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Column: Trip to Pasadena ain’t what it used to be

Putting the Ohio State-Utah Rose Bowl game in historical perspective

Ohio State v Nebraska
A chance for the young players to shine?
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Giving half of their ticket allotment back? For the Rose Bowl? Unheard of for the Ohio State Buckeyes, who are well known for how well their fans travel, especially to bowl games. Oh, there are lots of reasons for not going. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases has (and probably should have) made some folks a bit shy about flying. The Pac-12 champion Utah is a good team (as we’ll no doubt see on Saturday), but they don’t have the box office draw that Southern Cal, or even Oregon would have. And I’ve heard from reliable sources that Buckeye Booster packages (plane fare, game ticket, three-nights hotel stay, maybe a party) run about $3,800 each. But the primary reason for staying home this New Year’s might simply be “Who cares?”

Presumably, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Nicholas Petit-Frere, and Haskell Garrett (and maybe others to be named later) would have suited up for the playoffs, but the Rose Bowl? After what should be a fun week in L.A., what’s really at stake here? Several spots in the final rankings? Some recruiting points? A good feeling? Maybe a little momentum going into next season?

The Buckeye coaches and players have been talking up a good game, emphasizing how important the Rose Bowl is, how much they want to win it, saying all of the right things. We’ll see how much of that is real and how much is just lip-service once the ball is in the air.

Ohio State fans have come to think a season successful only if the Bucks end up in the playoffs, as they have four times since the CFP began after the 2014 season. Bowl games are a kind of consolation prize for teams not good enough to reach the final four; even Granddaddy of them All. Actually, the top bowls lost some luster once the BCS created a national championship game after the 1998 season. The playoffs just removed two more teams from the bowl mix.

A bit of Rose Bowl history

But it wasn’t always that way; years ago, you had to actually earn a bowl bid. (.500 teams had absolutely no shot at getting one)! In the Big Ten, that bowl was the Rose Bowl, and you earned it by winning the conference championship. The Rose Bowl, the oldest and most prestigious of all the bowls, was a prize, a season goal.

The first Rose Bowl was played in 1902, and, yes, it included a team from the now Big Ten and the now Pac-12, a midwestern powerhouse against the best of the west coast. Final score: Michigan 49, Stanford 0.

Saturday will witness Ohio State’s 16th Rose Bowl appearance. The first came a hundred years ago, 1921, as the California Golden Bears smacked the Buckeyes 28-0. The Bucks had to wait nearly three decades for a revenge match, but they got it in 1950 and beat Cal 17-14.

Once Woody Hayes took the helm in Columbus, the Rose Bowl became even more important; in fact, it defined success. Woody’s teams played in eight Rose Bowls: 1955, 1958, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, and 1976. Oh, we may think that we’re now living in the Golden Age of Ohio State football, but old timers will assure you that it was the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, when the Buckeyes were feared across the land; nobody dared called them a “finesse team.”

Notice that Ohio State appeared in the Rose Bowl in four consecutive years, the only time it’s been done by a Big Ten team. And in all of Woody’s games, the stakes were high, indeed. No one was asking “Who cares?” No one was thinking about giving back a ticket.

Let’s take a look at how important a few of Hayes’s Rose Bowls were. In the 1955 game, for instance, OSU was undefeated and ranked first going into the New Year’s Day game. They beat Southern Cal, 20-7 and won the national title.

Similarly, the Buckeyes entered the 1969 Rose Bowl ranked first, and the 27-16 win over USC again gave the undefeated Bucks the championship again. Ranked third for the 1973 matchup against the Trojans, Ohio State fell, 42-17, and USC was crowned national champs; a win might have brought OSU another title.

Finally, the Buckeyes were 11-0 and at the top of the polls when they met UCLA in the 1976 Rose Bowl. Another championship game, actually, but the Bucks couldn’t pull it off, losing to the Bruins, 23-10.

Final thoughts

Those were high-stakes games. Yes, the championship was determined by a vote, but the outcomes of those games were supremely important to players, coaches, and fans alike.

I’m not saying that I want to scrap the playoffs and go back to the bowl era; I agree that the championship should be earned on the field. And, I want to see the playoff field expanded to at least eight teams, but it’s just a little sad that bowl games — especially those with as much history as the Rose Bowl — seem to matter less each year.

With the championship out of reach for the Buckeyes this season, the Rose Bowl seems to be a disappointment for many (often younger) fans – and maybe the players and coaches to a lesser degree as well.

Not so for the Utes. Utah has just won its first Pac-12 championship and will be playing in its first Rose Bowl; a very big deal for the team and its fans. Of course, Utah fans have gobbled up all of the extra tickets. They’re excited. Although no one remembers the only game played between these two teams, the Utes will have a chance (a good chance, unfortunately) to avenge that 64-6 drubbing they took in 1986.

Buckeye fans will get a showcase of players trying to establish themselves as starters for next year. With Wilson and Olave opting out, it will be a great opportunity for young receivers to show their stuff. Maybe Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka will have breakout games, or maybe Marvin Harrison, Jr. Even with the stakes what they are, I’m thinking that it will be a great game. Go Bucks!