There's been some talk lately about how the current Ohio State coaching staff does not trust the current quarterback enough to open up the offensive game-plan. That may or may not be the case, but there was a time during the 1989 season where coach John Cooper apparently thought that he had trusted his QB, and the offense in general, a little too much. The 80's was a decade in which offensive coaches developed a significant amount of affection for the passing game, to the point where 300, 400, and even 500 yard passing games were not uncommon for quarterbacks. But for one game late in that decade, Ohio State was so tied to the ground you would have thought the late Wayne Woodrow Hayes was still at the helm.
The 1989 season began in a manner very similar to the 1988 season. This was bad news for Cooper and OSU fans, because in '88 the team had finished 4-6-1, had missed going to a bowl game for the second year in a row, and had given up more points than any OSU team in the modern era. They had looked solid in their season-opening win over Syracuse, but then they were crushed 42-10 at Pittsburgh, and the season went downhill from there. In '89, OSU opened with an impressive win over a good Oklahoma State team (albeit one that had just lost Barry Sanders to graduation), but then they went out to USC and were drilled again 42-3. They came back home to win a shootout against Boston College, but then the wheels came off again on the road against Illinois as OSU fell 34-14. The team looked sloppy in losing, and the fans were getting restless with Cooper's seeming inability to mold them into a disciplined group of consistent winners. Indiana would make their way to Ohio Stadium the next week.
In this day and age, Indiana is usually looked at as a sort of "breather" during the tough Big 10 schedule (although a certain Team Up North might beg to differ this season). But 20 years ago, that was not the case. Coach Bill Mallory had brought new life to the Hoosier football program, and they were riding a 2-game winning streak against OSU after not having beaten them even once since 1951. The 1987 loss to the Hoosiers was called "the darkest day for Ohio State football since I've been associated with it" by coach Earle Bruce, and it didn't get any better at Indiana in 1988 as the Hoosiers pummeled the Buckeyes 41-7. In that game, IU running back Anthony Thompson rushed for 192 yards and 4 touchdowns. QB Dave Schnell and RB Thompson returned for IU in '89, and so it was clear that this was not going to be a stroll in the park for the Buckeyes.
In the loss to Illinois the week before, OSU had been guilty of 4 turnovers, 7 penalties, and numerous defensive breakdowns. Illinois took advantage of all the mistakes to turn a close game into a blowout. It was at this point that John Cooper made a desperate move. He took almost all of the passing plays and formations out of the offensive game-plan and made the offense almost completely one-dimensional. All plays were run out of a 2-tight-end set with a fullback, with Jeff Graham as the only WR. Cooper had decided that the offensive line played much better when they could just go and hit someone, and he felt that he should just go with what they did best. The idea was that the team wasn't executing anything particularly well, and maybe concentrating on a few simple plays and practicing them over and over again would yield better results and more consistent effort. Indiana might know exactly what was coming, but if OSU blocked it well it wouldn't matter.
As it turned out, the extra practice on running plays helped immensely with execution, and OSU ground out the yards throughout the game. Ohio State's defense had no answer for Thompson and the Hoosier offense, and in fact Indiana was never forced to punt at any time in the game. Thompson would ultimately rush for 177 yards and 3 touchdowns. Indiana controlled the statistical battle, winning first downs 28-17 and total yards 444-290. But OSU kept the ball away from Indiana and their ball-control offense kept them either in the lead or close to it for most of the game. OSU tailback Carlos Snow and fullback Scottie Graham collectively rushed for 260 yards, running only simple trap and isolation plays for all of it. Greg Frey threw only 6 passes but he completed 5 of them for 37 yards and tossed 2 touchdown passes to TE Jim Palmer.
The two teams went back and forth like a tennis match until late in the game when OSU's special teams made the play that sealed victory. All season long, the team had been practicing something that coach Cooper called a "deep onside kick". This involved a kickoff where you intentionally kick the ball very high, sort of like a punt. This causes a loss of distance but it confuses the kickoff return team that is set up to receive the ball somewhere between the goal line and the 10-yard line. The idea is that if you kick it past the front line but short of the return men, you'll be sending the ball to guys who are mostly blockers and not accustomed to handling the ball. A high kick is difficult to field in the best of circumstances, but even more so when you're set up to block and not receive.
Earlier in the game, the Buckeyes had successfully executed the "deep onside kick" on a kickoff and had recovered in Indiana territory to set up a scoring drive. But late in the 4th quarter, OSU was holding onto a 35-29 lead and faced a 4th down deep in their own territory. Rather than risk a blocked punt in that circumstance, Cooper elected to take an intentional safety, making the score 35-31. Then he sent punter Jeff Bohlman out for the free kick from the OSU 20-yard line. Again, Indiana had trouble fielding the kick and it bounced at the IU 30-yard line. OSU DB Vinnie Clark ran toward the bouncing ball, grabbed it at the 16-yard line, and ran out of bounds. The Indiana players had been confused by the fact that the ball was punted and seemed to forget that a free kick after a safety is a live ball, just like a kickoff. The recovery gave OSU the ball back with 1:33 remaining in the game, and they ran the rest of the time off the clock. Cooper's simple game-plan and his creative kicking strategy had paid off, allowing the Buckeyes to secure a victory over a solid Big Ten foe. Somewhere, Woody must have been smiling.
Cooper and the Buckeyes would continue to employ the ground-based offense for the rest of the season with great success until running out of gas in a 28-18 loss at Michigan. But the 8-3 record earned OSU a berth in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, FL. Against the Auburn Tigers, OSU got off to a great start, dealing out a few good shots along the way. But they couldn't sustain it in the 2nd half and the team once again seemed to run out of gas as Auburn pulled away en route to a 31-14 victory. Nevertheless, the 8-4 season and bowl berth took some of the pressure off of John Cooper and gave fans a little optimism for the next season.
Indiana had been 3-1 entering the game against OSU, but the physical battle seemed to take something out of Mallory's team. They went 2-4 the rest of the way including a humiliating 15-14 loss to Purdue in the season finale. Thompson would ultimately rush for 1793 yards and 24 touchdowns, setting a new NCAA career TD record in the process. He also broke the NCAA single-game rushing record by running for 377 yards in a victory over Wisconsin. Thompson was the top vote-getter on the Walter Camp All-America team that season, but finished second to run-and-shoot QB Andre Ware of Houston in the Heisman Trophy voting. Mallory, a former Hayes assistant at Ohio State, would coach another 7 years at Indiana, compiling a record of 69-77-3. The 69 wins is still the most for any football coach at IU.