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Former Ohio defensive back Dion Byrum helped change the culture of Ohio football with an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown as Ohio beat Pittsburgh in the 2005 home opener on national television. Ohio has played in four bowl games since, and won its first postseason game since 1968 this Decemeber at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. (Scott Gardner | Ohio Athletics)

Football: Famous interception marks conception of Ohio football success

Ohio cornerback Dion Byrum read Pittsburgh quarterback Tyler Palko’s eyes, and then instinct took over. The result was Byrum’s second interception of the game and an 85-yard score to hand the Bobcats their first win of the 2005 season.

With that play, the direction of Ohio football changed significantly: The Bobcats defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers, who started the season ranked 23rd nationally, and Frank Solich celebrated his first win as Ohio head coach in front of a record crowd at Peden Stadium.

 “It was a passing situation and just like I trained myself, I saw the (three-step drop), Palko planted his feet, arm came up and he did it twice and I got him twice,” said Byrum, who accounted for both of Ohio’s touchdowns that day.

The game marked the first time Ohio had been on national television since 1969. After winning four games in Frank Solich’s first year in Athens, the Bobcats rebounded with nine wins and a trip to the GMAC Bowl the following season — their first postseason contest since 1968. After faltering the next two years and winning a combined ten games, Ohio has played in three straight bowl games since then.

The pick by Byrum gave Ohio more than a win against a prominent team, and made the nation take notice.

Assistant athletic director for Football Operations Jason Grooms said several factors contributed to Ohio’s current direction under Solich and said Byrum helped build the foundation.  

“Dion doing that in those two plays on national television — we had never hosted a national televised game from Peden,” Grooms said. “In doing it in that type of fashion, definitely made Ohio University more of a household name than it had been in previous years.”

Since that game, the Bobcats have been on national television 30 times not including games broadcast on or other regional sports networks.

The game drew a rating of 1.6, which equals 1,401,080 households. The game was the second highest rated game of the week on ESPN and ESPN2 and the game ranked among the top-15 most viewed regular season college football telecasts on ESPN2 for that year.

Grooms said having the game on ESPN was huge for the university, and some of the production crew from that game still comes back to Athens.

Byrum said he wasn’t sure if his play contributed to the program’s success in the future and despite his big game, he said he couldn’t take all the credit.

“A lot of guys that I played with say I contributed to that and I’m the one that got it going,” Byrum said. “I really don’t know, that’s all behind the scenes stuff that I don’t know if I played a part in it or not,” Byrum said.

Former Ohio linebacker Noah Keller said the direction of the program is a testament to coach Solich and his staff, and the Byrum play was icing on the cake.

“I think it all kind of started with coach Solich,” Keller said. “He definitely had a name for himself as a coach, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it kind of drew national attention in the first place and some individuals stepped up and made some plays just like Dion did.”

Ohio radio color commentator Rob Cornelius said Byrum’s play laid the groundwork for the coming years of the program. He added that Solich instilled confidence in his players — something the team lacked under previous coaches.

“Under Solich, you had a corner who wasn’t afraid to jump around even though there was nobody behind him,” he said. “It was a gutsy play and symbolized the confidence these guys had under Frank Solich.”

Ohio defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow said the game helped launch the coaching staff’s mission.

“To win that game with an interception in overtime I think set the tone for really what we’ve been able to accomplish since coach Solich has been here,” Burrow said. “I think it gave our football team confidence that they could win. It gave our fans optimism and excitement about the future and could go down as the greatest play in Ohio University football history.”

After the game, Solich got a call from Charlie Weis, then the head coach at Notre Dame. Weis said he didn’t know where Athens was but said he was celebrating with his son after they won.

“More than anything else the publicity it brought us because it was ESPN top ten so OU’s name kept showing up on ESPN over and over again,” Grooms said.

“So the notoriety that came to the university from it, definitely you can’t really gauge it but it was substantial and in the recruiting process it helps kids relate to the school because they saw that play.”

“Solich really came through he turned the programs around, Byrum said. “He added on to the football facility and the training program and he got Ohio University at the level it needs to be to compete with other colleges out here.”

“I can’t sit here and say it was all me,” Byrum said. “I think we were the only game that was on that first Thursday of football season, so it just happened to work out, Solich’s first football game as the head coach of Ohio University, I ended up making the plays that I made on TV and I’m not going to say it was all me, we worked together and it paid off.

“I’d say that’s definitely probably our biggest football upset that I can recall and anytime you have a big highlight play like that where it will get shown again and again for a program where we were at the time I think there’s nothing but good that can come from having it be on national TV.”

Former quarterback Austen Everson, who threw for 112 yards in the game, called it perfect storm with a new coach, a new staff and a big name opponent coming to town.

“I think it was a perfect storm, Everson said. ”For the players, we didn’t necessarily know what it was like to have marquee wins so it was kinda one of those skin of your teeth kind of things where you’re just learning as you’re going and kind of a launching point for some success we had over the next couple years I think.”

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