Many questions surrounded Earle Bruce's third team. The squad needed to replace 11 starters and only had 26 returning lettermen, the fewest in 14 years.
The offense returned the most experience with seven starters back, including quarterback Art Schlichter. The unknown rested on the defensive side, which had seven new starters.
|The 1981 Buckeyes
|Earle Bruce (3rd year, 29–7)
|Glen Cobb, Art Schlichter
Games of Note
September 12th • Duke • Ohio Stadium
The Buckeyes entered the 1981 season ranked 11th in the nation, and faced Duke for the first time in 11 years. The Blue Devils finished their 1980 campaign 2–9 and looked to vastly improve.
On Ohio State's first play from scrimmage, Tim Spencer went 82 yards off right tackle for a touchdown. At that time, only Morris Bradshaw's 88-yard run in 1971 was longer in Buckeye history. Spencer finished his day with 172 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Late in the first quarter, things got tight after Art Schlichter threw and interception and Duke returned it to the Ohio State 39-yard line. Five plays later, Ben Bennett found Cedric Jones for a 9-yard touchdown. The Buckeyes answered on their next possession with a 16-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that ended with Spencer scoring up the middle from the 5.
With 20 seconds remaining in the first half, Duke drove to Ohio State's 14-yard line and threatened to score. Bennett rolled left and threw to the flat where Doug Hill intercepted the pass. On the return, Hill fumbled and Bennett recovered. Unknown at the time was Bennett strained his shoulder making the recovery.
On the next play, Bennett threw a quick lob to the right side of the end zone where Jones made the catch with only :01 on the clock. Duke missed the point after to the right and Ohio State led 14-13 at the half.
Spencer made it 21-13 at the midpoint of the 3rd quarter, then Lane made the play of the game. He stripped Jones at the Ohio State 37 and returned it 12 yards. Officials assessed Duke a personal foul, pushing the Buckeyes to the Blue Devils' 36. Five plays later, Schlichter crossed the goal line to put the game out of reach at 28-13.
Duke Coach Red Wilson wins the award for keeping it real. When addressing reporters after the game, he said: "Great players make great coaches. There are just not that many great players at Duke. Ohio State has great athletes."
Woody Hayes visited Ohio Stadium on this 83-degree day for the first time since his resignation to witness Ohio State's 78th victory in 92 season openers.
|NO. 7 MICHIGAN
September 26th • Stanford • Stanford Stadium
Ohio State's first road game of the season came on the West Coast against Stanford (0–2) and John Elway.
The game served a showcase for two of college football's more celebrated passers. Schlichter finished the game with 16 completions for 240 yards and two touchdowns. His steady play guided the Buckeyes to a 24-6 lead with 2:13 remaining in the third quarter.
From there, Elway put the game on his right shoulder. On the ensuing drive, he completed all nine of his pass attempts and drove his team 79 yards for a touchdown. Don Lonsinger made a great one-handed catch on a 4-yard touchdown toss after Ohio State's Marcus Marek tipped it.
Stanford's final scoring play came when Elway connected with Mike Tolliver for a 23-yard touchdown pass with 9 minutes left. The Cardinals had a chance late, but after Vincent White caught a pass, Jeff Cisco forced a fumble that Marek recovered.
Ohio State escaped with a 24-19 victory.
October 3rd • Florida State • Ohio Stadium
On a sunny 60-degree Saturday, Bobby Bowden brought his Seminoles north to play No. 7 Ohio State for the first time ever. Florida State (2–1) had a bye week after losing to Nebraska in Lincoln two weeks earlier. Bowden and his coaches used the time to dissect film and believed they could expose the Buckeyes young secondary in front of the 87,158 home fans. They were correct.
Rick Stockstill – Florida State's quarterback – dinked and dunked the Ohio State secondary with short passes and screens. The Buckeyes' defensive backfield and linebackers worked to prevent the long pass play and the Seminoles threw to the spaces that became vacated underneath. Once the linebackers adjusted and came up, Stockstill threw to open receivers in the space the linebackers left. At the end of the game, Stockstill completed 25-of-41 attempts for 299 yards and two touchdowns.
The ground game and a strong defense aided Stockstill's aerial assault. Michael Whiting rushed for 90 yards and Ricky Williams added 81 yards and a score to bring balance to Florida State's offense. The Seminole defense was hellbent to stop Ohio State's running game and succeeded. The Buckeyes rushed 31 times and only gained 38 yards.
With the running game shut down, Bruce turned to Schlichter's arm. The senior slinger attempted an Ohio State record 52 passes and completed 31 of them. He also threw for 458 yards and two touchdowns. Gary Williams caught a school record 13 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown, but the historic day was not enough in the 36-27 defeat.
Florida State scored off of a blocked punt and fake field goal and kept Ohio State from scoring with a goal line stand. However, the turning point of the game came in the third quarter. The Seminoles received the kick leading 23-21 and proceeded to drive 88 yards on 11 plays. Stockstill found Sam Childers for a 7-yard touchdown to go up 30-21. After holding Ohio State twice, Florida State went 99 yards in nine plays and led 36-21.
At the conclusion of the game Bowden said: "I told our players before the game that we could win, but honestly I wasn't sure. But as the game went on, and our plan worked so well, the confidence just built on and on."
He then reflected on what it meant for him and the FSU program.
"It's a big win and one we'll long remember," Bowden said.
The Buckeyes traveled to Madison the following week and lost to Wisconsin for the first time in 22 years. The 24-21 defeat snapped a 21-game winning streak against the Badgers. From there, Ohio State defeated Illinois, Indiana and Purdue by a combined score of 108-70.
November 7th • Minnesota • Memorial Stadium
"You can pass against Ohio State all day." That is what Minnesota running back Frank Jacobs said after the Gophers defeated the Buckeyes.
Wide receiver Jay Carroll said: "I was open all day. They never bump you at the line of scrimmage. They're not physical at all. They let everyone run free."
Mike Hohensee – Minnesota's quarterback – was the beneficiary. He set a then-Gophers' record for passing yards in a single game with 444 yards. He completed 37-of-67 attempts and threw five touchdown passes.
"They've been doing the same thing game after game," Hohensee said afterward. "They haven't changed much. I had no worries when I dropped back to pass.
"They have more tendencies and are easier to read than any other teams we've played," he added. "When they dropped deep, I threw underneath. When they came up, I hit the curls. I could always read their blitzes."
Ohio State led the game 21-7 at halftime, but the easy to read secondary gave up 28 points in the second half as the Buckeyes lost 35-31. The loss ended the Buckeyes' 13-game winning streak against the Gophers.
On a positive note, Schlichter broke his single season passing record when he pushed his total to 1,980 yards by game's end.
A Northwestern team on a 29-game losing streak allowed the Buckeyes to get back on track. Ohio State pounded the Wildcats 70-6.
November 21st • #7 Michigan • Michigan Stadium
Heading into The Game, Ohio State's defense allowed 24 or more points in five of its first 10 games. Many believed the same thing was in store for Michigan.
Like a sappy Hollywood movie, the much-maligned defense stepped up to win the game for the Buckeyes. Three times Scarlet and Gray defenders intercepted Wolverines quarterback Steve Smith. The defense held Smith to nine completions on 26 passes for 136 yards. Their star wide receiver, Anthony Carter, only caught four balls for 52 yards.
Even with the great play, Michigan still had chances to score. In the first quarter, the Wolverines only came away with three points after driving to the Ohio State 25, 2, 12 and 34. Hill and Marek stopped two of the scoring opportunities with interceptions. The third stop came via a goal line stand from the 4.
Later in the first half, the defense stepped up again. Michigan had a 3rd-and-3 from the Buckeyes' 6 when Shaun Gayle dropped Smith at the 9 for a loss of three yards. The Wolverines led 9-7 at halftime but felt the lead should have been much larger.
In the fourth quarter, the defense came to the rescue once again. Michigan had 3rd-and-goal from the 8 when Smith tried to connect with Craig Dunaway. Gayle tipped the pass and Kelvin Bell came up with the interception in the end zone.
Down 9-7 at the Wolverines' 20, Schlichter and the offense went to work on the game-winning drive. From The Columbus Dispatch:
From his own 20, Schlichter moved Ohio State to the win. He converted on one third-down situation by passing 10 yards to Spencer, and four plays later guard Joe Lukens caught Schlichter's fumble for a first down at the Michigan 28. Spencer swept to the nine on the next play, and three plays later, Schlichter rolled right, looked four Michigan defenders in the eye at the four and went around them into the end zone at 2:50.
After the game, Bo Schembechler did not hide his frustrations with his offense: "We squandered opportunities. Ohio State's defense did not stop us, we stopped ourselves. One or two guys did not lose the game, our offensive team lost this game.
"Today's game is just like the other games we've lost," he continued. "In the games we've lost – to Wisconsin and Iowa – we squandered opportunities. We just haven't been doing a good job offensively. The defense played hard and they only had two drives on us. We shouldn't have lost. This is one game we should have won."
Schembechler deserved to be disappointed. The only teams not score in double digits against Ohio State in 1981 were Northwestern and Michigan.
The win gave Ohio State its 22nd Big Ten title and 30th victory over the Wolverines. Iowa shared the title with the Buckeyes, but because the schools did not play head-to-head and the Hawkeyes last trip to Pasadena was in 1959 they went to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State was rewarded with the Liberty Bowl.
December 30th • Navy • Liberty Bowl
Memphis served as the setting for the third game between No. 15 Ohio State (8–3) and Navy (7–3–1). If there was a team set up for a letdown game it was this Buckeye squad. Instead of playing in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State faced the Midshipmen on Dec. 30.
Action from the game as described in the 2015 Ohio State Team Guide:
Underdog Navy put up a valiant fight for three quarters before finally falling to the Buckeyes. The win snapped a string of four-consecutive bowl
losses for Ohio State, dating back to the 1978 Sugar Bowl.
Art Schlichter, playing in his final game for the Buckeyes, threw his 49th and 50th career touchdown passes.
OSU led early, 10-0, but Navy, led by quarterback Marco Pagnanelli and running back Eddie Meyers, refused to quit and took a 20-17 lead midway through the third quarter.
Ohio State finally opened a 31-20 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Navy cut the deficit to three with eight seconds left on a TD pass and a two-point conversion. OSU recovered the on-side kick and ran out the clock.
The victory snapped a four-game losing streak in bowl games and bumped Ohio State's postseason record to 7–9.
- No. 11 Ohio State defeated Duke 34-13 after only leading by one at halftime.
- The Buckeyes held on to beat John Elway and Stanford 24-19.
- Florida State and Bobby Bowden left Ohio Stadium victorious in a game that Art Schlichter and Gary Williams set Ohio State records.
- Ohio State lost to Wisconsin for the first time since 1959.
- Minnesota snapped a 13-game losing streak against the Buckeyes.
- Ohio State defeated Northwestern 70-6 to extend the Wildcats' losing streak to 30 games.
- Ohio State held Michigan to 9 points won a share of its 22nd Big Ten Title. The Buckeyes improved to 30–43–5 against their rival.
- Ohio State defeated Navy 31-28 and improved to 3–0 against the Midshipmen.
- The Buckeyes started the season No. 11 but finished 1981 No. 15 in the AP Poll.
- For the second straight year, nobody was named an All-American.
- Art Schlichter, Anthony Griggs and Bob Atha were selected in the NFL Draft.
Despite losing two conference games, the 1981 Buckeyes won a share of the Big Ten title. This gave Bruce his second championship in three seasons. Art Schlichter completed his collegiate career with his name at the top of 11 of Ohio State's 12 records for passing in a game, season and career.
The season finished on a high note with the bowl victory and the win over Michigan. However, the departure of Schlichter left the future at the game's most important position in doubt.