The countdown of the six greatest seasons of Ohio State football continues with the #5 greatest season- 1973.
#6 - The 1961 BuckeyesMore than a few longtime observers believe this is the best team in the history of Scarlet and Grey football- and they might be right. The '73 Buckeyes were loaded in all three phases, dominant for all but the final two quarters of the regular season, and topped the campaign off with perhaps the most authoritative bowl performance in the history of the program.
Record: 10-0-1 (7-0-1 Big Ten)
Big-Ten Conference Co-Champions
Rose Bowl Champions
Minnesota (7-4) W 56-7
Texas Christian (3-8) W 37-3
Washington State (5-6) W 27-3
@ Wisconsin (4-7) W 24-0
@ Indiana (2-9) W 37-7
Northwestern (4-7) W 60-0
@ Illinois (5-6) W 30-0
Michigan State (5-6) W 35-0
Iowa (0-11) W 55-13
@ Michigan (10-0-1) T 10-10
USC (9-2-1) W 42-21
Personnel-wise, the 1973 Buckeyes had no weaknesses. The offensive skill players were young, inexperienced, but extravagantly skilled. Sophomore Cornelius Greene, valued by Coach Hayes for his running ability, took over the starting quarterback spot from senior captain Greg Hare and excelled immediately. Sophomore wingback Brian Baschnagel and freshman fullback Pete Johnson were solid contributors, and the only upperclassman in the group, junior fullback Bruce Elia, was a converted linebacker. The leading man was another sophomore, halfback Archie Griffin, who led the Big Ten with over 1,500 yards rushing. This gifted crew ran behind a line anchored by the tackle duo of Kurt Schumacher and one of the best linemen in school history- John Hicks, winner of the Outland and Lombardi Trophies for 1973.
As good as the offense was the defense was even better. There was greatness at every level, from the line- tackle Pete Cusick and end Van Ness DeCree- to the linebackers- Rick Middleton and Randy Gradishar- to the secondary- Neal Colzie, Steve Luke, and Tim Fox. This impenetrable unit pitched four shutouts in 1973, including three in a row at one point, and allowed a grand total of two touchdowns in the first eight games of the season. Middleton, Gradishar, Colzie and Fox eventually became first-round draft picks in the NFL, as did Griffin, Hicks, and Schumacher on offense. The special teams, led by punter Tom Skladany and the explosive Colzie at punt returner, was also superb.
Of the top six finishers in the Heisman balloting in 1973, three were Buckeyes- Hicks (2nd), Griffin (5th) and Gradishar (6th). That's talent.
To be sure, the Buckeyes compiled this impressive resume against less-than-impressive competition. The combined winning percentage of Ohio State's nine opponents prior to Michigan was a dismal .350. The Big Ten was at the height of its "Big Two-Little Eight" period: only one conference member (Minnesota) aside from OSU and U-M had a winning record in 1973, and everyone else ranged from sub-mediocre to downright horrendous. The feeble 2007 schedule looked like Murderers' Row compared to the tomato cans the '73 Buckeyes pummeled week after week.
Michigan, however, was good enough to make up for it. The Wolverines steamed into the Game with a perfect record, having given up a total of 58 points in ten consecutive lopsided wins. As usual, Bo Schembechler's team had a distinctly Ohio flavor, led by quarterback Dennis Franklin (Massillon), halfback Chuck Heater (Tiffin), and fullback Ed Shuttlesworth (Cincinnati). The Buckeyes were the top-ranked team in America; Michigan was fourth. The winner would go the Rose Bowl and have the inside track to the National Championship; the loser would go home, since the Big Ten only allowed its conference champion to play in the postseason. The stakes have never been higher in the Game's long history, before or since.
The Buckeyes came out like gangbusters on the cold, wet afternoon of November 24, 1973. After churlishly tearing down the GO BLUE: M CLUB SUPPORTS YOU banner to the horror of the 105,000 spectators at the Big House (as well as U-M play-by-play man Bob Ufer, one of the all-time greatest homers in broadcasting history: "the audacity... the unmitigated gall!") they went to work tearing down the Wolverines on the field, seizing a 10-0 halftime advantage on a Blair Conway field goal and a touchdown plunge by Pete Johnson.
With a two-score lead and Greene nursing a sore thumb, Hayes decided to sit on the ball in the second half and put the game in the hands of his great defense. The decision backfired. Taking advantage of Woody's ultra-conservatism (the Buckeyes didn't complete a single pass on the day) Michigan controlled the second half, out-gaining the Buckeyes 209-91, and stormed back to tie the score 10-10 in the fourth quarter. The Wolverines had a golden opportunity to win the game at the end, but Mike Lantry missed a pair of field goals in the final minute, preserving the deadlock.
With matters no more settled after the game than before, it came down a vote of the Big Ten athletic directors to decide which team would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. Woody figured that as badly as his team had been outplayed in the second half, the verdict would go to Michigan. So it was much to Hayes's surprise and delight- and Bo Schembechler's enduring outrage- when, the day after the game, the conference voted 6-4 to send Ohio State, and not Michigan, to the Rose Bowl. It was the crowning insult in an exasperating three-year stretch for Wolverine football that saw the Maize and Blue pile up a record of 30-2-1... and never play in a bowl game.
Reprieve in hand, Ohio State had plenty of incentive going into their Rose Bowl showdown with USC. The previous season in Pasadena, the Buckeyes had been humiliated by the Trojans 42-17, giving up 35 points in the second half. There were also plenty of questions about whether Ohio State belonged in the game at all, given the way the season ended. The Bucks answered all of these questions emphatically, spotting USC a 21-14 third-quarter lead before exploding for 28 second-half points and burying the Trojans 42-21. The Buckeyes rolled up 323 yards on the ground, with burly Pete Johnson scoring three touchdowns and Archie Griffin applying the coup de grace with a 47-yard scoring burst late in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame won the national title that season, defeating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Eve. But USC coach John McKay had seen both Notre Dame and Ohio State up-close and personal, and there was no doubt in his mind as to which team was superior. "Like I said before the game, Ohio State is the best team we've played all year," McKay stated firmly after his team's Rose Bowl thrashing. Making the win even more impressive was the fact that this was the only victory by a Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl during the entire decade of the ‘70s.
There have been better seasons in the annals of Ohio State football. But in terms of personnel and performance, the '73 team might not have an equal.