It was Saturday, Oct. 13, 1984 and the 4-1 Ohio State Buckeyes were coming off a 28-23 loss at Purdue when the Fighting Illini came to Ohio Stadium for what was then the annual Illibuck game.
The Buckeyes were the better team most of the day against the Boilermakers, but couldn’t stop Purdue quarterback Jim Everett in the second half of a costly road loss. That Purdue loss produced a hangover that threatened to sink Ohio State at home the next week against Illinois.
It was the fourth game I attended as a student at Ohio State. I wasn’t supposed to be in Columbus, because everyone who worked at the Arby’s that stood on the corner of Lane Avenue and High Street was expected to work on football Saturdays. I had made up some idiotic lie about being “expected” to report home on the weekends by overprotective parents, but I actually just had a student season ticket and I’d be damned if I was going to miss being in the Shoe on game day. As far as I was concerned, that was the primary reason I had gone to school there.
But I digress.
The Buckeyes’ hangover was apparent early. The defense could do little to stop Illinois quarterback Jack Trudeau, running back Thomas Rooks, and rest of the Fighting Illini offense. The Illini jumped all over Ohio State, racing out to a 24-0 lead just seconds after the second quarter began. Ohio Stadium was restless and some folks were either heading for the exits already or wondering if they should at least wait until halftime.
Those who opted to stay — the vast majority, if we’re being honest about it — were treated to a legendary comeback performance.
Wedged into my seat in the Block “O” section, which was about halfway up A Deck in the closed end of the Horseshoe in those days, I watched in horror for more than a quarter as the Buckeyes played like a team that wanted to be anywhere but on the synthetic surface of Ohio Stadium. OSU turnovers had been directly responsible for more than half of that Illini lead.
But the Buckeyes started to find some rhythm. There was a false start to the comeback as Ohio State drove deep into Illini territory, only to turn the ball over on downs. But then the defense stepped up and got the ball back — with the help of a critical clipping call on the Illini offense.
Quarterback Mike Tomczak drove the Buckeyes from the shadow of their own goalpost to their first points of the afternoon, with one of the key moments being a huge chunk play on a pass to Cris Carter, who showed his excellence by holding onto the ball despite taking a big hit as the ball arrived. Tailback Keith Byars carried the rock the final 16 yards to stop the bleeding.
Safety Craig Swoope committed a dead-ball personal foul after the play, and that seemed to light the spark the Buckeyes needed.
The cheers for Byars’ touchdown was more a sigh of relief than a typical post-score roar. The crowd had hope at that point but the prevailing thought was still that the hole was still a bit too deep for the Buckeyes to climb out of it. But that feeling in the stadium changed quickly.
Trailing 24-7 with less than five minutes remaining until halftime, Earle Bruce dialed up an onside kick. There was little risk in doing so after Swoope’s penalty allowed Rich Spangler to kick off from the Illini side of the field.
The Buckeyes came up with the football and two plays later, they scored again.
Under pressure, Tomczak threw a jump ball to Carter between three receivers. Carter out-leaped everyone and came down with it, tumbling into the end zone for the team’s second touchdown in just 50 seconds. Suddenly, the deficit was just 24-14 with more than half the game still remaining. This time, the roar was more typical of an Ohio State crowd and there was true belief that the Buckeyes were back in the game.
Illinois started to move the ball again on the ensuing drive, taking it near midfield in just a few plays, but Sonny Gordon put a stop to it with an interception at the OSU 35-yard line.
It appeared Ohio State’s final possession of the first half would stall, but a holding penalty on the Fighting Illini gave the Buckeyes new life and they made the most of it. Carter made a remarkable catch on a low pass to keep the drive alive, and a throw to Mike Lanese set up Ohio State with first-and-goal with half a minute remaining. Byars took a pitch from four yards out and raced to the left, leaping over the last defender at the goal line to cap the drive and pulling the Buckeyes to within 24-21 at the break.
Ohio Stadium was going nuts after watching the Buckeyes come back from the dead with 21 points in less than four minutes. We were ready for the second half.
So were the Buckeyes.
Ohio State kicked off to start the second half and Ray Wilson opted to return it from a few yards deep in his end zone. That turned out to be a mistake, because he lost the football. William White jumped on it and before folks had even returned from the restroom, the Buckeyes were back on offense deep in Illini territory.
The ensuing 26-yard drive was all Byars, as the tailback covered the distance between the start of the drive and the end zone in just four carries. He rushed for 17 yards on the first play, then picked up two modest gains before diving into the end zone from one yard out to complete the drive. Nobody in Ohio State history dove into the end zone like Byars. He was unstoppable once the ball got inside the 3-yard line. His third touchdown of the game gave the Buckeyes the lead at 28-24, which had seemed improbable about 45 minutes earlier.
The Fighting Illini tried to re-establish their control of the game, driving into OSU territory with Trudeau alternating short passes with runs by Rooks. Ohio State finally got a stop and Chris White hit a 46-yard field goal to cut the deficit to a single point, 28-27.
Then Byars stole the Illini’s souls.
The Buckeyes picked up a first down on their next drive but a false start pushed them into a 2nd-and-11 situation at their own 33-yard line. Tomczak dropped back and handed the ball to Byars on a draw play. The tailback cut inside a pass rusher who was forced wide up the field and found the right sideline. He then cut back toward the middle of the field and lost his left shoe but still outran the entire Illinois defense for a 67-yard touchdown that has become legendary not only among Ohio State fans but in college football lore.
It was Byars’ fourth rushing touchdown of the afternoon and he needed just one more to tie Pete Johnson’s school record.
To their credit, the Fighting Illini didn’t give up. After the teams exchanged punts, Illinois drove down the field and Trudeau hit Wilson for a 9-yard touchdown. The Illinois quarterback carried it in for the two-point conversion on a scramble that the Buckeyes over-pursued, and the game was tied at 35-35.
A long touchdown run by John Woolridge that would have put the Buckeyes right back on top was called back due to an illegal shift penalty late in the third quarter. In the final period, Byars continued to pick up chunks on the ground and, already with more than 200 rushing yards, he was spelled at times by Woolridge, who did the same.
However, the Buckeye drive stalled and Spangler had to kick a 47-yard field goal to restore Ohio State’s lead. Illinois answered, driving deep into Ohio State territory before a goal-line stand at the OSU 1-yard line forced the Illini to make a decision. Nowadays, most teams would likely have gone for it on fourth down. Instead, White kicked a 16-yard field goal to tie the game at 38-38 with just 3:18 remaining to play — and remember, there were ties in college football back then.
With Byars over 200 yards rushing and Carter already over 100 yards receiving on the day, I wasn’t worried that the Buckeyes could get into scoring position, but there was a nagging fear of an untimely turnover giving the game away.
A touchback on the ensuing kickoff gave the Buckeyes the ball on their own 20 and from there, the Buckeyes went to work. Byars ripped off a 23-yard run to get the ball near midfield and the ball came out but he was ruled down.
Tomczak continued to give the ball to Byars and Woolridge, and the two running backs were picking up yardage in about 5-yard chunks. A good run of 18 yards by Woolridge set the Bucks up with first-and-goal and then it was Byars time.
Keith roared up the middle for five yards on first down, but — in a rarity — was stopped for no gain on second down. On third-and-goal, the Buckeyes went back to the toss sweep to the left. Tomczak pitched to Byars, who sprinted toward the left sideline. Illinois cut off his lane to the sideline, so the big back cut inside and spun into the end zone for his fifth score of the day, tying Johnson’s school record and setting a single-game rushing mark of 274 yards on 39 carries.
Spangler’s PAT put Ohio State ahead, 45-38 with 36 seconds to play. A failure on that third down likely would have resulted in Spangler setting up for a tying kick on fourth down. Hey, it was a different era.
Trudeau managed a first down on a deep out but from there, the Buckeye secondary shut down the next four plays and Ohio State had completed its comeback.
That 1984 Ohio State team won the Big Ten with a 7-2 record — losing two games later at Wisconsin — and then lost to USC in the Rose Bowl by a field goal. But it was that huge comeback win over Illinois, and Byars’ five-touchdown, 274-yard performance was a game for the ages.