Ohio State football was birthed in 1890, which means the Buckeyes have both blessed and cursed their fans with plenty of remarkable, game-changing, season-saving, misery-inducing and just plain famous plays over the program’s history.
Today we look at another of those memorable moments.
Cassady’s interception return
The nightmares have ended, but for a long time, former Ohio State end Dick Brubaker would wake up sweating, certain that he had blown the big play.
"I scored the go-ahead touchdown in the (1954) Michigan game, and still years later I’m dreaming, ‘Oh, my god, what if I had dropped the ball?’ Everything would have changed," Brubaker said recently. "And you realize, what a fine line between failure and success. It gets you."
One play can change the trajectory of a program. Brubaker saw it happen, and not just in his nightmares. On Oct. 23, 1954, the future of Ohio State football turned on an 88-yard interception return for a touchdown by Buckeyes defensive back Howard "Hopalong" Cassady.
When Cassady intercepted Wisconsin quarterback Jim Miller at the 12-yard line and cut left and then cut back right, the junior from Columbus also cut down calls for coach Woody Hayes to be fired.
Cassady’s pick-six early in the third quarter erased a 7-3 deficit and sparked Ohio State to a 31-14 win against the Badgers in Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes improved to 5-0 and went on to finish 10-0 and No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Hayes coached for 24 more seasons, winning national titles in 1957 and ’68.
"Woody always credited that season with saving his bacon," said Brubaker, 87, who lives near Cleveland.
Imagine if Cassady had not made the interception and Wisconsin scored to go ahead 14-3. Ivy Williamson, who coached Wisconsin from 1949 to 1955, had defeated every Big Ten team except Ohio State, going 0-6-1 against the Buckeyes. The Badgers probably would have won the game, gone on to win the Big Ten and played in the Rose Bowl instead of Ohio State.
A game, a season and two programs went in different directions that day.
"That play really broke their back," Brubaker said of Cassady’s interception. "Woody always brought it up as the momentum-changer."
The Buckeyes were ranked No. 4 as they prepared to play No. 2 Wisconsin, but their 16-9-2 record under Hayes in the three seasons before 1954 was not what Ohio State fans had in mind when Hayes was hired in 1951.
The Badgers had not won in Columbus since 1918, so losing to them on Homecoming might have been enough to get Hayes fired.
"That was a big moment for Hop and the team," Brubaker said. "It raised our confidence and caused people to take notice of Ohio State."
Bert Barnes was one such person. On his eighth birthday, the Springfield resident was treated by his father to his first Ohio State game.
"I can still see the field in my mind," Barnes said. "A beautiful fall day. The Hopalong interception and return. I was converted to the religion of Buckeye football and a deeper bond with my father that day."
Cassady, meanwhile, was converted into an Ohio State legend, a label he cemented one season later by winning the 1955 Heisman Trophy.
"It was one of the more brilliant interception returns I’ve ever seen," Brubaker said. "He did a 45-degree turn right in front of the Ohio State bench and faked a Wisconsin guy right out of his jockstrap."
Cassady, who died in 2019, stepped in front of Miller’s pass in the south end of the stadium and raced north up the Ohio State sideline. He cut back to the middle of the field at the Wisconsin 25, sending Badgers defensive back Pat Levenhagen sprawling to the turf, and outran Gust Vergetis to the end zone.
Ohio State won its final four regular-season games, including 21-7 against Michigan, and then defeated Southern California 20-7 in the Rose Bowl to complete an undefeated season.
Hayes won his second national championship three seasons later in 1957, but, if not for Cassady, he might have gone down as an OSU footnote. It is impossible to say who might have replaced Hayes had he not made it past 1954. The Buckeyes might have made a pitch for Maryland’s Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Hayes often told the story of how during the summer of 1954 he was on his porch when he overheard neighbors discussing his fate.
"This is the year we get Woody," one of the neighbors said.
Instead, Hayes got them. With a huge helping hand from Hop.