Dark days found no bottom in disheartening 1987 Ohio State football season

Ray Stein
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State quarterback Greg Frey (15) kneels in dejection after his fourth-quarter interception sealed the Buckeyes' 26-24 loss to Wisconsin in 1987.

Rearview mirror: Nov. 7, 1987 

Each week, Gameday+ takes a look at an Ohio State game played on this date: 

Wisconsin 26, Ohio State 24 

Setup 

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the 1987 Ohio State football season was doomed from the start. In January, coach Earle Bruce had flirted with an offer to take the job at Arizona before deciding to stay; in March, legendary coach Woody Hayes died at age 74; and in July, the Buckeyes’ best offensive player, receiver Cris Carter, was deemed ineligible for accepting money from agents. When the season began, OSU’s top-five preseason rating disappeared with a sluggish start, and then October brought a pair of how-low-can-you-go moments, the first a 31-10 home loss to Indiana on Oct. 10, OSU’s first loss to the Hoosiers since 1951, Hayes’ first season. Three weeks later, in a 13-7 home loss to Michigan State, the Buckeyes were held to six first downs and 2 yards rushing. With the season on the brink, murmurs were growing louder for Bruce’s ouster. It wasn’t so much the 75-22 record Bruce had accumulated in his previous eight seasons but the way the ‘87 season was going down the gullet — a horse pill traveling sideways. Thank goodness for the Buckeyes, a layup game at 18-point underdog Wisconsin, 2-6 overall and winless in five Big Ten games, was on tap. Clang!

Stars 

Ohio State finally got its offense on track with a 514-yard day, with Carlos Snow (79 yards), Jim Bryant (62) and Vince Workman (54) rushing for nearly 200 yards. But the Buckeyes were done in by seven turnovers — four interceptions and three fumbles — and were held scoreless in the second half, a disturbing trend all season. Todd Gregoire kicked four field goals, all longer than 40 yards, for the Badgers.

Turning point 

After Gregoire’s fourth field goal, with 10:46 left, gave Wisconsin a 26-24 lead, OSU went on a 10-play march to move the ball to the Badgers’ 4. But Matt Frantz pushed his 22-yard field goal try from the right hash. Ohio State had one more possession with 2:05 remaining, but Greg Frey was intercepted by Don Davey, the Buckeyes’ sixth turnover of the second half. 

Impact 

Ohio State coach Earle Bruce confers with senior quarterback Tom Tupa during the 1987 season.

Those who assumed the 1987 Buckeyes had found bedrock with a defeat to the conference cellar-dwellers soon learned that there were more layers to pass through. Ohio State lost again next week in even more improbable fashion, to Iowa, and two days later Bruce was dismissed by university president Edward Jennings. Then, finally, the clouds parted and the sun shone through, OSU’s 23-20 victory at Michigan in Bruce’s final game being one of the best stick-it-in-your-ear moments in program history. 

Quotable

“We’re in a state of shock. It’s hard to face. It’s kind of embarrassing. It’s the lowest point of my career.” — All-America linebacker Chris Spielman, who was in on 16 tackles against Wisconsin to become OSU’s career leader in the category 

rstein@dispatch.com