Friday, December 13, 2002
1984 - Ohio State 28, Pittsburgh 23
By Alex Laracy
The 1984 Fiesta Bowl pitted Earle Bruce's Ohio State Buckeyes against Foge Fazio's Pittsburgh Panthers in an unusually cold day in Tempe, Ariz., in front of a crowd of 66,484 frigid fans. While the game's first three quarters had fans contemplating an early exit, the fourth served as one of the most electrifying final quarters in Fiesta Bowl history.
The game featured numerous players who would go on to have outstanding NFL careers. The Mike Tomczak and Keith Byars-led offense would face a Pitt defense that boasted a pair of future Pro Bowlers in defensive end Chris Doleman and tackle Bill Maas. Running the ball against the Panthers would be a formidable task, and the icy conditions would not help the aerial attack.
|Keith Byars and the Buckeyes faced a tough Pittsburgh defense.|
"We had a big strong offensive line," recalls Byars, who spent last season, his 12th in the NFL, with the New York Jets. "We challenged our linemen by telling them that Maas was going to be a top draft pick in the NFL. Eventual Giants No. 1 draft pick William Roberts was going up against him, so we got him pretty hyped up all week long. He kept on repeating the old Roberto Duran mantra, 'No mas.' So we had a lot of fun with that. But he came out and did real well against him."
Indeed, the offensive line stepped up to the task, as Byars took a Tomczak handoff into the end zone from 11 yards away to give the Buckeyes a 14-7 lead going into halftime. Byars would finish with 73 yards rushing in the game.
After a scoreless third quarter in which both offenses remained conservative, and essentially ineffective, offensive sparks began to fly early in the fourth, keeping the chilly fans in their seats.
The Panthers initiated the unforeseen offensive explosion with a long scoring drive that benefited from a little assistance from Lady Luck. Tailback Joe McCall ran the ball to the 1-yard line but fumbled into the end zone. Pitt receiver Clint Wilson alertly pounced on the ball to give the Panthers a break and a 14-14 tie.
The Panthers' fortunes pushed the momentum into their favor as the game headed towards crunch time. The Buckeyes would have to strike back fast if they were going to stay in the game.
"They were kicking off, and I was like, 'I hope they kick it to me, so I can make something big happen," says Byars.
Byars made something huge happen, returning Snuffy Everett's kickoff 99 yards for the touchdown.
"You don't forget things like that run," says Byars. "I'll be telling my grandkids about that play 40 years from now. You live for those kind of moments."
Byars, who played fullback primarily in the NFL, looks back at his kick returning days with a special fondness.
"I've always had speed, it was just deceptive," insists Byars. "Guys didn't realize it until they started chasing me. Pittsburgh found out the hard way."
But the Panthers were not ready to lay down and die. They promptly marched down the field once again against an exhausted Buckeyes defense, and Pitt quarterback John Congemi hit a streaking Dwight Collins from 11 yards out for the touchdown. Fazio opted to go for the two-point conversion and take the lead, however Congemi's pass attempt failed.
The Buckeyes could not move the ball on their next possession and were forced to punt and hand the ball over to a red-hot Pittsburgh offense. The Panthers responded with a potential game-winning 37-yard field goal by Everett with 2:39 left in the game to take a 23-21 lead.
But Tomczak would have a final chance to lead the stagnant Buckeye offense against a pumped up defense with blood in its eyes and momentum on its side.
The quiet, unassuming quarterback would flourish under pressure, promptly leading his team into Pitt territory before finally hitting Thad Jemison for a 39-yard touchdown with just 39 seconds remaining for the game winner.
"Mike Tomczak really stepped up for us," says Byars. "The media had portrayed us as a predominantly running team, but to see us pass the ball downfield like that with efficiency was really satisfying."
In a game that saved its best for last, the two teams had combined to score 30 points in the final quarter with the lead changing hands three times.
Congemi completed an impressive 31 of 44 aerials for 341 yards and was later named the offensive player of the game, but he simply was not enough for Byars, Tomczak and the Buckeyes.
"The way we came back at the end of the game with the last-second touchdown pass was amazing," says Byars. "We just all banded together and it was definitely an Ohio State day."