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Ohio State football history: Buckeyes lackluster in 1921 postseason debut

Ohio State's long and storied Rose Bowl history began inauspiciously on January 1, 1921.

Harry How

The 1920 regular season was a successful one for Ohio State football. The Buckeyes finished 7-0, outscoring their opponents 150-20. The Buckeyes shut out Ohio Wesleyan, Oberlin, Purdue and Illinois, and beat That Team Up North 14-7 at home. Their success earned the Buckeyes the privilege to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1921.

At the time, the Rose Bowl--which wasn't even the Rose Bowl yet--was the only postseason game available, and it seemed like unlikely at the beginning of the season for the Buckeyes to be selected out of so many eligible teams to travel to Pasadena for the Tournament East-West football game. Ohio State's Rose Bowl opponent also had a strong regular season showing. The Cal Golden Bears were selected to represent the Pacific Coast Conference in the Rose Bowl after going undefeated during their regular season, outscoring opponents a whopping 510-14.

Ohio State went into the contest favored by six points based on the Big Ten's reputation alone. The Big Ten was considered in those days to be a stronger conference top to bottom than the Pacific Coast Conference, giving the Buckeyes inherent credibility in the national narrative.

Cal was underrated, however, and jumped out to an early 14-0 lead from which the Buckeyes could not recover. Cal's aptly-named, "Pesky" Sprott, who was also a track star and would place 5th in the 800 meters in the 1920 Olympic games, scored a rushing touchdown on the opening drive, and Ohio State answered by fumbling away the ball on Cal's 8-yard line. In the second quarter a trick play from Cal led to an unbelievable 53-yard touchdown pass. It was so unbelievable, in fact, that when the Buckeyes' Pete Stinchomb was asked after the game why he essentially gave up covering the receiver after 30 or so yards, he replied, "Frankly, I didn't think anyone could throw the ball that far."

After another Pesky Sprott rushing touchdown in the second quarter, the Buckeyes went into the half facing a 21-0 deficit. Cal added one more score in the second half, while the Buckeyes racked up four interceptions in what was surely a very long game. The Buckeyes took the long train ride back to Columbus utterly humiliated.

They weren't the only ones--the Big Ten would not send another conference team to postseason play for 26 years, when a trip to the Rose Bowl became an annual thing for the Big Ten. Ohio State would return to the Rose Bowl in 1950 and exacted revenge on the Cal Bears with a narrow 17-14 victory.