The Best Thing About Freshmen

By Joe Beale on May 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm

In our bid for more writers than readers, we introduce Joe to you. He's been a long time commenter around here under the moniker GoBucks89 and his first post takes a look at the 1979 season, when another talented soph was lining up behind center.

As we look forward to Pryor's sophomore season, many of us are wondering how much LiC will improve over last year. As they say, "The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores." When contemplating the 1st to 2nd year improvement of a quarterback phenom at Ohio State, one's thoughts might drift back to the year 1979, and to the last great QB prospect to arrive in Columbus with enormous accolades and great expectations.

Art, SI cover boy

Art Schlichter was first team All-Ohio and Ohio class AAA (this was before the advent of the 5-division system) Player of the Year as a high school senior. His Miami Trace teams went 29-0-1 with him as the starter, and he was also All-Ohio in basketball (he once scored 47 of his team's 49 points in a junior high game). I remember my father telling me that Schlichter could throw the ball 50 yards through the air while sitting on his rear. If that sounds like Chuck Norris, you just have to know that the hype surrounding Schlichter was as thick as that of Pryor and then some (enhanced by the fact that he was from nearby Washington Court House). Schlichter was also a threat running the football, and he was as skilled in the QB option as he was dropping back. As a freshman at OSU, he started all 12 games (including the infamous Gator Bowl game) and, despite a rocky five interception start against Penn State, displayed such promise that he was thought to be the key to the team's success in the 1979 season.

1979 was going to be a pivotal season for Ohio State football, one way or another. The 1978 Gator Bowl game is well known because of the punch that led to Woody Hayes' firing. Earle Bruce was hired away from Iowa State to take over the program and like Hayes, Bruce was a disciplinarian, perhaps even more so. But in terms of offensive style, Bruce was thought to be much more "modern". Which in Columbus meant four yards and a cloud of dust with slants and posts mixed in. During spring practice, reporters validated this thinking with glee about how "the air was full of footballs". Clearly, things were going to be different.

A different approach was probably welcome news to many fans, despite Hayes' legendary status. The team had just endured three-straight losses to Michigan and had lost 4 of its last 5 bowl games. They had not scored a touchdown in The Game since Pete Johnson plowed in for the winning score in 1975, and they had been humiliated 35-6 in the much anticipated "Woody vs. Bear" Sugar Bowl matchup with Alabama in 1978. The Gator Bowl game later that year was clearly winnable, as the team was trailing only 17-15 and driving in Clemson territory prior to the interception. The spectacle of Hayes lashing out in frustration at an opposing player on national television added insult to injury, and harmed the reputation of the program. If there ever was a time for change in OSU football, 1979 was it.

The season started calmly enough with a routine 31-8 victory over Syracuse. However, the second game was on the road at Minnesota, and OSU struggled to pull out a 21-17 victory. They got into a shootout in the third game before finally pulling ahead for good against Washington State for a 45-29 victory. Schlichter had shown poise and played effectively, but a bigger test loomed in the 4th game at UCLA. Terry Donahue's Bruins would go on to post a mediocre 5-6 record, but trips to the West Coast have always been difficult for OSU. UCLA jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter before OSU narrowed it to 10-7 at the half. OSU struggled on offense throughout the 2nd half and they found themselves staring at a 13-10 deficit with 2:21 remaining in the game. Starting at their own 20 after a missed FG, Schlichter led the team on an 80-yard drive for the game-winning TD. He was 6-6 on the drive, hitting FB-turned-TE Paul Campbell on a 3-yard bootleg pass for the winner. The drive was a turning point for the team. The early struggles were forgotten, and the entire country watched them shake off the chains of their ultra-conservative past and ride the arm of their young QB for the win. The defense had stiffened in the 2nd half, the offense had come through in the clutch, and the team carried their new coach off the field on their shoulders as he fist-pumped Tiger Woods-style the whole way. Things had definitely changed for the better.

After a let-down game against Northwestern yielded a 16-7 win, the team suddenly began handing beatdowns out to the rest of the Big Ten. Lee Corso's Indiana team would ultimately end the season at 8-4, including a bowl victory over BYU, but against the Buckeyes they had no chance. Schlichter and the crew ripped the Hoosiers for a 47-6 win, and then they proceeded to hang a 59-0 shiner on Dave McLain's Wisconsin Badgers the next week. Homecoming week brought a feisty Michigan State team, but they left humiliated by the Buckeyes, 42-0. I went to that game, and I was utterly impressed with the performance of Schlichter and the offense. They absolutely dominated whenever they were on the field. Easy wins against Illinois and Iowa followed, setting up the season-ending finale against You Know Who.

At this point, all of the ghosts of the past three years returned to haunt the team. Not only that, but Michigan had discovered a phenom of their own, a freshman receiver named Anthony Carter who was burning opposing secondaries left and right. The game was in Ann Arbor, and with OSU being undefeated entering the game, the crowd was sure to be as hostile as ever. Veteran coach Bo Schembechler had to be smiling at the prospect of facing a coach who was dealing with the pressures of The Big One for the first time. However, as the game unfolded, it became obvious that the Buckeyes' sophomore quarterback was up to the challenge. Schlichter passed for 196 yards, including an 18-yard scoring strike to Chuck Hunter to give Ohio State its first touchdown against Michigan in 4 years. Having exorcised those demons, the Buckeyes blocked a punt late in the game and safety Todd Bell ran it in for the winning score. The 18-15 victory sealed an outright Big Ten championship for Earle Bruce in his first season, and also secured a Rose Bowl date with the imposing USC Trojans.

After the win over Michigan, the AP moved Ohio State to #1 and USC to #3 (Ohio State was 3rd in the UPI poll, behind Alabama and USC). As a result, the Rose Bowl game was billed as a shot at the national championship for the Buckeyes. Unfortunately, this game ended up being kind of like a reverse of the UCLA game. It was OSU that led late in the game, and USC that went on the game-winning drive in the last 2 minutes. The difference was that USC did it all on the ground, running Heisman Trophy winner Charles White and his young fullback Marcus Allen behind their massive offensive line led by future NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz (Pete Carroll, then OSU's secondary coach, offers his recollections here).

White ran all over OSU, finishing with 247 yards. But Schlichter held his own, passing for 280+ yards, including a 44-yard TD strike to Gary Williams. Schlichter failed to reach the end zone on a 4th-and-goal QB option from USC's 1-yard line in the 1st half, and that play would cost the team not only in points but in emotional energy as the game wore on. Not only that, but after USC scored the go-ahead touchdown, Schlichter was unable to complete any passes on the ensuing possession. Still, the young QB performed exceptionally well under pressure and outplayed his USC counterpart, senior All-American Paul MacDonald. It was a superb showing for a second year player, made all the more impressive by the fact that the USC secondary sported the likes of future All-Pro players Dennis Smith and Ronnie Lott.

So how does this all relate to Terrelle Pryor? Could he be the kind of player that sparks a great team effort and championship run like we had in 1979? Only time will tell, but from my vantage point it looks like he has all the skills and the team has all the necessary talent to pull it off. Not only that, but there are some big-game demons that require exorcising, and TP seems like just the kind of guy who can do it. Our coaching situation is as stable as it can be at the moment, but I think we still have something to prove when it comes to molding our offense around an exceptionally talented quarterback. Will the current staff be able to bring positive change in that critical area? Stay tuned.