There was a time when Wisconsin was not a big game on the Ohio State football schedule. Throughout the 60s and 70s the Buckeyes dominated the Badgers, winning 21 straight games from 1960-1980. Scores like 62-7 (1969), 56-0 (1975), and 59-0 (1979) were not uncommon. But the seeds of change were sown in 1978 in the person of Dave McClain.
McClain was a native of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and so he understood what Ohio football was all about. He played college ball at Bowling Green and got his first head coaching job at Crestline High School, less than 40 miles from his hometown of Upper Sandusky. He moved quickly into the college ranks, serving as an assistant coach in various places, most important among which were four years spent working for Bo Schembechler at Miami (OH) (1963-66) and two years working for Woody Hayes at Ohio State (1969-70).
Having been crushed 42-0 by Hayes' 1977 Buckeye team, the athletic department at Wisconsin apparently decided that it would be helpful to hire a head coach who knew how Hayes did things and could (hopefully) establish something similar at Wisconsin. So they brought in McClain, who had established himself as a successful head coach for seven seasons at Ball State, to be their new head coach.
The move did not immediately pay dividends against Ohio State, but as the decade of the 70s closed, the distance between the two teams would close as well. OSU shut out UW again in 1980, but the 21-0 victory was far from the cakewalk that the score makes it seem. The Buckeyes struggled all day to run against the Badger defense, led by noseguard Tim Krumrie. The easy win was attributable mainly to the inept Wisconsin offense and the frigid weather, which caused several Badger turnovers.
Things changed dramatically in 1981, as an error-prone Ohio State team was caught looking past Wisconsin and fell to the Badgers 24-21. To prove that was no fluke, McClain's troops marched into Ohio Stadium in 1982 and shut out the Buckeyes 6-0, holding the ball for the last 8 minutes of the game with a grinding rushing attack. The days of taking Wisconsin for granted were over.
With those two painful losses fresh in their minds, the 1983 Buckeyes were bent on revenge when the Badgers came to town again (OSU had played at Madison two years in a row and then hosted UW two years in a row). Ohio State had started the season in impressive fashion, crushing Oregon 31-6 and then going down to Norman, Okla., and defeating the Oklahoma Sooners on their home turf, 24-14. But they had trouble winning road games in the Big Ten, and stood at 3-2 in the conference when Wisconsin came to Columbus for OSU's homecoming game.
This was a more confident Ohio State team than what the Badgers had seen the previous season. In that game, former starting quarterback Mike Tomczak stood on the sidelines the entire game as he watched Brent Offenbecher lead the team on the field. Tomczak would win back his starting job the next week and never lost it after that. In 1983, Tomczak dazzled the fans with his aerial display against Oregon and led the offense in a gritty performance against Oklahoma. He missed a start against Michigan State due to a concussion he suffered the week before in a loss to Illinois, but he was back in the starting line-up for the Wisconsin game.
Tomczak was joined in the backfield by emerging star Keith Byars. Byars had played well against Oklahoma, and was dominant in the first half against Iowa prior to getting knocked out of the game with strained knee ligaments just before halftime. He put on another dominant performance the next week against Minnesota before being pulled early (along with the rest of the starters) in the 69-18 blowout. Byars was a big back with a lot of speed, and his receiving ability was the best part of his game.
OSU offense was also bolstered by a trio of outstanding receivers in flanker Cedric Anderson, split end Thad Jemison, and tight end John Frank. Frank was adept at breaking tackles and punishing safeties with his physical style of play. Anderson had proven to be an extremely dangerous deep threat the previous season by hauling in a 72-yard touchdown pass against Illinois and a 74-yarder against Indiana. Jemison had good size and great hands, and complemented the other two with his consistency. And all of these weapons operated behind a veteran offensive line.
Wisconsin, like Ohio State, was 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten prior to the game. The Badgers had played well on the road, but they dropped two home conference games to Michigan and Illinois, and their chances of winning the conference were fading fast. They came into Columbus hoping for a boost to their season, and also hoping to impress the numerous bowl game scouts who were present for the game (seven different bowls were represented).
The Badgers got off to a quick start, leading 7-0 and 14-7 at various times in the first half. But Ohio State, behind a bruising running attack and precision passing from Tomczak, stormed back to take a 28-21 halftime lead. The OSU defense also recovered, giving up some big pass plays early but shutting down the running game and forcing UW to be one-dimensional.
At halftime, the OSU Marching Band performed script Ohio, but with a twist. Normally, a senior sousaphone player will dot the "i", but on this homecoming saturday Woody Hayes was on hand to do the honors. As Hayes stepped to the dotting position, the home crowd roared their approval and gave the old coach a standing ovation.
The second half would be Wisconsin's undoing. Early in the quarter, UW quarterback Randy Wright hit his tight end Bret Pearson with a 17-yard touchdown pass. But they missed the extra point and OSU still held a one-point lead. The wheels would fall off for the Badgers from there.
Forced to throw on almost every down due to the ineffective running game, Wright became more erratic as the game went on. He would be sacked repeatedly, and he threw four interceptions. The resulting field position advantage helped Ohio State score the last 17 points of the game and cruise to victory by a final score of 45-27.
In the game, Byars would rush for 174 yards to lead a powerful OSU running attack that would pile up 365 yards on the ground to only 111 for Wisconsin. Tomczak showed no rust from his week off as he completed 12 of 14 passes (including 11 straight) for 162 yards. But the real stars of the game were the men in the trenches, the offensive and defensive lines. OSU dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, allowing the offense to be flexible and taking that option away from the Badgers.
Considering the results of this physical domination, it is fitting that Hayes was on hand to put his stamp on the game. He certainly would have approved of an offense that piled up so much rushing yardage, and he would have loved the fact that the quarterback threw fewer than 20 passes. McClain had changed the way the Badgers played football, and that would result in two more victories over Ohio State the next two years. But on this day, it was another former Hayes assistant, Earle Bruce, who walked away with the victory. McClain and Bruce were friends, having both served under Hayes in the late 60s, but the old man's successor got the better of it this time.
Dave McClain coached at Wisconsin through the 1985 season, but then his career would end tragically. McClain died suddenly in the spring of 1986 due to a heart attack he suffered right after working out. He was 48, one year younger than I am now. Several players were on the scene when it happened, and one can only imagine the trauma of watching someone you respect pass away right in front of you. The Big Ten subsequently named their Coach of the Year award after McClain, and in 2011 Wisconsin inducted him into their Athletic Hall of Fame.
Wisconsin football had only 1 winning season in the 14 seasons prior to McClain; during his tenure they had five winning seasons in eight years, went to their first bowl games and registered their first-ever bowl victory. McClain became the first Badger coach ever to beat Ohio State and Michigan in the same season and overall went 4-4 versus the Buckeyes. After McClain died, UW went 1-4 against OSU until Barry Alvarez took over in 1992. Alvarez took Wisconsin to new heights, but he was building on the necessary foundation that had been laid by McClain.
The 1983 Ohio State team would crush Indiana and Northwestern the next two weeks after beating Wisconsin, but then they dropped a heart-breaker at Michigan, 24-21. The team recovered enough to defeat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, giving Earle Bruce his third straight bowl victory and his fourth straight 9-3 season. Byars of course would have a tremendous season the next year, rushing for over 1700 yards and racking up over 2200 yards of total offense. He would also lead the team in receiving with 42 grabs. That magnificent performance was good enough to finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Doug Flutie of Boston College.