The fallout from the COVID-19 virus and its impact on Ohio State athletics may seem unprecedented, but something like this has happened before.
The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic not only changed a Buckeye football season, it also brought a memorable first to the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry.
That strain of the flu, known as H1N1, emerged during the spring of 1918 and killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide over the next year. Roughly 675,000 of them were in the United States.
Even without the flu, 1918 was a tumultuous year in American history. World War I was raging across the Atlantic, and had its own impact on the Ohio State program.
A year before, the Buckeyes completed their second consecutive conference championship. They had gone 15-0-1 over the 1916 and 1917 seasons.
The latter team featured a pair of players who would later be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame: Charles “Chic” Harley and Gaylord Stinchcomb. However, in 1918, both were off doing their part for the war effort.
On March 31, 1918, the Dayton Daily News reported that Harley “left Columbus late today for camp at Dallas, Texas, to continue his training in the aviation corps.”
On May 8, 1918, the Dayton Daily News reported “Half-back Stinchcomb has left Ohio State to join the naval training school and only three O.S.U. regulars are left.”
That fall, Stinchcomb was part of the Cleveland Naval Reserves team, which handed Pittsburgh its first loss in four seasons. Stinchcomb scored the winning touchdown when he caught a 30-yard pass and “oozed through four Pitt huskies for the 10 yards that took him across the goal line” according to the December 1 edition of the Dayton Daily News.
Without their stars, or the majority of the players from the previous season, the Buckeyes still got off to a solid start in the 1918 campaign. They opened with three consecutive wins over Ohio Wesleyan (41-0) and Denison (34-0).
However, the influenza epidemic put a halt to the season. On October 9, in an article titled “‘Big Ten’ Fixes Up New Schedule,” the Akron Beacon-Journal explained how new travel restrictions from the War Department, aimed at limiting the dangers of the influenza, would impact the football season.
“Football schedules of the ‘Big Ten’ were completely revised at a special meeting of the coaches and athletic directors (in Chicago) yesterday to conform with the war department ruling limiting the teams to two 48-hour trips next month. All games previously scheduled for October were canceled, so the western conference championship season will be entirely confined to November,” the paper wrote.
The Buckeyes had nearly a full month off between their October 12 win over Denison and their next game, a 56-0 home victory over Case on November 9.
The following week, OSU opened Big Ten play with a 13-0 loss at Illinois. It was their only road game of the season.
The Buckeyes then fell 14-3 to Wisconsin on November 23.
The original schedule called for them to play Michigan on Saturday, October 26. However, the newly-formed slate had the Buckeyes and Wolverines playing on Saturday, November 30 instead.
It was the first time in the history of the two programs that they met in the final game of the regular season.
Michigan came to Ohio Field that day with a 4-0 record, 1-0 in conference play.
The field was slick, and the teams played to a scoreless tie through three quarters. The Wolverines finally broke through in the fourth quarter, scoring first on special teams.
“Rife’s blocked punt from the two-yard line sailed back of State’s line, Goetz falling on the oval for six points,” reported the Dayton Daily News.
Michigan tacked on another score in the closing minutes to provide some insurance, as described again by the Daily News.
“With but about five minutes to play, a pretty forward pass, Steketee to Dunne, worked to perfection, the ball finding the waiting arms of Dunne while the latter was back of the line.”
The Wolverines won, 14-0, finishing the season as one of three unbeaten and untied schools in the league.
Ohio State and Michigan would not meet in the final game of the regular season again until 1935.