Walk back with me in time. We’ll set our time machine for a nice round number and go back 40 years. The year was 1975 and Woody Hayes presided over a powerhouse Ohio State roster.
Many of those Buckeyes are iconic. Even if you’re too young to have seen them play, you’ve heard the names: Archie and Ray Griffin, Cornelius Greene, Pete Johnson, Brian Baschnagel, Tim Fox, Bob Brudzinski, and Tom Skladany. Even Tom Cousineau was on that team, in the two-deep as a freshman.
The 1975 Buckeyes were coming off a 10-2 season the year before, with an inexplicable 16-13 stumble against a seven-win Michigan State team in East Lansing and a one-point loss to No. 3 USC in the Rose Bowl. The MSU loss was wrapped in controversy, as Ohio State’s apparent winning touchdown was ruled to have come after the clock expired. The USC loss in the Rose Bowl was just as heartbreaking, with a winning field goal attempt falling short after a penalty pushed the team back.
With the squad Hayes had returning, there were extremely high hopes for 1975 across Buckeye Nation. Ohio State entered the season ranked fourth in the country, behind just Oklahoma, Alabama, and Michigan, in that order. Alabama then lost on Sept. 6 to unranked Missouri (LOLTide), boosting the Buckeyes to No. 3.
The OSU season opened with a revenge game at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 13. Ohio State, aggrieved from the 1974 loss, responded with a 21-0 win at No. 11 Michigan State, scoring a touchdown in the second, third, and fourth quarters. The Buckeye defense held Sparty to 173 total yards and Johnson sandwiched scoring runs of six and nine yards around a four-yard strike from Greene to split end Lenny Willis. Archie ran for 108 of Ohio State’s 228 rushing yards but did not score. There were only 18 combined passing attempts.
The Buckeyes beat No. 7 Penn State, 17-9, in their home opener a week later, with Johnson scoring both of Ohio State’s touchdowns and Archie gaining 128 on the ground, including a long 49-yard scamper. The Nittany Lions mustered only three Chris Bahr field goals, including an impressive 55-yarder. With the win and Michigan’s tie against Stanford, the Buckeyes moved up to No. 2 in the country.
Having played two straight ranked opponents, the Buckeyes welcomed North Carolina to the Horseshoe on Sept. 27 and won easily, 32-7. The defense yielded its first touchdown of the season early in the third quarter, but Billy Paschall’s scoring pass was nowhere near enough to overcome five (!) Pete Johnson touchdown runs. Big Pete cleaned up nicely for Archie, scoring five times from the 5-yard line or closer, with Griffin gaining a total of 157 yards.
Next came a trip to Los Angeles to play No. 13 UCLA at the Coliseum in one of the season’s most anticipated games. UCLA scored first, but the Buckeyes overwhelmed the Bruins with 343 rushing yards and passed only nine times in the game. Griffin finally scored his first touchdown of the season, with Johnson adding two more to his total and Greene also rushed for two scores. Tom Klaban added a pair of field goals.
With the big win on the West Coast and Oklahoma’s one-point win over No. 19 Colorado, Ohio State leapfrogged the Sooners and took over the nation’s top spot in the polls.
The Buckeyes played like the nation’s best team, rattling off huge wins over Iowa (49-0) and Wisconsin (56-0) at home and then taking out Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium, 35-6. Despite those wins, the Sooners managed to edge back in front of Ohio State in the polls because the anti-B1G bias has always existed*.
*May contain sarcasm
Indiana came to Columbus on Nov. 1 and, despite Ohio State jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, the Hoosiers made a game of it, helped by two lost OSU fumbles and six Buckeye penalties for 75 yards. Running back Ric Enis scored two touchdowns in the third quarter for Indiana to cut the OSU lead to 17-14. Pete Johnson’s 1-yard plunge midway through the fourth quarter gave Ohio State a 24-14 win. Corny Greene attempted only four passes, completing two—one for a five-yard touchdown strike to Jimmy Moore.
Ohio State jumped back to the top of the polls a week later with a 40-3 thrashing of Illinois, while Oklahoma was upset 23-3 by Kansas at home. The Buckeyes beat Minnesota, 38-6 in the Shoe on Nov. 15, and suddenly only The Game separated Ohio State from a return trip to the Rose Bowl and a shot at the national championship.
No. 4 Michigan at home in Ann Arbor was a tough nut to crack. The Wolverines were one of the few teams that had an answer on defense for Ohio State’s rushing attack, holding the Buckeyes to just 124 yards on the ground. Michigan finished with twice that total. Johnson gave the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead in the first quarter with a surprising seven-yard touchdown reception.
Michigan tied things up late in the second quarter on a trick play. All-American running back Gordon Bell hit Jim Smith for an 11-yard touchdown pass with just 24 seconds remaining in the first half. The Buckeye offense was completely swamped by Michigan, failing to even gain a first down for two quarters and turning the ball over multiple times.
Things looked bleak when Michigan quarterback Rick Leach—who would go on to play Major League Baseball—scored on an option keeper from a yard out with 7:11 left to play in the game, giving the Wolverines a 14-7 lead. Greene responded on the ensuing drive, hitting a few big passes, including a critical 17-yarder to Baschnagel on a third-and-10 play. Johnson plunged in on fourth-and-goal from the one and tied the game at 14-14 with 3:18 to play.
On its next drive, Michigan came out throwing to go for the win but, after a sack and an incomplete pass, Ray Griffin intercepted Leach and returned it to the Wolverines’ 3-yard line. Johnson did his thing again and put the Buckeyes up 21-14 with 2:19 to play. Michigan’s comeback bid was then thwarted by a Craig Cassady interception on the next drive.
The Buckeyes were headed back to Pasadena to face the Pac-8 champion UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl, with a national championship on the line.
Whether it was overconfidence on Ohio State’s part, the revenge factor, or UCLA Head Coach Dick Vermeil simply learning a lot from that first meeting, there was no repeat of the big Buckeye victory from September. The Buckeyes led 3-0 at halftime on a 42-yard Klaban field goal, but the Bruins ran off 16 straight points in the third quarter to take command.
Johnson pulled the Buckeyes within 16-10 on a one-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but the Bruins added a late touchdown on a 54-yard run by Wendell Tyler to win the game, 23-10. Archie Griffin, who won his second consecutive Heisman Trophy, rushed for just 93 yards on 17 carries.
Oklahoma beat No. 5 Michigan in the Orange Bowl, 14-6, to win the national championship that could have been Ohio State’s. The Buckeyes finished the season where they began, at No. 4. It was one of the best Ohio State teams ever to fail to win the national title, but the 1975 Buckeyes left behind many great memories and a tremendous legacy.