TIME SQUAD VOL.11: Strike Three Swinging

By Ramzy Nasrallah on March 30, 2022 at 1:15 pm

John Cooper's Ohio State legacy was still unwritten in 1990.

His record against Michigan is a grisly sarcophagus filled with bad luck, hubris and an overwhelming, unacceptable amount of what football scientists refer to as big game puckering.

Today, we mostly remember the puckering. But that was not the guy Ohio State hired.

It sought and secured a national recruiter obsessed with winning. Ohio State hired a coach whose teams had finished first or second eight times out of his eleven years leading programs.

Columbus offered him his strongest platform yet, and he worked quickly. His recruits were arriving, the Buckeye offense was looking modern (!) and in 1990 they had won five straight - including a shocker at Kinnick against the no.6 Hawkeyes, Coop's 100th career win.

Ohio State was as hot as any team in the country. Michigan had won in the Horseshoe to end his honeymoon season in a game that was just a few inches from going his way, despite having a far inferior roster.

Two years later, Coop's rebuilt program was playing for the Rose Bowl. Look at this mayhem:

Iowa 6-1 8-2 Michigan, Illinois, Michigan State Ohio State
OHIO STATE 5-1-1 7-2-1 Iowa Illinois
MICHIGAN 5-2 7-3 Illinois Michigan State, Iowa
ILLINOIS 5-2 7-3 Ohio State, Michigan State Iowa, Michigan
MICHIGAN STATE 5-2 6-3-1 Michigan, Minnesota Iowa, Illinois

I'll do the math for you - if Ohio State beats Michigan and Minnesota upsets Iowa, the Buckeyes head to Pasadena in Coop's third season, two removed from 4-6-1. The Gophers did end up stunning the Hawkeyes, but that was kicking off as Ohio State-Michigan was winding down.

Ohio State faced a 4th & 1 at its own 30 with barely over two minutes left, tied at 13. Here's what Coop was faced with in deciding what to do on 4th down with the season on the line:

  • Buckeyes win: Rose Bowl
  • Buckeyes lose: Liberty Bowl
  • Buckeyes tie: Gator Bowl

Ohio State had no timeouts. No time to think. They went for it. Later, Coop told the media:

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.

Hell yeah. People got distracted by the play call, which we'll get to. But the decision reeks of what makes college football so wonderful. Rose Bowl, or die trying. Hell yeah.

John Cooper Can't Beat Michigan wasn't a thing in 1990; Coop never expected it to ever become a thing. No one did. So he was correct, at least that afternoon. The problem was he was punished for his bold Pasadena gamble, and from that moment forward the puckering flourished.

Welcome to Time Squad. Today we are meddling with John Cooper's Michigan origin story.


greg frey running an option keeper, hey why not

This ^ is the play people remember from the 1990 Ohio State-Michigan game.

It's that 4th & inches from the Buckeye 30 with just over two minutes left. The Wolverines were all-in on a short yardage play before Greg Frey snapped the ball, and Frey had the Wolverines' goal line formation diagnosed as well.

This is how stalemates happen. Stalemates benefit the defense.

But Frey could not call a timeout because Ohio State had none left. I don't know what the audible situation was in 1990 (playcalling cadence was still primitive) but after the game both sides discussed how being out of timeouts in that moment impacted the Buckeyes.

They had only used two of their 2nd half timeouts. The third was taken away from them in the 3rd quarter due to excessive crowd noise. If you think that's difficult to comprehend in 2022, imagine what sitting in the stadium was like, being told to be quieter by the refs so Michigan could run a 3rd down play with less distraction.

This is why I ruled out meddling with the play call, which was Frey option-right. In hindsight, the outcry (including from me) was Greg Frey running the option? Prior to that game, yeah, that made no sense. Coop had inserted it as a wrinkle that afternoon. We've blocked out nearly everything about that game, but Frey running the option existed that day.

And it was working. Here's Frey running a trap-option in the 2nd quarter.

greg frey running the option

If you want to argue the Ohio State offense did not have adequate reps with option football to rely on it with the season on the line, you might be right. But even broken versions of the option had been successful that day.

Here's how it looked earlier in the game when option was called but not everyone got the memo:


They needed inches on 4th down. Broken option-left had gained five yards. The call was fine.

So we won't re-litigate that 4th down, or Coop's ballsy decision to go for it at his own 30, knowing that failing to convert would hand the game to Michigan for a game-winning chip shot.

We're also not going to pretend the crowd noise rule never existed, or go back in time to shhhh Ohio Stadium more aggressively to preserve that timeout. The NFL had the rule, the NCAA had the rule - and it's among the stupidest things that have ever happened in American sports. Here's how it was prosecuted:

  1. Offense can't hear QB signals: Officials' timeout
  2. Second offense: Officials' timeout; crowd warning
  3. Third offense: Officials' timeout; home team charged a timeout
  4. Subsequent offenses: Five-yard penalties against the home team

Plenty of warnings before it got punitive! But every quarterback knew how to backdoor it in his favor.

Michigan QB Elvis Grbac threw up a melodramatic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in the 3rd quarter to force Ohio Stadium's third transgression, goading the officials into calling it. On the broadcast, Dick Vermeil wondered aloud about the call, muttering it really doesn't seem that loud.

It wasn't. I was in C-Deck and everyone knew what the third offense would deliver - Grbac just willed it into existence. So instead of trying to untangle a dumb rule that never should have existed, we'll move to the 4th quarter with just under three minutes remaining.

Here's Frey hitting Bobby Olive on a drag route for 15 yards. The stadium was r o c k i n g.

15-yard gain and all the momentum in the world

That took scrimmage to the Ohio State 44 with a 1st down, with the Buckeye offense rolling downhill toward a Tim Williams game-winning field goal attempt. The perfect amount of clock remained for a team with no timeouts that didn't need a touchdown to win.

Except, look at the top right corner of the GIF above, toward the end of it. Or, look below:


Jeff Graham was called for clipping at the tail end of the play, wiping out the completion and leading to the sequence that culminated with Michigan diagnosing Frey's doomed 4th down option, with no timeout remaining to change course.

Ohio State had the 1988 game won and was en route to no worse than a tie in 1990, but ended up losing the both in heartbreaking, last-second fashion. Two years later Ohio State would cut Michigan's lead to 13-12 on a touchdown pass from Kirk Herbstreit to Greg Beatty with just over 4 minutes remaining.

Coop kicked PAT and did not hesitate. Got his first non-loss in the rivalry. The die had been cast.

Ohio State could have won in 1990 despite three interceptions and eight penalties, with the costliest one coming on that completion to Olive. The clipping flag was borderline. Time Squad chooses to have Graham either peel back or force a no-call on the play. New timeline:

  • Ohio State has a 1st down at its own 44 with barely two minutes left
  • Frey's failed 4th down option-right comes off the board

Now it gets a little messy - we have created three new possible timelines, in order of probability:

  • Michigan loses:
    • Ohio State goes to Pasadena, avoids the Air Force catastrophe at the Liberty Bowl
    • Coop gets his first win in the series, hampering Gary Moeller's debut as Michigan coach
    • Michigan albatross for Coop disappears; avoids first 3-game skid in series since Woody's finale
    • Buckeyes win arguably the wildest Big Ten season in conference history
    • Graham doesn't no-show the postgame press conference; beloved Buckeye goes out on high note
    • Similar to if Ohio State holds on in 1988:
      • WCMH sports director Jimmy Crum probably doesn't call for Cooper's firing, which for those of you who didn’t experience the pre-Internet era was the early 1990s version of “breaking the Internet.”
      • In-state recruits like Ray Edmonds, Marcus Ray, Charles Woodson, Ki-Jana Carter, Jeff Hartings, Joe Jurevicious and Curtis Enis aren't as bothered by the instability in Columbus and might have been retained instead of playing for Ohio State's arch rival and "rival," respectively.
  • Michigan ties:
    • Ohio State goes to the Gator Bowl, avoids Air Force catastrophe and gets terrible Ole Miss team
    • Lighter Michigan albatross for Coop; avoids first 3-game skid in series since Woody's finale
    • No psychological punishment for playing aggressively, which would have paid dividends in future games, especially 1996
  • Michigan still finds a way to win:
    • An unknown Buckeye is a goat; possibly Coop
    • Perhaps Ohio State heads to the Liberty Bowl to face Air Force with semi-interest
    • Coop matches Woody's decline, earns unique three-game slide in series
    • Uncertain if Coop's in-game coaching against Michigan is impacted as conspicuously as it was post-Frey option-right
    • The Nineties proceed as we knew them, with a different element to be pissed off about from the 1990s game

The players who arrived in Columbus in 1987 to play for Bruce, went through his firing and Coop's arrival, program rebuilding and ascension all deserved a better outcome than what they got in 1990. Four years is an entire generation in college football.

It created an atmosphere which suggested playing for Ohio State football was deeply unsatisfying, especially in a place that was accustomed to if not entitled to Rose Bowls. It's why recruiting suffered initially, compared to when Coop got to his cruising altitude three years later.

To make matters worse, Coop's failed gamble paid dividends for Michigan the rest of the decade.

The next time an Ohio State team would do anything that resembled being aggressive, it was the 2000 season when the Buckeyes were dialing up fake punts and gadget plays to try and stay competitive in the Wolverines' biggest scoring output at Ohio Stadium since 1946. By then it was too late.

Coop's Ohio State legacy was still unwritten in 1990. Would we compromise the Tressel and Meyer eras by taking one clipping penalty off the board in 1990? That's not clear, but we also don't know how Cooper's legacy is written if he starts out 1-2 or even 2-1 against the Wolverines.

Maybe he coaches until age 65, instead of 62. Perhaps Andy Geiger then convinces a young coach in East Lansing to return to Columbus, where he wouldn't be coaching a second fiddle. Or maybe it still goes as we all experienced it, leaving the gilded age of Ohio State football that followed intact.

VERDICT: Net positive. Time Squad, let's try this again in another space and era.

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