Skillings, in particular, had a rough day and maybe the worst of his Ohio State career. The problem was only compounded later into the game when the defensive players were exhausted. Earle Bruce, like his predecessor, was not known to substitute players on either side of the ball.That Ohio State's offense was so quick in scoring itself did not help matters.

The defensive problem led to the unconvincing win against Syracuse in the season-opener, dropping Ohio State from the AP no. 1 spot. It continued into 1981 when Earle Bruce fired his entire defensive coaching staff after the 1981 Liberty Bowl win against Navy. This is known informally in Ohio State lore as the "New Year's Eve Massacre".

From a spectator's standpoint, this game is a lot of fun to watch. It is tough to find Ohio State games of this era that showcased how superb Art Schlichter, Gary Williams, and Doug Donley were in their day. Jimmy Gayle, Tim Spencer, and Calvin Murray were an exceptional backfield. An offense loaded with weapons and a defense loaded with confusion in 1980-1981 are sure to remind Ohio State fans of the 2013 squad. At least the sting of this defensive nightmare has long since dissipated.

For now, enjoy the fireworks in this 20-minute compilation.


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stittracer99's picture

Ohio State won 49-42 but conceded an NCAA single-game passing record of 621 yards to Illini quarterback Dave Wilson.

Fire Fickell

+5 HS
CGroverL's picture

Don't get me started. For all of the people that have heard me tell my version of how great Fickell is and what an honor it is to have such a dedicated Buckeye on our coaching staff, I promise to try my hardest to not write these comments again that put Luke Fickell on a pedestal that he deserves to be put on. First, I'll write about the cool story and Drive-Thru that I just watched (It sort of made you all think about the 2013 edition of the Buckeye secondary, right?). I don't know if anyone passed Dave Wilson's 621 before Klingler demolished the 621 with his 716 yard day in 1990, so for now, I'll thank Klingler (not for his Cincinnati Bengals exploits) for keeping Buckeye Nation from being too embarrassed for being in the Hall of Shame because of something that happened on a day where the Bucks were winners. How many hundred turnovers did Illinois have in that game, anyway? to Fickell. If you have heard me fight for Fick before, stop reading now. I would try to make this short, but unfortunately his story is very long and extremely Buckeye.

Luke Fickell will be turning 41 in a couple of weeks (I, too am 41). He was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up as a Buckeye fan in his youth that wanted more than anything to one day proudly wear the Scarlet and Gray. After he achieved that, he started a record 50 straight games at NG for the Buckeyes. During his career under John Cooper, the Buckeyes lost a total of 8 games and in Fickell's final year of 1996, Ohio State won the Rose Bowl beating the #2 ranked Arizona State Sun Devils. Not many freshmen jump into starting roles at Ohio State and much fewer did it back in the 1990's under John Cooper. Fickell did it, played hurt much of the time, even as a freshman, but he was what a Buckeye was supposed to be. Personally, I blame his drive and will to play as a Buckeye as the reason for his knee injury that ultimately took away his pro career in New Orleans before it even got started.

After a short break from football and seeing his career flushed down the toilet which is a heartbreaker, he returned to football (trust me about the injury ending your sports career. I could have gone to many schools on scholarship just because I could run sub 4.4 40's as a junior in high school at 6'0" and 177 pounds...and I had my choice of football, baseball, or both...It is an absolute nightmare that I still run into now...24 years later). Fick returned to Ohio State as a Grad. Asst. under Cooper for a year and then Akron asked Fick to be their DL coach. That is quite a bump in pay. My guess is that Fickell wanted to stay at Ohio State, but couldn't turn down the money as grad assistants don't really make the big bucks, right? He NEEDED a REAL JOB and Akron offered it to him. Fickell had Amy, his wife and children to come to think about. Although the Akron gig lasted just 2 years, he was immediately re-hired by Ohio State as the Special Teams coach for 2 years and then jumped to LB coach. That was in 2004. Shortly afterwards he was given the same job title he has now...Defensive Coordinator, right?  WRONG!!!!!!!

Fickell has NEVER been the DC of the Ohio State defense. His job title should have always read like this : Since there is a #1 coach of the defense, and my job title is the co-Defensive Coordinator, I would like all to know that Jim Heacock was my first boss as co-DC, Everett Withers was my 2nd boss as co-DC, and now, Larry Johnson is my 3rd boss as co-DC. SEE....we all know that the Heacock defenses did not belong to Fickell, Fickell simply worked his ass off and then did what Heacock said on game day. Since Fickell's job of keeping ESPN and others off campus in 2011, he still has that job title that is actually LB coach/co-DC. See though...the problem is that there has always been a man (during Meyer's tenure) that is a defensive coach but has ASSISTANT HEAD COACH written in after everything else. First it was Withers, Now it is Johnson.

What was the primary concern with the defense last year? The passing game, right? Well, Coach Withers was the coach of the secondary. What did you want Luke Fickell to do? Did you want him to tell Withers how stupid playing 10 yards off of every receiver is? Withers was the ASST. HEAD COACH. Looking ahead, if the secondary is weak this season, who do you expect to tell Chris Ash that a change needs to be made? Should it be Fick or the asst. head coach? After all, Chris Ash's job title is secondary coach/co-Defensive Coordinator.

In 2011, Fickell was used by the school. They needed someone to use as a possible scapegoat and someone to stop the bleeding first, which Fick did. Ohio State could have had much more thrown at them, but having a coach that was 37 years old and hired from within for just under $1M (when Meyer's salary is undisclosed but is estimated to end up somewhere between $7M-$9M yearly).

Now...after all of that, I KNOW that it is fair to say that Luke Fickell bleeds more Scarlet and Gray than anyone AND in the dictionary next to Ohio State Buckeye, surely they should make room for Fick alongside Woody. Luke Fickell should be a legend to Buckeye Nation and most of the morons out there didn't know about half of the things that I just wrote but are stupid enough to say "Fire Fickell". No single person in the Ohio State football program gave more, is giving more, and deserves more than Luke Fickell. The worst part of it is that all of the things that I wrote can probably be found easily on the internet (I guess) and instead of reading about it, we have idiots that print "Fire Fickell" bumper stickers. That kind of thing is rude, transgressing for a team, and is 100% outlandish when it comes from the fan base that is not only the BEST, we are also the LARGEST fan base in the entire country. Defenses that have had Fick involved in them at Ohio State have been ranked #5 or better in 5 of Fick's 10 years in total defense (I saw that on TV the other day...I believe it, but don't know how accurate it is as Fick has had 10 seasons where he has been at least the LB coach, but Fick also had the interim head coaching job of 2011, plus he was co-DC for 8 seasons where he always had a man in front of him like I said...I did find 4 seasons where the Bucks' defense finished 5th or better but I couldn't locate the other the stat is probably correct). If that stat is even close to true, that is great as being in the top 5 nationally is very hard to do...and to do it close to 50% of the time is outstanding.

Fickell should be thought of as a Buckeye legend as he has given all but 3 years of his life to Columbus and The Ohio State University and is still giving more every day. It is ridiculous that we have ingrates that would want this guy fired. Whether you like it or not, Luke Fickell IS Ohio State Football. Go Buckeyes and keep 'em going Luke. You are the man and there is a reason why you are still around when all of Tressel's others are gone.

"I hope they're last in everything". One of Meyer's comments when speaking of TTUN after being hired at Ohio State.



Hovenaut's picture

These are great.

I've read a fair amount of the history books on Woody, especially the Ten Year War era, but I'm not as versed on OSU football during the 80's under Earle.

Nice details on this game, was aware Wilson had torched the Buckeyes, never realized how similar the '80 squad was to the past couple of teams.

Seemed to me the defense got a bit better as the 80's went along, wouldn't mind seeing history repeat itself there either.

NitroBuck's picture

Good point.  Our defenses did seem to get better, especially in the mid 80's.  Unfortunately, our offenses were typically not quite as potent as they were during the Schlichter years.

Ferio.  Tego.

+1 HS
Ohio State Ombre's picture

i almost feel like this article was written just to use 1979 brutus as a article cover photo

+2 HS
NitroBuck's picture

A guy I knew in high school was that Brutus.  Good guy.  If my fuzzy memory serves me, he went out for cheerleading but got hurt.  But they liked him, so they let him carry the nut.

Ferio.  Tego.

HeuermanTheFireman's picture

Wham wham wham!

The person responsible for toes clearly wanted you to stub them.

BoFuquel's picture

Oh no: it's the Eldon Bruce error all over again. GO BUCKS!

I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.

NitroBuck's picture

I was there that day.  This was the first of several 9-3 Earle Bruce teams.  Immensely fun game to watch, but highly disconcerting to watch Dave Wilson shred our pass defense.  Similar feeling to what we saw last season, only worse.  Coach Johnson has the right idea with platooning D-linemen in order to keep them fresh.

Ferio.  Tego.

Michael Citro's picture

My first time in the Shoe was that day. What a memorable first game. 

Still have my program (wish I'd kept it in better shape):

CGroverL's picture must be a bit older than me or at least way more mature (I act completely stupid here at 11W but honestly...I'm a decent Christian that knows his football very well. I just talk stooopid junk to try to be funny, which, obviously I'm no good at) than me because I was 8 when that game was played and my goofy ass would have had that program torn up. I was the type of person that wrapped my hockey cards in rubber bands as a kid. As long as you are around my age and the program has no rips, I'll give you some props. It's cool to say that you got a program for a $1.50 at one time though. I paid $20 for my last program (I think)...It was from the Daytona 500 of 2012. Go Buckeyes!!!

At least it was a nice pic of Keith Ferguson from those old 3-4 days on the front.

"I hope they're last in everything". One of Meyer's comments when speaking of TTUN after being hired at Ohio State.



Dirty419Boy's picture

The secondary in the 1980 and 1981 seasons was appalling.  I thought I'd never see the likes of it again.  Unfortunately, last year I discovered I was wrong.


Thanks Vico - love reliving so many of these types of games.  Speaking of Saban being on staff with the Buckeyes, it makes me wonder how many national titles have coaches who came through our storied program...

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

shaggybuckeye's picture

Short answer: A metric shit ton.

Vico's picture

Look at it this way. Earle Bruce's first secondary coach was Pete Carroll. When Carroll left after one season for a DC gig at NC State, he was replaced by Nick Saban from WVU. When Saban was fired, his position was filled by Dom Capers, previously at Tennessee. Not a bad lineage.

Capers left for the USFL after 1983 and was replaced by Gary Blackney, a rather "meh" name in the broad scheme of things.

Btw, Brad Childress was the wide receivers coach for Illinois this game.

I can't believe I ate the whole thing.


This is why I love the legacy of Woody and Earle, and why tradition matters.  Famed coaches who worked for great men.

"I don't apologize for anything.  When I make a mistake, I take the blame and go on from there." - Woody Hayes

Jpfbuck's picture

that 1980 team was such a weird one

the offense and defense were both hit and miss from week to week

the offense scored the following by week (31, 47, 38, 0, 63, 27, 21, 48, 49, 41, 3, 19) for an average of 32 a game

the defense allowed the following (21, 0, 21, 17, 0, 17, 0, 16, 42, 7, 9, 31) for an average of 15

in the 3 losses that year the D gave up a total of 57 points or 19 a game, but 31 came in the last one to PSU in the Fiesta. but in those 3 games the O only scored 22 or just over 7 a game.

Art S in particular could be hot and cold from half to half as this Illinois game showed, but the Fiesta bowl loss to PSU that year was a prime example

first half Art went 15 of 22 for 244 yards and 3TDs to build a 19-10 lead, then in the 2nd half went 5 of 13 for 58 yards no TDs and an INT as PSU scored 3 2nd half tds to win 31-19 as OSU was held to a total of only 73 yards the rest of the game


Doug Donley had a field day in this game.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

36buck's picture

Vico, why is it impossible to find the 73 scum game on YouTube? Someone posted the entire game half hour pre game and all last year but was removed after a few months. Just don't understand why that game is so scarce?  Can you get it???

Vico's picture

I have it. I just haven't been in a huge rush to do much with it. The tie was a de facto loss that moved Ohio State from the AP no. 1 spot and awarded a national championship to Alabama in a season in which Penn State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Ohio State were undefeated. Notre Dame beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl but both shared a national championship for the year. Ohio State doing favors for Alabama is a sure way to piss me off (see also: 1980 Rose Bowl).

The game doesn't have a lot of spectator value beyond the M Club Banner incident. I did upload that several years back.

I can't believe I ate the whole thing.

36buck's picture

I hear you but its the most talked about game. And always wanted to see it but never could find it.  It was cool to watch before YouTube pulled it.  Not even ESPN or btn shows it in Nov when they replay many games.   Would love to see it if you could. I was 8 then so I only remember the uproar but not the game. I put most all your others in my favorite category!   Thanks.