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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