Drive-Thru: 1981 Liberty Bowl

Posted by Vico in Buckeye Lore |

Cedric Anderson chases down Navy kicker Steve Fehr after a botched punt
My God the time is almost here.  This, in essence, is game week and my second go-around as an idiot blogger with covering a full season of Ohio State football.  I thought my effort was subpar last year, so I’m hoping for a better effort from myself in 2009.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had an idea to upload a new Drive-Thru compilation relevant for every opponent on Ohio State’s schedule.  I did something similar last year, but was only able to find games for Purdue, Penn State, Illinois, Michigan and, my hated enemies, the Nerds1.  I guess this one counts for USC and this for Wisconsin2, though.  This season, I have a game lined up for all opponents, sans New Mexico State3.  This week, I start the festivities off with the last meeting between the Buckeyes and the Middies: the 1981 Liberty Bowl.

1981 was a screwy year in general for the Big Ten.  From the Buckeyes’ perspective, Minnesota’s surprise upset over Iowa in Iowa City on October 24, 1981, put the Buckeyes into a first place tie with the Hawkeyes.  The eventual 6-5 Gophers weren’t done punking Big Ten heavyweights either.  Their upset of Ohio State at Memorial Stadium two weeks later pushed the Buckeyes from tied on top to 3rd behind the Hawkeyes and Wolvereenies.  The Buckeyes won out, even beating Michigan in Ann Arbor.  By virtue of Iowa losing to Illinois later in the season as well, the Buckeyes were actually able to secure a share of the conference crown.  However, the 9-3 Hawkeyes got the nod for Pasadena4 while the 9-3 Buckeyes got the nod for… Memphis.  Ouch.  Widely pegged as responsible for this precipitous fall during Schlichter’s senior season is the defense.  They gave up 24 points to a mediocre Wisconsin team, got blitzed for 36 points by the Seminoles and conceded 27 and 33 points to Illinois and Purdue respectively, even in victorious efforts.  The 35 conceded to ostensibly a bad Minnesota team seemed to be the worst of it and, if you watch the Big Ten Network and have seen the game, is credited as knocking Ohio State out of the Rose Bowl picture.  I can’t imagine 1981 being anything other than an unqualified disappointment for Ohio State.  The best quarterback in the program’s history (certainly to that point) returned for his senior season with important weapons in John Frank, Gary Williams and Tim Spencer, but ended up playing its postseason game in Memphis.  Ouch.

The Buckeyes drew the Navy Midshipmen, a 14 point underdog in this game.  Accordingly, since the Midshipmen were thought to be a bit of a pushover for the Buckeyes, and since this was Art Schlichter’s last go-around in a Buckeye uniform, the game plan seemed to call for an aerial assault.  If it was supposed to be an easy send-off for Schlichter, his performance this game didn’t suggest it.  The first play of the game was a hail mary to split end Gary Williams, one of the better split ends in the country, but fell innocently to the ground.  All game, Schlichter seemed to be forcing throws to players that just weren’t open. Later, when the Buckeyes found themselves in a dog fight with a 14 point underdog, the Buckeyes readjusted to give Jimmy Gayle and Tim Spencer touches, using players like John Frank or Cedric Anderson as safety valves.  All in all, it was a disappointing finale for Schlichter5.  He finished the game 11/26 for 159 yards, 2 TDs and an interception and was clearly outplayed by his counterpart for the Middies.  Marco Pagnanelli, who had only one passing TD all season finished the game 14/27 for 201 yards, 2 TDs and an interception (a costly one at that too).

To be fair to Schlichter this game, drawing attention to a meager total yard output this game ignores the fact that the Buckeyes started several drives this game in Navy territory.  Why? Special teams.  The punt was clearly the most exciting play of this game.  Special teams coach and graduate assistant Fred Pagac dialed up some terror for Navy’s punting unit.  They brought the house after the Middies went four and out on their first drive.  They blocked it, setting up a Bob Atha field goal and an early 3-0 lead.  Navy fumbled on their next possession, but were in a punting formation on their 3rd drive of the game.  Ohio State’s 10 man rush again stuffed Navy’s punter, but luck was on the Middies’ side as Ohio State was flagged for being offsides.  The 5 yards given to Navy was enough for a first down.  4 plays later, the Middies were again setting up for a punt.  George Welsh, who had one foot out the door to take the Virginia coaching job, caught the Buckeyes off guard.  The Buckeyes showed 10, brought 7, but were hit over the top on the fake punt pass playcall for 39 yards and a big first down.  Navy later found the end zone to cut the margin to 10-7.

If you thought you’d seen everything from the punt teams in the first half, the second half did not disappoint.  Deciding that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, Navy brought on a 10 man rush after Ohio State’s first drive of the second half ended with a 3 and out.  Not only did Navy stuff Bob Atha’s punt, but took it to the house for a 20-17 lead.  The 14 point underdog suddenly had a second half lead.  Under duress of Ohio State returning the favor on Navy’s next punting opportunity, Navy kicker Steve Fehr shanked the punt.  Ohio State set up shop on Navy’s 37 and found the end zone shortly thereafter.  On Navy’s next punting opportunity, the long snapper sailed the ball over Steve Fehr’s head, which was ultimately recovered by the Buckeyes6.

I think the only things you didn’t see from the punting units were A) a good punt and B) a punt return for a TD.  There’s not a lot of opportunities for those when the punter, especially Navy’s, is being sieged worse than the Byzantines.

While special teams was clearly the story of the day, the defensive line deserves praise for terrorizing Navy’s offensive line.  Nick Miller, middle guard, especially should be mentioned for abusing the interior of Navy’s line all game.  He had a few sacks, knockdowns, and even forced the fumble on Navy’s second possession en route to taking home defensive MVP honors for the Buckeyes.

Navy was a 14 point underdog this game and clearly put forward their best effort for outgoing coach George Welsh, but the 31-28 final score is a little misleading.  After Navy’s shanked punt, the Buckeyes quickly recaptured the lead in the 3rd quarter.  A few possessions later in the 4th quarter, Pagnanelli’s interception set up the Buckeyes in prime field position, ultimately resulting in a 31-20 4th quarter lead for Ohio State.  This essentially held throughout the remainder of the game, though the Middies had a slim chance of hope.  With about 2 minutes left in the game, the Middies took over in the shadow of their own goal line and proceeded to drive the length of the field.  A Napoleon McCallum 3rd and 19 scramble set up the Mids at the Buckeye one yard line with about 50 seconds left to play.  However, the Buckeye defense was up to the task the next 3 plays.  Pagnanelli was turned back on a QB sneak on first down.  A handoff resulted in no gain and Navy having to burn their final timeout with 30 seconds left to stop the clock.  On 3rd down, Napoleon McCallum was given the ball on a pitch, trying to extend the play until a crease appeared, and ultimately threw the ball into the end zone right as he was about to be tackled.  It was not a designed option pass, but clearly a shrewd move by McCallum that, by sheer luck, was not intentional grounding or an ineligible man downfield penalty.  However, it wasn’t immediately clear to  the Buckeye defense… and the timekeepers… that the play was ruled an incomplete pass.  The clock continued to run while Navy huddled for their next playcall until the clock reached zero and the Buckeyes celebrated.  The refs corrected it and put 12 seconds back on the clock for a 4th down play, but the Buckeyes seemed to have checked out.  Pagnanelli found his favorite target, Greg Papajohn, on 4th down for a touchdown and again on the 2 point try.  Eight seconds remained, and Navy had a preposterously slim chance of hope to pull off the upset.  However, the hands team prevailed and the Buckeyes took home the 1981 Liberty Bowl trophy.

In an earlier post, I mention that my old man has a connection to this season.  Already having moved to Los Angeles, he managed to trek up north to Palo Alto to watch the fabled Schlichter-Elway showdown.  He brought home a game program that had the coaching staff bios there.  A few of you may remember that not everyone was happy after this Liberty Bowl.  Specifically, Earle Bruce was not pleased with the direction of the defense and, in particular, the secondary that was routinely burned in opportune times by a very meek Navy receiver corp.  The day after the Buckeyes took home the victory, Earle Bruce fired the defensive coordinator (Dennis Fryzel), defensive line coach (Steve Szabo) and secondary coach in what became known locally as the New Year’s Eve Massacre.  The secondary coach deserves a mention.  It was Nick Saban.  Yep, Nick Saban was fired from Ohio State for poor performance.  As far as I know, it was the only time he was fired from a job.  He eventually got a job with Navy for the next year before establishing himself at Michigan State.


  • Michigan actually played both Ohio State and Navy this season and, as such, Bo Schembechler actually gave a pregame message to start the telecast.  For what it’s worth, Michigan played UCLA the next day in the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston.  I miss that bowl.
  • Jeff Logan was a sideline reporter this game.
  • Woody Hayes was a guest in the booth right as Navy took the lead after the blocked punt.  Afterwards, he left his post and was on the sideline for the remainder of the game.
  • Opera singer Marguerite Piazza sang the national anthem.
  • post-Schlichter QB Mike Tomczak was on the hands team in the final seconds.
  • I swear it looked like John Frank was smiling all game.  He even gave a wink to the camera during his player introduction.
  • Ohio State was the first Big Ten team to play in the Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.  It narrowly missed out on being the first Big Ten team to play in the Liberty Bowl as well.  That honor went to Purdue the year earlier.
  • You can see more pictures and a better write-up here.

Without any further stalling, you can watch the game below.  You can watch it on YouTube in a higher quality.

  1. Okay, fine, YOU try to come up with a reason to hate Northwestern. []
  2. I tried. []
  3. However, by New Mexico State’s WAC affiliation, I may sub in the 2002 San Jose State game for them. []
  4. It was the first time someone other than Michigan and Ohio State from the Big Ten played in the Rose Bowl since Indiana in the 1967 season. []
  5. As we know, it didn’t get much better for Schlichter in the years to come. []
  6. Navy’s defense held and Bob Atha eventually missed a FG []


Written by: Vico | full bio

Vico is the nom de guerre of the founder and current website chair of Our Honor Defend. He is currently living in exile in Alabama.


One Response to “Drive-Thru: 1981 Liberty Bowl”


    … you did a great Job last year, great site and keep up the good work!!

Leave a Reply