25 Years Ago: Keith Byars

By Joe Beale on June 5, 2009 at 7:00 am

While I realize it's hard to take your mind off of that exciting NBA action, I thought it might be interesting to look back 25 years to the 1984 football Buckeyes. Recounting scores and achievements is fun, but as the old coach used to say "You win with people". So this series will focus on the key players from that team and how they helped propel our beloved Buckeyes to victory.

Keith knows the end zone wellReal men score big touchdowns

Obviously, the most prominent player from the 1984 team is running back Keith Byars. Byars rushed for a school record (later broken) 1764 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season. In one game against Illinois, he broke Archie Griffin's single game school record for rushing with 274 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Byars was also an excellent receiver out of the backfield, leading the team in receiving. His 2441 all-purpose yards on the season is still a record, and he later caught over 500 passes during his NFL career. And oh yeah, he wasn't too bad as a blocker either, as his college roommate Pepper Johnson can attest. Byars was named the 1984 Big Ten MVP, and of course was the team MVP as well. He finished 2nd in the Heisman Trophy vote and may well have won if Doug Flutie's prayer had not been answered.

The previous season had contained some hints of the greatness that was to come. He had carried for 46 yards and caught a couple of long passes out of the backfield during OSU's upset victory at Oklahoma. The next week, he gained 98 yards in the first half against Iowa before having to leave with an injury. He had started the season as a back-up but took firm control of the job during the season and showed a flair for the big play with his 99-yard kickoff return against Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. But it was in 1984 that he would really shine.

For Byars, the season actually got off to a slow start as the team struggled in the opener against Oregon State. But he began to cement his reputation for toughness in a 44-0 blowout win against Washington State. I remember very distinctly one play from that game where Byars carried around right end and appeared to be heading out of bounds after a good gain. As the potential tacklers approached, Byars turned upfield and lowered his shoulder. About 7 yards later two WSU defenders were lying on the ground as Byars finally went out of bounds after leveling them both. It was an awesome display.

But in week three, KB showed that he was more than just a workhorse runner. Iowa had beaten OSU the previous year up in Iowa City, spoiling the mood after our big victory over Oklahoma. Byars had been injured in that game, but in this one he would not be denied. On OSU's first possession, he took off around right end and ran 50 yards for a touchdown.

Later in the game, Coach Earle Bruce reached into his bag of tricks and called for the halfback option. Byars carried on what looked like a sweep around left end, but then stopped and threw left-handed to a streaking Mike Lanese for another touchdown. Still later in the game, Byars would score another touchdown on the receiving end of a Mike Tomczak pass. Keith's heroics inspired the team and they sprinted out to a big lead on their way to an eventual 45-26 victory.

Byars had another huge game the next week at Purdue, even running a kickoff back 61 yards. The team lost 28-23, but Byars was quickly becoming a Heisman front-runner. And the best was yet to come.

Illinois was another team that had beaten OSU the previous season, and the team was itching for revenge. Unfortunately, the extra aggressiveness led to some early miscues including a rare Byars fumble. The Illini converted those opportunities into a 24-0 lead, and things were looking pretty gloomy for the men in Scarlet and Gray. I was at that game for the first half, but unfortunately I had to leave at halftime to go deliver pizzas for Donatos. But I taped the game and that turned out to be a smart move.

After the nightmarish 1st quarter was over, OSU began to turn things around. They drove to the Illini 18 yard line, and from there KB took care of the rest. Starting on a simple isolation play over left tackle, Byars executed a nifty spin move to avoid one tackler and outran the rest of the defense to the left corner of the end zone for the TD. As he turned to celebrate with one of his linemen who was approaching, Illinois safety Craig Swope came in from behind and hit the lineman in the back at full speed. A huge brawl ensued, Swope was ejected, and Illinois was penalized 15 yards for a late hit. With the penalty yardage moving the kickoff to the 50 yard line, Coach Bruce decided to on-side kick and OSU recovered at the Illinois 34. QB Mike Tomczak hit Cris Carter for a TD on the first play and the Buckeyes were right back in the game.

As the half drew to a close, OSU was on the move again. This time, Byars capped the drive with a sprint around left end and a head-first leap over the pylon for his 2nd touchdown. There was bedlam in the stadium as the team closed the lead to 24-21 at the half.

In the second half, the teams battled back and forth in an exhausting battle of offenses. Byars scored again on a short run, and then he made the play that would become his signature highlight for years to come. The Buckeyes had the ball at their own 33, and Tomczak handed to Byars over right tackle. He ran through a big hole toward the right sideline, then made a sharp cut back to the middle as he crossed into Illinois territory. When he made the cut, his left shoe came loose. Byars kicked the shoe off without losing a stride, and ran the last 41 yards to the end zone without it. The 67-yard run was replayed endlessly on news highlights and is still the most famous play of his college career.

Later in the game, with the two teams tied up 38-38, OSU drove from their own 20 to the winning score almost exclusively on the ground. Byars ran like a man possessed as he continuously tore through the weary Illini defenders. Finally, from the Illinois 3 yard line, Byars ran left and then cut back over left tackle for the score with only 36 seconds left on the clock. It was his 5th TD of the game, and it was a game-winner.

Although his runner-up finish set him up for a big Heisman run as a senior, a pre-season injury to his foot put an end to that. He missed most of his senior year and his attempts to come back early only led to more trouble with the foot. Still, Byars was selected in the middle of the first round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and went on to a long and productive career in pro football. He was never the runner that he had been, but his blocking and receiving skills served him well in the pass-happy offenses of the NFL in the 80's. He even made the Pro Bowl in 1993. Today, Byars lives in Florida and was recently named as the head coach of a high school team in Boca Raton. But I'll always remember him carrying the ball for the Buckeyes and scoring touchdowns, with or without his shoe.

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