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Looking back at Ohio State’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 1921

Unfortunately, the Buckeyes lost—and didn’t even score a point.

Rose Bowl

Nearly 100 years ago, the Ohio State Buckeyes made their first trip to the Rose Bowl. Well, at least that’s what we call it today. Back then, it was the Tournament East-West Football Game. In 1921, the Rose Bowl Stadium as we know it wasn’t built yet; the stadium that was there, though, was Tournament Park — hence the name of the game.

Football was also a little different then, too. While the Big Ten existed, the Pac-12 did not. Instead, it was the Pacific Coast Conference. Granted, it’s worth mentioning that the Big Ten was still in its infancy, as it was beginning to shred off the names “Western Conference” and “Big Nine,” which were their previous conference names before getting to ten schools.

Regardless of what the conference affiliation went by, the Buckeyes were still doing some good: winning games on the field. In fact, they dominated their slate of contests in the 1920 season. Unlike today—where there’s 12 regular season games and maybe a conference title game if you’re the best in the conference—there were just seven regular season games for the 1920 Bucks, with five of them were against Big Ten foes.

John Wilce was entering his eighth season at the helm of the Buckeye program in ‘20. In his first seven seasons, he won two conference crowns, so success was prevalent in the Wilce years—though, some of those thanks belonged to Chic Harley, who sparked the offense from 1917-19. However, with bowl games being a relatively new invention, the Buckeyes hadn’t been bowling, yet.

To begin the 1920 campaign, the two non-Big Ten teams to play against OSU in the regular season were Ohio Wesleyan and Oberlin. Even back in the day, Ohio State had a stout defense, as they shut out both opponents. First was Wesleyan on Oct. 2, who got dumped 55-0 at Ohio Field; the next week was Oberlin, who gave up 37 to the Buckeyes.

Purdue and Wisconsin would follow, and both left Ohio Field with L’s. Even though the Boilermakers were shutout, the margin was only 17-0. Things would get increasingly more difficult for OSU, as Wisconsin only lost 13-7. Fun fact: even back in the day, Wisconsin was playing bridesmaid in the Big Ten; they finished the regular season with one loss (OSU), and ended second in the Big Ten—therefore not getting the chance for a bowl opportunity.

Ohio State’s first road game was on Oct. 30 against Chicago. This would be the closest win of the season for OSU, as they pulled off a 7-6 win at Stagg Field. Rivalry games followed, with both Michigan and Illinois getting dispatched by the eventual Big Ten Champions.

In seven games, the Buckeyes racked up 150 points, and allowed only 20. This seemed like a national championship team; all they had to do was win their matchup at Tournament Park against California. Unfortunately for Ohio State, the Golden Bears were not only their West Coast equivalent, but they were a lot better.

A lot better.

Considered the “Wonder Team,” California went on an absolute tear in 1920. Like Wilce at OSU, the head coach at Cal was a future Hall of Famer in Andy Smith. In the first three games of the year for the Berkeley-located school, they won by a combined score of 236-0. They had no trouble in their next five games and paced to an unbeaten record of 8-0.

Take a look at some of these beatdowns. Granted, this was 1920—but still!

California Golden Bears 1920 Results

Opponent Score
Opponent Score
Olympic A.C 21-0
Mare Island Marines 88-0
Saint Mary's (CA) 127-0
Nevada 79-7
Utah 63-0
at Oregon Agricultural (Oregon State) 17-7
Washington State 49-0
Stanford 38-0

Outside of present-day Oregon State, nobody could contain the Smith offense. Harold Muller, a future member of the College Football HoF, and Brodie Stephens were part of the vaunted Bears offense, and they were about to make their presence known to the Buckeyes.

The Game Itself (and the implications)

After the first quarter, things were still close. A 1-yard touchdown rush put Cal up 7-0, but things were about to escalate. The second quarter brought a 37-yard TD strike from Muller to Stephens, as well as another short yardage score. By halftime, the Buckeyes were down 21-0.

It wasn’t like OSU was getting rocked in this game; they ended the game with 105 yards on the ground, and had 133 in the air. They were able to move the sticks 11 times for first downs, too. But turnovers cost them. They had three fumbles, and lost every single one of them. On the other side, the Bears didn’t cough up the ball at all.

One more rushing score in the fourth quarter would seal at 28-0 victory for the California Golden Bears, who would go on to be crowned national champions.

The impressive showing by the homestate team changed the way people viewed football out west. Maxwell Stiles, a Rose Bowl historian, wrote in his book Rose Bowl that “overnight, there was born in California a football hysteria.”

Stadiums around the area were constructed to hold more people, and in the thick of it was the creation of a new stadium in Pasadena, which we now know as the Rose Bowl Stadium.

Ohio State may have got rolled over by California, but they can take solace knowing that this was the beginning of a three-year title run for Smith’s program. Also, if Ohio State would’ve won this game, there’s a chance the football boom in California pops. A world where the Rose Bowl isn’t a prominent venue and football game? Now, that’s a place (or timeline) I don’t want to visit.