Ohio State will put a perfect 3-0 all-time record against the Naval Academy on the line when the two schools meet in the 2009 season opener in Columbus on September 5. The Buckeyes' first two victories in the series, in 1930 and '31, were easy 27-0 and 20-0 shutouts. The third, in the 1981 Liberty Bowl, was a good deal more problematic.
The 8-3 Buckeyes had finished the ‘81 regular season with a stirring, come-from-behind 14-9 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor, scoring the game-winning touchdown with less than three minutes to play. Though they tied Iowa for the Big Ten title, the Hawkeyes- who Ohio State didn't play- went to Pasadena on account of not having made the trip as recently. Still, the Buckeyes expected better than they got in the way of a bowl game. Having beaten the Wolverines in the Big House, it was logical to assume that Ohio State would receive the more prestigious bowl invite between the two teams. But that's not what happened. While Michigan landed an appealing match-up with UCLA in the Bluebonnet Bowl on New Year's Eve, the Bucks got a trip to the Liberty Bowl and a December 30 date with the Naval Academy.
Earle Bruce's team likely would have preferred a Pac-10 opponent in the climate-controlled Astrodome to a service academy in chilly Memphis. George Welsh's Midshipmen came into the game with a 7-3-1 record. Among the losses was a tough, 21-16 setback to Michigan- maybe that was why the Liberty Bowl took Ohio State; they didn't want the rematch- and, less impressively, a defeat at the hands of Yale. Welsh himself was on his way out the door, having taken the Virginia head coaching job prior to the end of the season. Other than tailback Eddie Meyers, who rushed for 1,318 yards- including a school-record 298 yard-outing against Syracuse- Navy had no star players of note. Napoleon McCallum, a future two-time All-American, was on the team, but at the time he was Meyers's freshman backup. Almost without question, Ohio State took the Midshipmen lightly. The Buckeyes nearly paid the price for doing so.
Playing up to expectations at first, Ohio State quickly took a 10-0 first-quarter lead on a 35-yard field goal by Bob Atha and a 50-yard touchdown bomb from Art Schichter to Gary Williams. But just as it seemed the Buckeyes would run away with things, Navy stormed back. Catching the drowsy Bucks off-guard with a fake punt that turned into a 36-yard gain, the Middies drove to a touchdown that cut the lead to 10-7 before the end of the first quarter. Two Navy field goals sandwiched around a touchdown run by Ohio State's Jimmy Gayle left the Buckeyes in front at halftime, 17-13.
The Midshipmen continued to give Ohio State problems after intermission. Early in the third quarter, nose tackle George Herlong broke through to block a Buckeye punt. Linebacker Kenneth Olson scooped the ball up and ran it in, and Navy, a two-touchdown underdog, was out in front for the first time, 20-17. Suddenly an almost unthinkable loss seemed all too possible for the floundering Buckeyes, who had done next to nothing offensively since the first period.
Fortunately, the Midshipmen soon flashed the form that had enabled them to lose to Yale. Moments after his team had taken the lead punter Steve Fehr shanked a 24-yarder, giving the ball to the Buckeyes at the Navy 37-yard line. Ohio State quickly drove for the go-ahead score, getting it on Jimmy Gayle's second touchdown. Navy was now out of ammunition. Ohio State would keep the lead for good, effectively salting the game away with 5:22 to play in the fourth quarter when Schlichter hit Cedric Anderson with a nine-yard scoring pass to make it 31-20. The Midshipmen would drive to a touchdown and a two-point conversion with eight seconds left, but it was too little, too late. Ohio State hung on for a 31-28 victory, Earle Bruce's first as Buckeye coach in a bowl game.
It had been a struggle. The Buckeyes barely out-gained Navy, getting 354 yards to the Midshipmen's 340. Schlichter, the Walter Camp Award winner in 1981, had a shaky night, completing just 11 of 26 passes and throwing an interception along with his two scoring tosses. Eddie Meyers gashed Ohio State's defense for 117 yards on the ground, winning game MVP honors. Turnovers and trouble in the kicking game on the part of Navy made the difference more than anything exceptional the Buckeyes did. Nine years later, another Ohio State team would again play flat and listless in the Liberty Bowl against a service academy, and this time the Buckeyes would not be so fortunate. John Cooper's team would lose to Air Force, 23-11, planting Coop in a vat of hot water that never really cooled down for the remainder of his tenure.
So a little short of twenty-eight years after their last meeting, the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Navy Midshipmen will again meet on the football field. Like the last encounter, Ohio State will enter the game with an overwhelming talent advantage. But the Bucks had better take care not to underestimate their opponent. They almost learned that lesson the hard way back in 1981.