It was, perhaps, almost too melodramatic. There was husky Abe Woodson, the high hurdler who just missed the Olympic squad, rocketing down the field in the last period with what could be the winning touchdown for downtrodden Illinois against mighty Michigan State. And there was the last enemy defender driving hard and low for the game-saving tackle at midfield.
Head level and body erect, Woodson did what came naturally: he hurdled. Ingloriously, the enemy sprawled on the turf. When Woodson alighted there was no one between him and an improbable, magnificent upset for Illinois, 20-13.
When 71,119 ecstatically bellowing Illinois homecomers stood up and let loose a cheer that must have carried all the way to Melbourne, his teammates had to help Woodson off the field. He had run too far, too fast, too often. His hurdling sprint covered 82 yards. Minutes before, with Illinois trailing 13 to 6, he had dashed 70 yards to tie the score, and in the third quarter he had scored Illinois' first touchdown on a two-yard dive. In all, he gained 198 yards against the top-ranked team in the nation.
Plagued by butterfingers and injuries (key Halfback Clarence Peaks went out with a bad knee early in the second half), State never did roll against a team that had lost three of its first four games. "They deserved to win," MSU Coach Duffy Daugherty said quietly after Woodson had smashed State's undefeated record. "They played inspired, determined football."
November 5, 1956
But Illinois was not the only Big Ten team that was arranging upsets and hurdles last Saturday. Before he sent his underdog Minnesota team out to play Michigan, Coach Murray Warmath had a man-to-men chat with his team about the lush oasis that lay at the end of the rugged Big Ten schedule: the Rose Bowl. "We talked it over," said Warmath, "and we decided we had to hurdle Michigan to be considered for the Rose Bowl. If we didn't make the hurdle, we didn't deserve to go."
It was a fine day for hurdling—balmy and blue and so sunny that the Michigan homecoming crowd of 84,639 bought eyeshades, and Minnesota's six male cheerleaders showed up in immaculate white Bermuda shorts. Early in the second period Michigan Halfback Terry Barr sliced 16 yards to cap a 92-yard drive and put the Wolverines in front. But Barr was limping when he came back to the huddle, so Coach Bennie Oosterbaan yanked him for good. With Barr went the Michigan offense and, as it turned out, the ball game.
In the second half Minnesota caught a heady whiff of roses. Banging away at the Michigan line from tackle to tackle like a nearsighted dentist looking for a cavity, Minnesota Quarterback Bobby Cox coolly directed his crunching split-T attack to three touchdowns. Cox bothered to pass only once in that second half (it was incomplete) and the Michigan defense soon looked like a crap game: 11 men huddled around the ball, all leaning toward the center.
It did no good. Minnesota hustled out of each huddle so fast that Michigan's shifting, stunting defenses never got set. "The tactic was disconcertingly effective," admitted Oosterbaan after the game. Cox, a confident, 22-year-old transfer from the University of Washington, made two of the three touchdowns himself, the last on a deft improvisation with the ball on the Michigan seven. Cox called a handoff to Right Half Bob Schultz, but when he came down the line to give up the ball he found Schultz heading for a nest of tacklers. Without breaking stride Cox ducked around Schultz and wiggled through the line a step farther out for the touchdown. "If I made it, I was a hero," Cox chuckled later. "If I missed it, I was a bum." Final score: Minnesota 20, Michigan 7.
When Cox and Woodson had finished their afternoon's work, the Big Ten was thoroughly scrambled. There really are two separate races going on in the league, one for the championship and one for the Rose Bowl. Neither of the two preseason favorites for the championship—Ohio State and Michigan State—can go to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State is on probation and Michigan State went last year. Michigan, despite its loss to Michigan State, was favored for the Pasadena trip, and Michigan State was favored over Ohio State for the championship because of a slightly easier schedule.
Ohio State is still in good shape, but Michigan State is taking water and Michigan, with two league losses, appears to be out of Rose Bowl contention. Instead, the leading bowl contenders are two teams that were shrugged off as have-nots before the season: undefeated Iowa, which squeaked past Purdue 21 to 20, and undefeated Minnesota, which was tied earlier by Northwestern. Iowa and Minnesota meet on Nov. 10 in the key game of the midwestern season. However, Iowa must also play Michigan and Ohio State, and Minnesota meets Michigan State. For both teams the road to the Rose Bowl is all uphill.
Both Iowa and Minnesota are also fighting for the Big Ten championship, of course, but a lot of smart money is backing Ohio State, a team that generally gets better as the season goes on—and is plenty good right now. By crushing Wisconsin last Saturday 20-0, OSU won its 15th straight league game, thereby tying a league record. OSU must play four more league games, including Iowa and Michigan, but looks strong enough to take them all and accomplish something no other Big Ten team has ever done: win three championships in a row. Michigan State could easily win its three remaining conference games, including its meeting with Minnesota, but can catch OSU only if Coach Woody Hayes's behemoths come a cropper.
In short, the Big Ten has three excellent teams—Ohio State, Minnesota and Michigan State—and three very good ones, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois. The question of what they will do to each other for the rest of the season both confounds and delights any midwestern football fan. He is certain of only one thing: in the last half of the season the best football in the country will be played in his backyard.
Play went according to form for the most part in the smaller midwestern conferences. Miami of Ohio and Bowling Green stayed undefeated in the Mid-American race, Miami beating Kent State 14-0 and Bowling Green turning back Marshall 34-12. St. Joseph's clinched at least a tie for the Indiana Collegiate Conference title as Norb Daigle made 111 yards in 17 carries and Ray Anary got 108 in 11 for a 29-0 blanking of Evansville. Cornell College of Iowa celebrated its 66th homecoming 28-13 over Grinnell in the Midwest Conference race, which is led by Carleton, 19-0 victor over Lawrence. Bill Engelhardt, entering the game as the national small-college total-offense leader, threw touchdown passes of 35 yards to John Semino and nine yards to Bob Wheeler as Omaha beat Northern Illinois 12-0 in a non-conference clash, and Cincinnati lengthened Marquette's losing streak 33 to 13.
THE ILLINI SCREEN
Football manikins, introduced for the first time last week, here demonstrate the play which sealed the biggest upset of a football Saturday loaded with surprises. This is the screen pass which Illinois used to break Hurdle Champion Abe Woodson loose for 82 yards and the winning touchdown against Michigan State, rated the No. 1 team in the nation until Woodson staggered across the goal line on this wonderful gamble by sophomore Quarterback Bill Offenbecher. The play started from the Illini 18. Michigan State had just tried a field goal from the 34, and Woodson, camped beneath the goal posts, ran the short kick out. On the first play from scrimmage, Offenbecher called this screen. Woodson (40), at right half, blocked the Michigan State left end briefly, then slid out into the right flat zone. The Illinois center (52), right guard (76) and right tackle (90) blocked for three quick counts, then swung wide to the right to set the screen in front of Woodson. Offenbecher (14) had first faked a pass to his hooking ends to bring the defense in a bit, then fell away from the unhampered rush of the Michigan State linemen. Just before they reached him, he lobbed a short pass over their heads to the waiting Woodson, who took off down the right sideline, convoyed by the screen of three linemen. Woodson went about 15 yards down the right sideline, then cut across field at the Illinois 35-yard line, threading his way down the left sideline when he turned goalward again. Art Johnson (30), deepest man in the Michigan State secondary, tried desperately to pin the fleet Woodson at the State 30-yard line, but Woodson, who has twice tied the world 50-yard high hurdle record and ran fourth in the trials for this year's Olympic team, cleared Johnson (see picture, far right) as neatly as he ever cleared a hurdle and hurried on for the touchdown. It was a perfect play.
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