Flashback: Earle Bruce Ends His Ohio State Coaching Career Victorious Against Michigan in 1987

By Vico on November 24, 2017 at 2:15 pm
Ohio State players celebrated after wearing "Earle" headbands and beating Michigan in Earle Bruce's final game in 1987. (Robert Kozloff, Associated Press)
Robert Kozloff, Associated Press

Michigan sent off Earle Bruce a winner 30 years ago.

Urban Meyer is reliving what amounted to his first exposure to the rivalry when he served as a graduate assistant to Earle Bruce.

It was also the end of Bruce's tenure in Columbus.

Ohio State had high hopes in 1987 and did not come close to fulfilling them. The Buckeyes were the preseason No. 5 team but were already flashing warning signs after uneventful wins over West Virginia and Oregon. Tom Tupa, an excellent punter, was an inadequate quarterback replacement to Jim Karsatos. Cris Carter's ineligiblity and sudden departure from the program took out the best playmaker on the roster. The Buckeyes did well to lean on its defense, led by Chris Spielman, to carry them, but Spielman could only carry Ohio State so far.

The troubles started with a 21-point home loss to Indiana, the first loss to the Hoosiers since 1951. The three-game losing streak that followed after wins against Minnesota and Purdue ultimately cost Earle Bruce his job. Athletic director Rick Bay announced Bruce would no longer be head coach after the Michigan game before announcing his own resignation from the university.

The players reacted poorly to the decision; indeed, the firing came by directive from the university president and was controversial within the athletic department. He was beloved by his players no matter his mediocre record. This led to the conspicuous "EARLE" headbands that players wore before the game and even included Earle Bruce taking part in Ohio State's "senior tackle" tradition.

However, that seemed immaterial to the game that would ultimately follow. Michigan wasn't going to win the Big Ten in 1987 as it had done the previous year, but it was still one of the better teams in the conference. An easy win over a rudderless Ohio State team riding a three-game losing streak would've secured a No. 2 finish in the Big Ten in Bo Schembechler's 19th season.

This appeared to the game we would see after each side's first possession. Ohio State received the ball to start the first half and went three-and-out. Michigan took over on its on 27-yard line and drove the length of the field on seven plays for a touchdown.

And Ohio State punt led to a 55-yard field-goal drive for Michigan to put the Wolverines up 10-0. Another Ohio State three-and-out led to another Michigan field-goal drive. Michigan's 13-0 lead made a rout seem like a fait accompli with seven minutes remaining.

Michigan threw Ohio State a lifeline after an Ohio State three-and-out. Michigan back Jarrod Bunch ended what promised to be a knockout blow of drive when he fumbled at the Ohio State 43-yard line. Linebacker Mike McCray recovered, setting up what became a 10-play, 61-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 13-7 in time for intermission.

Ohio State roared out the gate from intermission. Michigan began the third quarter with a three-and-out punctuated by a nine-yard sack of Demetrius Brown by Chris Spielman. Carlos Snow housed the first play from scrimmage to put Ohio State ahead 14-13.

Carlos Snow touchdown against Michigan in 1987

Two possessions later, Ohio State intercepted a Demetrius Brown pass intended for John Kolesar. That set up the Buckeyes at the Michigan 19-yard line. A Tom Tupa QB sneak three plays later put the Buckeyes up 20-13.

The two exchanged fumbles on their next possessions, though the Carlos Snow fumble at Ohio State's 45-yard line led to a six-play drive to tie the score at 20-20 before the start of the fourth quarter.

The fourth quarter belonged to the Buckeyes, though. Ohio State kicked a 26-yard field goal to cap a 15-play, 77-yard drive and give Ohio State a 23-20 lead. The Buckeyes held Michigan scoreless in the final stanza and secured the win when a hopeless a Hail Mary from Michigan's 1-yard line with one second remaining fell to the Michigan Stadium turf.

Earle Bruce capped his Ohio State coaching career, tears in his eyes, hoisted victorious in Michigan Stadium by the players who dedicated their final game to him.

Ohio State's 1987 season concluded with that moment. The preseason No. 5 team did not participate in the postseason but that moment was enough for seniors like Chris Spielman and Tom Tupa. It was how Earle Bruce ended his career at Ohio State.

It was also how Urban Meyer began his familiarity with this rivalry game from a coach's perspective. Meyer will return to the scene of that formative moment in his coaching career on Saturday with images of 30 years ago in the back of his head.

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