The Buckeyes entered the 1987 season as one of the hottest teams to finish the 1986 season. After losing the season opener against Alabama in the Kickoff Classic, and following that game with a 40-7 thrashing by the Washington Huskies, the Buckeyes almost won out. They lost to TSUN to be denied the Rose Bowl, but finished the season with a dominating effort on defense in the Big Ten’s first foray into the Cotton Bowl against heavily favored Texas A&M. Their reward: a #5 preseason ranking in 1987 and a defense led by veterans like Eric Kumerow, Greg Rogan, William White, David Brown and, the leading tackler in the NCAA in 1986 (206), Chris Spielman.
But what of the offense? This proved to be a prickly issue in the summer of 1987. Ohio State lacked any other real option at quarterback in 1987 beyond Tom Tupa, who backed up the departed Jim Karsatos in 1986. He also served as the team’s punter. Gone from 1986 was center Bob Maggs, right tackle Jay Shaffer, tight end Jim Taggart and flanker Nate Harris and contributor Jamie Holland. Tom Tupa was capable, but not an all-American candidate at the position. They would rely on George Cooper and tailbacks like Vince Workman (starter), James Bryant and newcomer Carlos Snow to move the ball. Cris Carter, the senior split end, would serve as the get out of jail free card for Tom Tupa.
However, something unexpected happened. Cris Carter was ruled ineligible after it was discovered he had secretly signed with notorious sports agent Norby Walters. Ohio State decided to not appeal the decision in September and, thus, began the football season without its best player on offense. The receiving game now featured two new faces as starters: Everett Ross and freshman Tony Cupe, who took over at Carter’s split end position. Ohio State had to press on. Meanwhile, Cris Carter, who was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles in the supplemental draft, became a player without a team. Contract negotiations were still ongoing with the Eagles, his Ohio State career was abruptly over and, thus, he was in the stands with the locals watching the Buckeyes begin what would’ve been his senior season1. Their opponent: Major Harris and the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Don Nehlen’s Mountaineers squad knew what they had to do, and were aware of what to expect in an Ohio State home opener. Nehlen himself is an Ohioan, previously having coached high school football in Canton against Massillon, coached by Chris Spielman’s father, Sonny, before moving up the ladder to become head coach of the Mountaineers. Further, this season opener had a special significance for starting defensive back Terry White for the Mountaineers. Previously a starter for Earle Bruce, he was booted off the team for what was apparently a disagreement between he and Bruce regarding beer bottles found under White’s bed. He transferred to West Virginia. More aware than anyone of what the atmosphere would be like, Terry White desperately wanted this victory.
However, this was possibly the worst start to a game I’ve seen from anyone. Nehlen later described it as a nightmare. West Virginia’s John Talley fumbled the opening kickoff, allowing Matthew Frantz to open the game with a field goal lead for Ohio State. On West Virginia’s first play from scrimmage, after not fumbling the ensuing kickoff, WVU’s AJ Brown fumbled on a running play. Ohio State recovered and, a few plays later, James Bryant found the end zone for a 10-0 lead. It got worse. After an exchange of punts, Tom Tupa’s Buckeye offense put together their only real drive of the game, going 67 yards for a touchdown when Everett Ross slipped behind WVU’s secondary in the end zone. As for WVU: they could not stop turning the ball over. Ohio State’s punishing defense ended any drives before they started, usually with an inopportune turnover. West Virginia had 6 first half turnovers and finished the game with 8. Six of those eight were interceptions; three were had by William White, two by Chris Spielman (who also had 19 tackles and a FF) and the last by Greg Rogan. William White returned one of those INTs for six to ultimately conclude the game in the 4th quarter. In fact, the six interceptions, at the time, was second in Ohio State football history, behind the seven interceptions netted in a 60-0 romp of the New York University Violets in 1936.
A dominating performance on defense to be sure, but the 1987 season opener seemed to create more questions than it answered. Given how bad West Virginia was on offense, and how often they put their own defense behind the 8 ball, it should be surprising the Buckeyes could not score into the 30s or the 40s. In fact, any extended drive would’ve been welcome. Instead, the Buckeye offense sputtered badly down the stretch, grateful for the fact that the “nightmarish” first quarter for WVU was enough to secure the victory. The Buckeye offense began the game nicely. Tom Tupa incorporated a lot of short roll-outs to begin the game, easing Cupe and Ross into the game with short passes against soft zone coverage. When appropriate, the Buckeyes fed the ball to George Cooper and Vince Workman on short yardage situations. The tide turned in the second quarter and carried through the rest of the game. Cooper and Workman weren’t picking up big chunks of yards, WVU’s defensive line had taken away their running lanes, Cupe and Ross were getting easily locked down and Tupa had lost his rhythm. The Ohio State offense had a meager 149 yards in the first half, understandable considering the short field they usually had. However, no excuse remained for their 64 yard second half effort.
The Buckeyes did not suffer for it against WVU, but promised a better effort. They arguably did not get that the next week in a 24-14 victory over Oregon. Afterward, they slid to 7th in the AP. The next week, they drew LSU 13-13 in Baton Rouge and slid to 9th. The next week, they scored 10 against Illinois in a 10-6 victory, but only 10 the next week against the Hoosiers in a 31-10 loss. After consecutive victories over Purdue and Minnesota, a 3 game losing stretch against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa cost Earle Bruce his job. The season ended with a victory over TSUN, a bittersweet moment that brought Bruce’s time as Buckeye head coach to a close.
So yes, this is not exactly a game that many dwell on and is arguably not worth as many words as I have just said about it. But I love finding games like these and adding them to my collection. Buckeye fans, as a microcosm of the broader human phenomenon, have limited cognitive capacities. There’s only so much they can internalize in the grand informational deluge of Ohio State football. Rose Bowl victories, victories over Michigan, Big Ten and national championships are always cherished. The intricate details of some of these finer moments — say: David Boston’s post-TD strut, Jake Ballard’s catch, Clarett’s strip, Cie Grant’s blitz, Archie Griffin’s pre-Heisman run in 1974, Will Allen’s pick, Gonzo’s catch in 2005 and so on — are the things that go on posters hung in your office and entertainment room. Still, I’m always fascinated when I can find a game like this and have someone post a comment saying something to the effect of “Oh my God I remember watching William White pick-six Mike Timko to end that game”. So, hopefully it brought back some good moments for you.
Game is below.
- My copy of the game was carried by WPXI-TV 11 in Pittsburgh, but was calling itself “The Big Ten Network”. You even hear this in the final seconds of the game. The crew for this game was Jim Simpson, Steve Davis and Gene Washington (sideline). They would frequently call into Dave Diles live from a studio in Champaign, IL and frequently check in on a Mississippi State-Tennessee game. Does this ring a bell for anyone? I’m interested to know more but cannot find anything on it.
- The son of the aforementioned Terry White, Patrick White, is now on Michigan State’s roster.
- Play us out, Neutron Man…
- He was even interviewed during halftime in a very, very uncomfortable interview. [↩]