100 Teams in 100 Days: The USC Game is Called for Weather And Ohio State's Last-Second Score Beats Iowa in 1990

By Matt Gutridge on August 8, 2016 at 11:40 am
The 1990 Ohio State University football team.
Ohio State University Archives

Expectations were high as Ohio State had 11 starters and 37 lettermen returning for the 1990 season.

28 days and counting.

Running back Carlos Snow underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his right hip, but a talented freshman named Robert Smith readied as a capable replacement. However, John Cooper's focus rested on fixing a defense that allowed 580 points over his first two seasons.

The 1990 Buckeyes
Record 7–4–1
B1G Record 5–2–1, 5th
Coach John Cooper (3rd year, 19–14–2)
CaptainS Dan Beatty, Vinnie Clark,
Greg Frey, Jeff Graham,
Mark Pelini

Games of Note

September 8th • Texas Tech • Ohio Stadium
The inaugural matchup between Texas Tech and No. 18 Ohio State finished closer than the 88,707 in Ohio Stadium expected. On this overcast 75 degree day, the Red Raiders led 3-0 at halftime.

A Tim Williams field goal tied the game just over six minutes into the third quarter, but it was the play of Robert Smith that turned things around for the Buckeyes. The freshman racked up 188 all-purpose yards and tied the game at 10 later in the third quarter with a touchdown.

Jeff Graham made the play of the game early in the final quarter. With the game still tied at 10, Graham fielded a punt at midfield and raced to end zone to give the Buckeyes a 17-10 comeback victory.

Linebacker Steve Tovar was all over the field. He had a team-high 13 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks as the defense held Texas Tech to 61 rushing yards. For their efforts, Smith and Tovar shared Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

Cooper shared this about his young running back after the game: "Robert Smith did a good job for us. I think Robert was as important to us winning the ballgame than anyone on the football field. He got the crowd in the game, he excited the rest of our team."

In Week 2, Ohio State defeated Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Smith rushed for 102 yards and Raymont Harris had 96 yards in the 31-10 victory. Frey connected with Bobby Olive twice and Tovar tallied 13 tackles for the second time in two games. 

1990 Schedule
SEP. 22 NO. 18 USC OHIO STADIUM L, 26–35
      7–4–1, 349–220

September 22nd • #18 USC • 
The 15th-ranked Buckeyes entered this contest with a four-game losing streak to Southern Cal. Ohio State's defense had some swagger as it boasted a robust attack against the run. In the first two games, the unit held Texas Tech and Boston College to 165 combined rushing yards. However, USC didn't flinch at the numbers and fed Ricky Ervins 28 times. He responded well and gained 199 yards while scoring two touchdowns.

On this overcast afternoon, with heavy rain and lightning in the forecast, the USC special teams struck first. For the third time in three games, the Buckeyes had a punt blocked. This time, Willie McGinest disrupted Jeff Bohlman's punt and Zuri Hector picked it up at the 9-yard line and ran in for the touchdown.  

The Trojans scored on their next possession when Ervins capped an 80-yard drive with a 15-yard run around left end. Ohio State clawed back with a 46-yard Tim Williams' field goal and 17-yard touchdown catch from Olive on back-to-back second quarter drives. USC ended the first half scoring when Ervins ran in again from around left end to push his team's lead to 11.

Southern Cal gashed the Buckeyes' run defense for a 66-yard touchdown run on its first drive of the second half. Scott Lockwood started up the middle then ran down the left sideline for the long run. The Trojans now led 28-10.

Later in the third quarter, Frey threw to Jeff Graham over the middle. Graham broke left and ran untouched for the 29-yard touchdown. Ohio State converted the 2-point conversion to make it 28-18.

Following a Marinovich 4-yard keeper, Raymont Harris – The Quiet Storm – plowed in the from the 1. With 2:36 remaining, a real storm brewed loudly around the stadium and the referees spoke to both coaches about the weather situation. What transpired next upset fans and players alike. From the Youngstown Vindicator:

Referee Ron Winter conferred for a second time with Smith and Ohio State coach John Cooper about suspending the game.

“I told him we were going to try an onside kick,” Cooper said in the humid postgame interview area. “I told him if USC gets it, it’s all over.”

And that’s precisely what happened. Tim Williams’ kick was smothered by USC reserve safety Bruce Luizzi. The officials grabbed the ball and left the field and the teams ran into the locker rooms to get out of the storm.

Outside the Trojans’ locker room, Smith shrugged his shoulders and with a sly smile and said he told Cooper: “Hey, I’m ahead. If you want to call it now, it’s fine with me.”

Making the situation even worse for distraught Ohio State fans, no sooner had the teams left the sodden field — and the wet, angry fans had filed out of the stadium — than the weather cleared.

The fallout was almost immediate. Ohio State’s fans were outraged Cooper elected to take the defeat instead of taking a chance on an improbable but not impossible rally. Cooper had never been popular since taking over after Earle Bruce was fired three years earlier. But now his critics were calling him a quitter, a tag he had difficulty avoiding.

USC's coach – and Ohio native – Larry Smith said, "I can understand the suspension, but it was kind of strange that the officials would ask us if it was OK when we were leading." 

The 35-26 loss extended Ohio State's losing streak to five games against USC. 

October 6th • #13 Illinois • Ohio Stadium
No. 13 Illinois boasted the best defense in the conference on this unseasonably warm 81-degree sunny afternoon. Ohio State received the 3:40 kickoff and on the first snap from scrimmage, Smith promptly fumbled and the Illini recovered at the 27-yard line. Four plays later the visitors owned a 7-0 lead.

The 20th-ranked Buckeyes used a heavy dose of Frey and Harris to set up Smith's 5-yard touchdown run on the next possession. Just over six minutes in Ohio State tied the game at 7.

Near the end of the quarter, Harris finished a 13-play, 90-yard drive with a 1-yard score. Jeff Graham's 16-yard catch on 3rd-and-8 on the Ohio State 41 extended the drive before the touchdown. After the teams exchanged field goals, the half ended with Ohio State leading 17-10. 

The offenses stayed hot at the start of the second half. Points came on the first three possessions, as Illinois tallied two touchdowns and the Buckeyes added a field goal. The scoreboard showed a 24-20 Illini lead at the start of the fourth quarter.

With just over 10 minutes remaining, Williams lined up for a 51-yard field goal. The snap and hold were good, but the attempt was blocked and recovered by Illinois. The ball eventually found the hands of Quinton Parker, who carried the ball into the end zone. The 10-point swing completely shifted momentum. Instead of the score being 24-23, Illinois led 31-20 and ultimately won by the same margin.  

Controversy clouded the final scoring play — the lateral appeared to be a forward pitch. Here is the play for you to decide: 

The blocked field goal was a huge play, but the Buckeyes also committed six turnovers in the game. John Mackovic improved to 3–0 against Cooper and Ohio State.

USC L5 9–11–1
ILLINOIS L3 51–24–4
INDIANA T1 51–12–5
PURDUE W2 27–10–2
IOWA W2 34–12–3
WISCONSIN W3 44–12–4
MICHIGAN L3 33–49–5

October 13th • Indiana • Memorial Stadium 
In this Week 5 matchup, the unranked Buckeyes traveled to Bloomington to face an Indiana squad that won two of the last three games in the series. Ohio State led 27-17 at the start of the fourth quarter, but let it slip away. The Hoosiers scored 10 points in the final 10 minutes to tie the game at 27. 

Fans remember the Buckeyes driving inside the Indiana 15-yard line twice in the third quarter and settling for field goals on both trips. The points left on the board proved to be critical as the Hoosiers improved to 2–1–1 in the last four contests against Ohio State.

Smith had a team-high 127 rushing yards and became the first player to gain over 100 yards against Indiana in nine games. Frey threw for 153 yards and two touchdowns. The Hoosiers' Vaughn Dunbar rushed for a game-high 188 yards and two touchdowns to lead all players. 

The last time the Buckeyes ended a game in a tie was 1977 against Michigan State. Indiana's last tie against the Buckeyes came in 1959, a scoreless affair.

When asked about blowing the 10-point lead, Cooper said, "I guess I'm frustrated to come away with a tie, but I feel better about our football team."  

Ohio State was now 2–2–1 for the season.

November 10th • #6 Iowa • Kinnick Stadium
Before playing in Iowa City, Ohio State dominated in wins against Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern. The Buckeyes outscored those three opponents by a combined 142-32. Gaining confidence, Ohio State looked to improve on its 5–2–1 record.

Hayden Fry's sixth-ranked Hawkeyes represented the highest ranked team the Scarlet and Gray faced in 1990. The talented home team eventually brought out the best in Ohio State in an exciting come from behind victory.

With 11 minutes remaining, Iowa led 26-14, but could have been up 27-14. After Lew Montgomery rushed in from a yard out, Fry decided to go for two to extend the lead to 14. The 2-point conversion failed and the decision not to kick the extra-point eventually cost the Hawkeyes.

Ohio State cut the lead to 26-21 when Frey connected with Olive for a 21-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-8. On the ensuing Iowa drive, Lance Price intercepted Matt Rodgers and returned the ball to the Hawkeyes' 44.

With great field position, the Buckeyes quickly moved to the Iowa 29. From there the drive stalled. Defenders dropped Frey for an 8-yard loss and he then threw an interception on 4th-and-15 in the end zone with 2:31 left.

Iowa could not run out the clock and the Buckeyes forced a punt. The punt only went 27 yards, leaving Ohio State 59 seconds to go 48 yards for the win.

On first down, Frey found Olive for a gain of 23 to move the ball to the Iowa 25. He threw to Jeff Graham on the next play for seven yards. After an incomplete pass, Frey hooked up with Graham again down to the 3-yard line. Two plays later, Frey dropped back and threw to Olive in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Olive caught the ball with only one second remaining to give the Buckeyes a thrilling 27-26 victory. 

The last minute drive:

November 19th • Michigan • Ohio Stadium 
No. 19 Ohio State rode a 35-10 victory against Wisconsin in Madison into its annual matchup with Michigan. The Buckeyes scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to win their fifth straight game. Cooper's team was streaking and played for a Rose Bowl berth when No. 15 Michigan (7–3) came to Columbus.

Ohio State led 10-6 at halftime and extended the lead by a field goal early in the third quarter. On the next drive, Elvis Grbac threw a quick pass to Desmond Howard as the Buckeyes brought a blitz. The 12-yard touchdown finished a 10-play, 37-yard drive. 

Frey threw interceptions on the Buckeyes' next two possessions, but the Wolverines could not take advantage of the turnovers. Neither team got in scoring position when Cooper made a call that is still questioned today.

With 1:47 left, Ohio State had the ball on its own 29 and face 4th-and-1. To the surprise of many, Cooper decided to go for the first down. Frey kept the ball and tried to go the right, but defenders stopped him for no gain. Michigan took over with 1:38 remaining.

The Wolverines moved the ball to the Ohio State 19 and called timeout with 3 seconds on the clock. J.D. Carlson came out and made the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Following the game, Cooper talked about 4th-and-1: "My decision to for the win...I've been telling this football squad ever since the Indiana game that I really felt like we had a chance to go ahead and win and go to the Rose Bowl. So why not go for broke? A tie didn't do us any good at all. It would have put us in the Gator Bowl. If I go for a tie and Minnesota beats Iowa, then I couldn't face our football team." 

The loss dropped Cooper record against Michigan to 0–3 and gifted Gary Moeller the win in his first game against the Buckeyes. The Wolverines now led the series 49–33–5.  

December 27th • Air Force • Liberty Bowl
No. 24 Ohio State was not excited about playing in Memphis two days after Christmas in windy 41-degree weather.

A synopsis of the only game played against Air Force from the 2015 Ohio State Team Guide:

The Buckeyes jumped to a 5-0 lead on a safety and field goal, but the Falcons scored touchdowns in the second and third quarters to build a 13-5 lead.

After OSU cut the margin to 13-11 early in the fourth quarter on Robert
Smith’s brilliant 29-yard run, Air Force sealed the win with a field goal and
TD on an interception return.

The Buckeyes gained just 214 total yards, including 80 on the ground. The Air Force wishbone attack gained 254 rushing yards.

The team played uninspired and lost its second straight bowl game, 23-11 to the Falcons.

1990 Recap

  • Jeff Graham's 50-yard punt return in the fourth quarter gave Ohio State a 17-10 victory over Texas Tech.
  • The Buckeyes traveled to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts and defeated Boston College 31-10.
  • No. 18 USC won 35-26 after the officials called the game with 2:36 remaining.
  • No. 13 Illinois defeated Ohio State 31-20 as the Buckeyes lost consecutive games in a season for the sixth straight year.
  • Indiana scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to tie OSU 27-27. 
  • The Buckeyes outscored Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern 142-32.
  • Bobby Olive caught the game-winning touchdown with a second on the clock to beat No. 6 Iowa 27-26. 
  • Jeff Graham had an 81-yard punt return in the 35-10 victory over Wisconsin.
  • John Cooper gambled on 4th-and-1 from his own 29 and came up short. Michigan used the great field position to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
  • Air Force defeated an uninspired Ohio State team to win the Liberty Bowl. 
  • Nobody was named as an All-American for the second straight season. 
  • Vinnie Clark, Jeff Graham and Bobby Olive were selected in the NFL Draft.
  • Ohio State started the season ranked 18th, climbed to No. 15, but finished 1990 unranked. 

Following back-to-back losses to USC and Illinois, Ohio State righted the ship and won five straight games with a comeback victory over No. 6 Iowa. However, for the second consecutive year Ohio State ended the season with losses to Michigan and the bowl game, establishing a worrisome trend.

Greg Frey's 2,062 passing yards ranked fifth highest all-time for a single season at Ohio State. For his career, Frey finished second on the total yards list (6,098) and fourth on the career passing list (6,316).

Robert Smith led the team in rushing with 1,126 yards. He became the first 1,000-yard rusher since Vince Workman in 1986. Bobby Olive had 41 receptions for 652 yards and Tim Williams led the team with 79 points. Steve Tovar finished with a team-high 125 tackles.

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