Three years ago, Ohio State had the second most brutally disappointing season in school history. The 2015 team will go down in Buckeye lore as being the football equivalent of a Ferrari that can’t get out of second gear. So much talent (Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Braxton Miller!), so much experience, and so much potential, wasted in a system that was doomed to fail. Missing the playoff with that team will forever be a black mark on the resumes of every coach on that staff, especially those of Tim Beck, Ed Warinner, and of course, Urban Meyer.
Expectations can do wild things to a football team, especially when the elite athletes leading the charge are just two or three years removed from high school. Poor coaching, fluke weather, indecision in crucial position battles, and a lack of creativity on offense can seal any team’s fate, no matter the talent level. Even though that 2015 squad won a lot of games, their failure to maximize their potential will sting for years to come.
They’re not the first ultra-talented Ohio State team to come up just short. Replace 2015 with 1995, for example. Replace J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones with Bobby Hoying, Ezekiel Elliott with Eddie George, and Michael Thomas with Terry Glenn. Replace an elite defense led by Joey Bosa, Raekwon McMillan, Eli Apple and Vonn Bell with an elite defense, led by Matt Finkes, Luke Fickell, and Shawn Springs. Replace a title just one year prior with more than 25 years of a drought. The similarities go on.
You might not remember the 1995 squad, but it’s worth taking another look at that season, through the words of the folks who were there, to remember the highs, the lows, and the lessons for the future.
The early season
To say that Ohio State set out to challenge themselves in the 1995 non-conference slate would be an understatement. To prepare themselves for the treacherous Big Ten slate, they played four power teams in as many weeks, starting with a Week One visit to Giants Stadium in New Jersey to face off with Boston College.
This was billed as a big matchup. It was a “Kickoff Classic,” and one of those neutral-site games that we see trotted out early in the season every year now, but wasn’t quite as common in the mid-90s. The Eagles came into the game ranked 22nd, while Ohio State sat at 12th, but it didn’t look like that on the field. The Buckeyes dominated every facet of the game, blowing out Boston College 38-6, a resounding statement on national TV.
For an Ohio State team that entered 1995 off of a four-loss season the year prior, this win was a massive deal. They were breaking in a new offense that saw running backs used as receivers rather than blockers in the passing game, and destroying what was thought to be a good Boston College defense served to be proof of concept for offensive coordinator Walt Harris.
The offense, while it was solid, wasn’t the star of the game. The defense was Ohio State’s calling card in 1994, and that held true to form against Boston College. The Eagles moved the ball pretty well, but couldn’t find the end zone. Led by an excellent defensive line (Finkes, Vrabel, Fickell, Bonhaus), and one of the nation’s top cornerbacks (Springs), Ohio State had one of the best “bend-but-don’t-break” defenses in the country. Not everyone appreciated the conservative approach. Boston College tackle Pete Kendall expressed his frustration to the New York Times after the game:
“I’m still not impressed by their defense at all,” Kendall said. “I don’t know how they held us to 6 points. We moved the ball at will, it seemed like... I don’t know how we didn’t score more. I’m baffled. I’m waiting to see the film. I’m dying to see it. I didn’t have any respect for the way they played at all.”
Their loss. Scoreboard, Boston College. Scoreboard.
After dispatching the Eagles, Ohio State took on the Washington Huskies. The Buckeyes were ready for revenge, after losing to Washington the year before.
This match started with more of a defensive dominance, and then it was Eddie George’s time to take over. He led the Buckeyes for the rest of the game, despite Washington’s eight-men-in-the-box looks, bowling over defensive backs and shrugging off linebackers on the way to 212 yards on the day. Ohio State needed every single one of those yards in a 30-20 win.
Next up was a bit of a break, as they headed to Pittsburgh to take on Johnny Majors’ Panthers. Ohio State led 20-14 after 30 minutes, and while Pitt hadn’t looked great, Ohio State was sluggish and tired after their back-to-back ranked bouts.
Buuuuut that didn’t last.
After scoring twice in the first two quarters, Terry Glenn found even more separation in the second half against a weak defensive backfield, and put together the best game from a receiver that Ohio State has ever seen. On just nine catches, Glenn scored four touchdowns, and racked up 253 yards. His four touchdowns are still tied for the most in a single game in Buckeye history. His yards record still stands, and no one has come anywhere near breaking it. The Buckeyes cruised, 54-14. That just left one more major opponent before Big Ten play. It’s the one game you probably remember.
No matter what they’re ranked, or what the records are, it’s always a big deal when Ohio State plays Notre Dame. Part of it comes from the rarity of the games, part of it comes from the natural hype that comes for a game between the two best programs in the Midwest, and the massive fan bases of both teams certainly helps too.
It was no different in 1995, as Ohio State hosted a 15th ranked, 3-1 Notre Dame team, fresh off of a win over Texas, and just a season and change removed from racking up 11 wins in 1993. Lou Holtz vs. John Cooper. The Silver Bullets against the Golden Domers. This was a huge deal, and it was marketed as such, with it being tapped as the game of the week on ABC.
Eddie George described the hype a bit to the New York Times:
“On my way to the stadium, I could feel the electricity on High Street,” said George, who exceeded 200 yards for a school-record fourth time in his career. “It wasn’t even that way last year before Michigan. The fans were really pumped up for the game. That’s all I heard all summer— Notre Dame.”
Just like quite a few Ohio State vs. Notre Dame games however, it didn’t really live up to the hype. Notre Dame’s run defense wasn’t very good in 1995, and you can imagine how that would hurt them against Eddie George and Ohio State’s offensive line.
The game didn’t start out as one sided as it finished. Notre Dame actually played extremely well to start the game, and held a 20-14 lead halfway through the third quarter, and was set to get the ball back. However, Notre Dame muffed the punt, Ohio State scored just a few plays later, on a pass to tight end Rickey Dudley. They didn’t look back after taking that 21-20 lead. A few more heaping helpings of Eddie George blew open the doors, and eventually, Ohio State walked away with a convincing 45-26 win.
Four games. Four power opponents. Three ranked squads. And thanks to an excellent defense and running game, not to mention stars all over the field, the Buckeyes had four wins.
That momentum kept rolling into Big Ten play.
Fresh off a total beatdown by Penn State the previous season, the Buckeyes were amped up and ready for revenge. They got it, knocking off the 12th-ranked Nittany Lions, 28-25. They faced another stiff challenge against a top-25 Wisconsin squad the following week, and beat them too, 27-16. And any concerns about a let-down against Purdue the following week were summarily dismissed in a 28-0 victory. But the Buckeyes wanted more.
After five straight weeks of slow starts, despite being undefeated at 7-0, Ohio State was fed up. They had remained at fourth in the AP poll for the third straight week, despite dispatching a ranked Wisconsin team two weeks prior, and felt that they were being disrespected. The Buckeyes still sat behind undefeated Florida State, Nebraska and Florida teams, and were just ahead of a Tennessee team that had already lost once, and undefeated Kansas (!!!!!).
This was an angry football team, and they were ready to tear into their next opponent. Unfortunately for Iowa, they happened to be on the menu. The Hawkeyes, despite what would happen in this game, were no slouches in 1995. With Hayden Fry at the helm, they came into this game at 5-1, with their only loss coming one week earlier to Penn State. They hadn’t beaten many good teams, but they’d generally done what was expected of them, and came into the Horseshoe ranked 25th. That seems pretty Iowa.
Ohio State and John Cooper had no interest in humoring Fry’s team in Columbus. The Buckeyes got to work on their grim task early, as Bobby Hoying faked a handoff and delivered a 55 yard bomb to Terry Glenn, setting Eddie George up for a three-yard touchdown run on the next play.
George, Hoying, Glenn and the rest of Ohio State’s offense showed absolutely no mercy. At halftime, the Buckeyes led 56-7. John Cooper pulled his starters for the second half, allowing the 56-35 final score to look much closer than the game actually was, but the message was sent.
I think that quote might be the most telling of the entire season. If they wanted to, Ohio State could score 56 points in one half on just about any team in the country. If they didn’t score 56 points in one half on a team, it probably wasn’t because of the other team playing well, it was because Ohio State spared them. Iowa wasn’t so lucky. The Hawkeyes lost their next two games and finished 8-4.
The Buckeyes did everything they could to force themselves into the elusive #1 spot, blowing out Minnesota (49-21), Illinois (41-3) and Indiana (42-3). Heading into the season finale against Michigan, the Buckeyes were undefeated, and sat at #2 in the polls. They also boasted one of the most dominating performances by any Buckeye in Ohio State history, as Eddie George torched a solid Illini defense for 314 yards and 3 TDs.
But those eye-popping stats wouldn’t matter if Ohio State couldn’t find a way to win one more regular season game. And not just any game. The Michigan game.
One of the biggest allures of college football, and in all of sports, is the possibility for anything to happen. With life often being so predictable and stale, it’s nice to be able to sit back and invest far more energy than previously thought imaginable into a sport played by people that were in high school anywhere from one to four years prior.
That unpredictability is also the thing that makes sports, especially college football, so cruel. Your team can lose at any time, to any team, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a completely helpless feeling to watch the team that you’ve spent months, years, and even decades caring so deeply about lose in a game that they shouldn’t.
The highs of college football are euphoric celebrations, pure expressions of joy unmatched by almost all other mediums or experiences in life. The lows, and I mean the real, true lows, are miserable, soul crushing exercises in accepting the true lack of impact you, or anyone else that isn’t on the field, has on the results of the game. No matter how much you care, or how loud you yell, it won’t help your team win, especially when they’re nearly 200 miles away, in a hostile territory unlike any other in sport. Ohio State fans, Michigan fans, and all college football fans know this feeling well, and try to avoid it at all costs.
Ohio State fans became very accustomed to that feeling of dread and helplessness under John Cooper, because every year, not matter how good the team was, it was almost a guarantee that the Buckeyes would lose to their rivals up north come late-November. Like clockwork, excellent Buckeye teams fell to the Wolverines throughout Cooper’s tenure.
However, 1995 was supposed to be different. Ohio State, we’d thought, had proven in the past 11 games that they were just too talented to lose; too big to fail. They’d hit their groove, everybody was healthy, and it was time to finally get the Michigan monkey off of their collective back.
Ohio State struck first, after Michigan missed a field goal on their first possession. The Buckeyes drove down the field, and thanks to an acrobatic, out-of-control but completely-in-control diving catching by Terry Glenn— the kind he’d made so many times all year long—, Ohio State found themselves in the red zone.
They couldn’t find the end zone though, and settled for a short field goal. Michigan responded with a touchdown of their own, a pass from Brian Griese to Clarence Williams. Much of the credit could be given to Tshimanga “Tim” Biakabutuka, who already had 106 yards on just six carries, and was gashing the Buckeyes early.
The scoring subsided for the rest of the first quarter as the teams exchanged punts, like two heavyweight fighters feeling each other out and planning their next attack. Ohio State’s next strike looked a lot like their first: a field goal, this time from even closer, that cut the lead to 1. Settling for field goals in the red zone was not how to beat Michigan, and John Cooper knew it.
Michigan answered with a kick of their own, but Ohio State got the final score of the half, with yet another short field goal, giving Michigan a 10-9 lead at halftime. The Buckeyes hadn’t been awful on offense, but they were wasting opportunities. Eddie George had been out-dueled by Biakabutuka, Bobby Hoying was struggling, and the defense looked completely mortal at times.
The second half couldn’t have started any worse than it did. Ohio State fielded the kick, and set up shop. Looking for a big play to get the offense going, they looked deep, but Hoying tossed an interception. Michigan took advantage, continuing to pound the Buckeye defense with the running attack before punching it in with Griese to extend their lead to 17-9.
Ohio State’s offense finally woke up later in the quarter, storming down the field before Eddie George broke through the defense from a yard out, giving Ohio State their first touchdown of the game. The two-point conversion was no good, but 17-15 was far more manageable.
With the game within reach, Ohio State’s defense, dominant all season long, held together by elite line play from Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel, one of the best linebackers in the country in Greg Bellisari and a defensive back stable as deep as it was talented, collapsed under the pressure of the moment.
Michigan struck early in the fourth, on an eight-yard run from Clarence Williams, giving them a 24-15 lead, their biggest of the game. On the following possession, Ohio State desperately needed to score and cut into the lead. Hoying dropped back on first down and underthrew his star receiver. He overthrew Eddie George on a swing route on second down. A delay of game flag set up Ohio State up needing 15 yards on third down. The senior quarterback launched a shovel pass to no one, and the Buckeyes punted, needing the defense to hold up like they had against Penn State, or Notre Dame.
With their last bit of energy, they did just that, forcing a quick punt. The offense had another chance, but Terry Glenn dropped an open reception on first down. Hoying overthrew his tight end on second down, and on third and ten, Hoying dropped back, escaped the pocket to his right, and lofted a pass to Dudley. The two-sport star caught it for a half-second before it fell out of his hands, thanks to a hit from a Michigan defender.
The defense was exhausted, and as he had all day, Biakabutuka glided through it like a hot knife through butter. They forced a long third down, but a big completion was as close to a nail in the coffin as you’ll see. Tim punched it in two plays later, and Michigan took a 31-15 lead in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Ohio State’s offense moved down the field with ease on their next possession, consisting almost entirely on a diet of swing passes and dump offs, because the line was getting crushed every play. They scored their second touchdown of the day on a 20-yard pass to Buster Tillman, cutting the lead to 8 after a successful two-point conversion, meaning that they had one more chance. The undefeated season, the national title, the Big Ten championship, all came down to the final six minutes.
The defense needed a stop, and they needed it quickly. They stuffed the first down play, but jumped offsides on back-to-back plays, giving Michigan a first down with five minutes to go. After being stuffed twice, a reverse set up the Wolverines with another first down, this time with under four minutes to go. It was a battle against the clock, and Ohio State had little fight left. A Vrabel sack gave the offense one last chance, but with so little time left, it would be an uphill battle. It always was in Ann Arbor.
The Buckeyes inspired hope early, converting on fourth and three while moving closer to Michigan territory. A big pass to Dudley gave Ohio State another first down, near Michigan’s 30 yard line, with more than a minute still remaining. Hoying spiked the ball on first down, and launched incompletions on second and third down. The Buckeyes had one more play to prolong their dream season. One more play to keep their dreams alive.
“Fourth down, ten to go, at the 34. Terry Glenn, can he get it? Picked off! Woodson!”
The dream season ended with a whimper. Charles Woodson, just a freshman at the time, had two interceptions, which we probably should’ve seen as foreshadowing for the rest of his time at Michigan. The Buckeyes fell for the first time in 1995, 31-23, to Michigan in Ann Arbor. No Rose Bowl. No Big Ten Title. No National Title.
With Northwestern headed to the Rose Bowl, Ohio State, now ranked fourth, would settle instead for the Citrus Bowl, where they’d face off with Peyton Manning and the Tennessee Volunteers. It was a good game, but it was obvious that Ohio State’s heart just wasn’t in it. The offense looked stale and tired, and the defense, while good, struggled with Manning.
They fell 20-14, as the most talented team in school history somehow managed to finish with an 11-2 record. Eddie George did end up winning the Heisman, as Cooper had campaigned for, but it’s hard to imagine that it was any consolation for the loss to Michigan. That kind of loss sticks with a person forever, and I think that’s true for every player, coach and even fan that saw that game from the Ohio State perspective.
It was a program-changing loss. Had Ohio State beaten Michigan, they would’ve likely played against the 17th ranked USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl. If they win that game, they would have almost certainly split the national title with Nebraska, giving the program their first title in nearly 30 years.
The loss also contributed greatly to Cooper’s firing in 2000, because he hadn’t built up the goodwill in the past to survive back-to-back mediocre seasons, with diminishing recruiting returns. That brought forth Jim Tressel, who, as we all know, would finally deliver a title to Ohio State in 2002.
Usually when looking back at seasons like this one, a lesson can be gleaned. Something about the perils of overconfidence, or how talent isn’t as important as hard work, or some other stupid quip to make this whole practice seem useful and important.
The truth is, none of this is actually useful or important. It’s a game. We create the importance, and invent usefulness. Football is great, and I obviously love it enough to write about it for a living, but ultimately, it’s a distraction, and no matter how much we try to learn from history, there’s nothing we as fans can do to stop it from repeating, be it in 2015, or any other season. It’s not up to us.
Ohio State won’t win or lose any games in 2018 because we all collectively get mad enough at the TV about play calls. Screaming that a receiver is open won’t make Dwayne Haskins see him. Suggesting that a defender should tackle a free roaming running back, while solid advice, isn’t going to make the tackle happen. I’m guilty of this, as I’m sure many Buckeye fans are, and even though I know it won’t do anything, I have no plans of changing. You shouldn’t either.