Ohio State’s History Against Top-Ranked Teams in Postseason Games

By Matt Gutridge on December 31, 2022 at 8:05 am
Archie Griffin 1973 Rose Bowl
Long Photography

Entering tonight's CFP Semifinal against Georgia in the Peach Bowl, Ohio State has faced the nation's top-ranked team in a post-season game four times. Today, we take a look at the matchups against those No. 1 teams, in which the Buckeyes have a 2–2 record.

1973 Rose Bowl: #3 Ohio State 17, #1 USC 42

SCORE 42 17
PLAYS 72 73
1ST DOWNS 24 21
RUSH YDS 207 285
PASS YDS 244 81

On New Year's Day 1973, a new college football attendance record was set with 106,869 fans filling the Rose Bowl to watch the top-ranked Trojans take on No. 3 Ohio State.

Entering this game, USC coach John McKay was 1–3 against Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes. The last time the two coaches faced off, McKay watched Ohio State and the Super Sophomores celebrate a 27-16 Rose Bowl victory and national title on the first day of January 1969.

This time around, Hayes and the Buckeyes were 14.5-point underdogs to the Trojans, who were riding an 11-game winning streak. The boys from Columbus came out inspired and brave as Hayes leaned on his offensive line and the legs of a freshman running back named Archie Griffin to establish the running game in the first half.

The plan worked as the teams entered halftime with the score tied, 7-7. But every game has two halves, and Southern Cal’s balanced offensive attack dominated the second half.

Anthony Davis rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown and Lynn Swan caught six passes for 108 yards and a score in the 42-17 victory. When the Trojans were inside the five-yard line, McKay turned to Sam Cunningham. The bruising fullback scored three of his four rushing touchdowns in the second half and set a Rose Bowl record with 24 points.

The 42 points USC scored were the most points allowed by a Hayes-coached Ohio State squad. Following the game, when the legendary coach was asked if Southern Cal was the greatest team he'd ever played against, Hayes said, “Yes, I'd say so. They have enormous balance, we could run against them a little, but after we got behind, we couldn't move.”

Ohio State returned the favor the next season by beating USC, 42-21, to win the 1974 Rose Bowl.

2003: #2 Ohio State 31, #1 Miami 24 (2OT)

SCORE 24 31
PLAYS 77 73
1ST DOWNS 19 14
RUSH YDS 65 145
PASS YDS 304 122

The 2002 Buckeyes consistently lived on the edge of defeat during their unblemished regular season. Five of their 13 wins were by seven points or less and the Illinois game went to triple overtime. With such a track record, No. 2 Ohio State headed into the Fiesta Bowl BCS National Championship Game as a heavy underdog to the reigning national champion Miami Hurricanes.  

The talk heading into the game in Tempe wasn't if Miami was going to win, but by how much and where Larry Coker’s Hurricanes would rank among the all-time great teams in college football history. There were also rumors of a star-studded party scheduled for after the game.

On Miami's first offensive snap of the night, Will Smith broke through Miami's offensive line and sacked Ken Dorsey for a three-yard loss. At that moment, the tone was set and Dorsey realized Ohio State was not going to be a pushover. The belief Buckeye fans’ had in their defense was also reaffirmed. 

Hopes of a national title were increased after two game-changing turnovers in the second quarter. The first was Mike Doss' interception, which he returned 35 yards to Miami's 17-yard line. The big return led to Craig Krenzel scoring on a 4th-and-1 keeper to tie the game, 7-7.

The second was when Darion Scott recovered a Dorsey fumble at the Hurricanes' 14-yard line, which set up Maurice Clarett's 7-yard touchdown run and the Buckeyes' first lead of the game.  

The second half started with the Buckeyes' defense forcing Miami into a three-and-out. Krenzel guided the ensuing drive into the red zone but forced a pass to Ben Hartsock that was intercepted by Sean Taylor in the end zone. Maurice Clarett did not give up on the play and stripped Sean Taylor from behind. Clarett's key play resulted in a Mike Nugent field goal and 17-7 lead for Jim Tressel's team.

The Hurricanes responded with 10 unanswered points, with the game-tying field goal being aided by a missed defensive holding call that forced Ohio State to punt late in the fourth quarter. With the score knotted at 17 apiece, the game headed to overtime. 

On Miami's fifth play of the first overtime, Dorsey found Kellen Winslow Jr. for a six-yard touchdown pass and the Hurricanes went out in front for the first time since leading 7-0. Ohio State needed 11 plays, two fourth-down conversions and a “controversial” pass interference penalty to find the end zone and extend the championship game into double overtime. 

The Buckeyes only needed six plays and a Clarett 5-yard touchdown run to take a 31-24 lead. The pressure to score was back on Miami. Dorsey and the Hurricanes were not up to the task and Ohio State's 34-year national title drought was over.  

How much talent was on the field in Sun Devil Stadium that night? 37 of the 43 players that started (Chris Gamble started on both offense and defense) were selected in an NFL draft, including 18 first-round draft picks. 

2015: #4 Ohio State 42, #1 Alabama 35 

SCORE 35 42
PLAYS 70 78
1ST DOWNS 21 23
RUSH YDS 170 281
PASS YDS 237 256

The next opportunity for Ohio State to face the highest-ranked team in a bowl game came 12 years after the Tempe takedown of Miami. This time around another team in the midst of a dynasty run was on tap. Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide were the overwhelming favorite, but the Buckeyes were the hot team coming off of the 59-0 thrashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

In the game's opening drive, Urban Meyer's underdogs came out inspired and forced Alabama into a three-and-out. Cardale Jones and the offense moved the ball, but stalled out at the Tide's five-yard line and a Sean Nuerenberger field goal put the Buckeyes up 3-0.

Ohio State's defense forced the Tide into another-and-out, but Ezekiel Elliott was dispossessed of the ball and Alabama's Landon Collins recovered the fumble and returned it to the Buckeyes' 20-yard line. Two plays later, Ohio State trailed 7-3.

The teams alternated scores on their next possessions. Ohio State settled for a field goal and Alabama picked up another touchdown, giving Saban's squad a 14-6 lead after one quarter of play.

Early in the second quarter, Alabama turned a Cardale Jones intercepted pass into another scoring drive. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the first half, the Crimson Tide led 21-6 and a rout could have been on the horizon. However, the 2014 Buckeyes were fighters and responded with a 14-play touchdown drive capped off by Elliott's three-yard score.

Alabama was held to a three-and-out for the third time in the half and Ohio State moved the ball 63 yards for a second touchdown in as many possessions. Evan Spencer took a pitch, then threw the ball to the corner of the endzone where Michael Thomas made a spectacular grab to pull the Buckeyes to within one with 12 seconds left on the first-half clock.

Momentum stayed on Ohio State's side as the Buckeyes received the opening kickoff of the second half. Jones connected with Devin Smith for a 47-yard touchdown strike giving Meyer's team its first lead of the game at 27-21. Later in the third quarter, Steve Miller intercepted a Blake Sims pass and returned it 41 yards to give Ohio State a commanding 34-21 advantage. 

Following an Alabama touchdown to make the score 34-28, the teams remained scoreless over the next six possessions, which included five punts and Vonn Bell's interception at his team's own 1-yard line to thwart an Alabama scoring opportunity. 

With 5:24 remaining in the game, Jones and the offense took over on their own 5-yard line following a JK Scott punt. Three straight runs gave the Buckeyes a first down and some breathing room on their own 15-yard line, setting up one of the program's most iconic plays.

Ezekiel Elliott took the handoff and raced, as an 11W T-shirt eloquently describes, “85 yards through the heart of the south.” Being a championship-level team, Alabama scrapped back by scoring again and had the chance at a Hail Mary to tie or possibly win the game. 

Tyvis Powell came down with the Sims bomb and scared every Ohio State coach, player and fan as he returned the interception out of the endzone. Fortunately, Powell was brought down after making it to his own 29-yard line and the Buckeyes were headed to the 2015 CFP national championship game to play Oregon. Ohio State took care of the Ducks and claimed its second national title in 13 years.

2021: #3 Ohio State 24, #1 Alabama 52

SCORE 52 24
PLAYS 83 62
1ST DOWNS 33 19
RUSH YDS 157 147
PASS YDS 464 194

In one of the strangest college football seasons in the history of the game, undefeated Ohio State faced another Alabama team ranked No. 1 in the nation. This time it was in the title game rather than the semifinals.

On the Buckeyes’ first possession, Trey Sermon took a handoff and was tackled hard at the line. The hit broke his collarbone and Ohio State was without its best running back for the remainder of the contest.

Even without his talented running back, Justin Fields and the offense matched the Crimson Tide score for score through the mid-point of the second quarter. At that point, DeVonta Smith scored two touchdowns within the last five minutes of the half and pushed Alabama's lead to a margin of 35-17.

Ohio State would score only seven points in the second half as the Crimson Tide went on to win by 28 points.

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