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OHIO STATE: ALONE AT THE TOP

Nov. 24, 1969
Nov. 24, 1969

Table of Contents
Nov. 24, 1969

Hot Hand
Ohio State
America's Cup
Sweety Cakes
College Football
People
Skiing
Kerlan
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

OHIO STATE: ALONE AT THE TOP

There may be some frivolous claims for Texas or Penn State, but anyone who saw the Buckeyes dismember Mike Phipps and Purdue last week knows that if you're looking for No. 1, Columbus is it

This is just the seed of an idea, gang, but you can go ahead and slap it on the side of your helmet with all those Buckeye leaves and see if it will stick. The deal is this. On New Year's Day when even Notre Dame is in a postseason football game for the first time in 45 years and when Texas and Penn State are struggling to present their cases for No.1, let's all go back out to gray, icy, contemptible old Columbus, Ohio and play us the game of the decade, which we would call the Woody Bowl. We'll take that Ohio State offense with Rex Kern all wound up and put it at one end of the field, and we'll take that Ohio State defense with Jack Tatum pawing at the turf—and by now wanted for manslaughter in Lafayette, Ind.—and put it at the other. And then on a signal like, say, the dropping of a few assorted No. 1 trophies at midfield, we'll let them come screaming at one another while we, being careful, somewhat like Purdue last week, press our forefingers to our ears and turn our heads away just before impact.

This is an article from the Nov. 24, 1969 issue Original Layout

It would be some crash, boy, but it might be the only way this dazed collegiate world of 1969 would ever find out what the best team in the country is. The other major undefeateds can howl all they wish but if the Buckeyes do it to Michigan this week they will be the national champions for the second year in a row—and what the college game will have on its hands is another of those dynasty things, one of those Oklahomas of the mid-1950s which won 4,000 straight games or something.

And the only question left will be this one about whether Ohio State's offense or defense is the more magnificent. There are these two teams out there in Columbus, you see, as most everybody in that disaster area once known as the Big Ten can tell you. There is the offense belonging to Quarterback Rex Kern and occasionally to Coach Woody Hayes—when Woody can get the plays in before Rex can call the snap. It is perhaps the only attack in the nation that makes a defense hear footsteps. It is an offense that rages for about 46 points a game and already is the highest-scoring team in Ohio State history even though the first unit wouldn't know a fourth quarter from chemistry lab.

And then there is the defense belonging to Cornerback Jack Tatum down on the field and Assistant Coach Lou McCullough up in the booth. This is a destruction outfit that encourages itinerant ballcarriers and pass receivers to slip down and crawl under the grass before the redshirts arrive, one that goes around limiting opponents to just over a touchdown per Saturday in an era when touchdowns are cheaper by the dozen.

All season long it has been impossible for Buckeye watchers, who travel in groups of 86,000, give or take an extra mackinaw, to decide which of the two units is more responsible for Ohio State's success or, as a matter of fact, which is the more fun to be awed by.

Last Saturday the Purdue game was supposed to furnish the big answer for everyone. Ohio State would be meeting a good team at last after seven consecutive rag dolls. Purdue was a 7-1 team averaging 37 points a game, a laughing conqueror of Notre Dame, a team with a devastating history of concocting upsets over No. 1s; indeed, a team led by the brilliance of Mike Phipps, who was merely the total offense leader of the U.S., perhaps the top draft choice of the pros and a very serious candidate for that coveted, oversized paperweight known as the Heisman Trophy.

Some answer. The game worked out pretty much the way Woody Hayes confidentially told a close friend it would. "You don't think our kids are gonna let this slip away from them now, do you?" he had said. That philosophy gradually worked its way around Columbus last week and everybody believed it to the point that when Purdue was discussed Buckeye fans would hold up five fingers and say, "We win by this—and I don't mean five points."

They were right, of course. It was about 70-7 in tone and 42-14 on the scoreboard, but it did nothing to settle the gnawing question about the relative stupendousness of those two separate teams that Ohio State has—Kern's and Tatum's. Both played out their roles as friskily as usual, knocking so many Purdue guys backwards and sometimes out you would have thought that Woody had scheduled Hanoi.

With Kern running, passing, faking, blocking and in spare moments looking around for concrete portals to run into, the offense got its usual quota of six touchdowns, four of them before the half, by which time the game was of course over. The 186-pound, 6' junior, who has one of those squinty-eyed expressions like the neighborhood prankster and always seems to be smiling, did everything so expertly he made most of his worshipers forget that their feet were frozen.

On a day when a lot of mistakes would have been excused because of the stadium's refrigeration, young Rex wrought not only those 42 points but some 436 yards in total offense as he personally ran for two touchdowns and hurled a 38-yard pass for another. He was so frenzied out there at times that he had the team racing out of the huddle and lining up before Hayes could shuttle in the call.

"Sometimes the plays from the bench ruin our momentum," Kern explained later. "We had 'em on the ropes and I wanted to get it in there."

Nor was the defense bothered by the cold, the 23 degrees and the 20-mile winds that forced Woody Hayes, who always wears shirtsleeves, to put on a jacket. The defense not only had the killing presence of Tatum—another of those boisterous juniors, roaming the secondary to make Purdue's receivers believe they were hearing the Chinese army marching down the Olentangy River Road—but it also had a lot of special tricks Lou McCullough had worked up for stopping Mike Phipps. It had floating zones, concealed man-for-mans and surprise blitzes, a variety of defensive innovations with such marvelous names as "Eddie Go" and "Cindy Crash." With it all, the Ohio defenders practically gave a daylong demonstration of how to set the passing game back to 1912.

Five interceptions it got. Three fumbles it got. A punt return for a touchdown it got. And a miserly 29 yards rushing it allowed poor old Purdue, which tried to use exactly what Ohio State figured it would try to use. "They'll send five men out," McCullough had said. "They'll try to catch us in double cover on the outs and hit us in the seams, and pretty much at 20 and 30 yards, but we'll be there. I might guess wrong with him a few times but maybe our kids can pick it up."

Much of the game nowadays is played upstairs in isolated booths. Up there a coach calls a play to the bench where another coach signals to the quarterback who takes it to the line and then uses it or an audible. Meanwhile, another coach calls a defense to the bench, which is signaled to the field, whereupon a defender uses it or changes it at the last second by hollering out such things as "Stay, stay," or "Go, go."

At Ohio State the defense is entirely in the mind and yelling of McCullough, a little Southerner who has been with Woody since 1963. Hayes almost never sees the defense, and there is this joke that he hardly knows the players' names. The last time he even spoke to Jack Tatum, the story goes, is when he was a freshman who one day returned a punt zigzag about 60 yards for a touchdown against the varsity, and Woody, on the verge of ripping up his cap or biting his wrist, or whatever he has been known to do out of the intensity that consumes him, went up to Tatum and said, "Son, at Ohio State we run straight for the goal line."

Well, it really might not matter whether Woody's offense or McCullough's defense is the more spectacular. They combine to make up one of the most imposing teams of any season, one that carries a 22-game winning streak into Michigan this week, one that has piled up 371 points in eight Saturdays and, just as important as anything, one that will lose only seven players out of the top 22 for 1970. Kern and Tatum and a lot of other fierce individuals will be back, which suggests that the only thing the Buckeyes have to fear in the immediate future is their preseason scrimmages.

This is such a good team, in fact, that one must pause for a moment and think about what it all means. First, there is this business of winning a second straight national title, which will come, either unanimously or in shares thereof, with a victory over Michigan. If it is pretty much unanimous, then that will not have been done since Bud Wilkinson's Sooners of 1955-56, the Tommy McDonald-Jerry Tubbs crowd.

Next, with so many Kerns and Tatums returning next season, one has to assume that the prospects are certainly bright for three in a row, which hasn't been accomplished since the Glenn Davis-Doc Blanchard forces at Army in the 1940s. Bright isn't a bad word for it. The Buckeyes open with such dandies in 1970 as Texas A & M and Duke and then they go into the sadly weakened Big Ten for the same staggering lineup of foes, except that improving Michigan and troublesome Minnesota must come to Columbus.

Woody felt, incidentally, that the Minnesota game (a paltry 34-7 victory) was this year's team letdown, but he likes to blame it on a Friday night movie. "The kids went to see that Easy Rider," he said, "and they were so depressed by it they didn't play well."

This becomes more amusing when one scans the Buckeye squad and notices all the deep sideburns, mustaches and shaggy hair, which Woody permits as a bit of an irony to his nature. Hayes may be an enthusiastic hawk, one who is returning to Vietnam this Christmas (for the fifth year in a row), but he is a realist who knows ballplayers have to stay happy. Happiness is winning with sideburns today. He has also avoided any problems with his black athletes, primarily by using them even when he shouldn't. Example: he started John Brockington at fullback once this year ahead of Jim Otis, his leading scorer and ground-gainer. Brockington was delighted and Otis was so annoyed he started running tougher than ever. Wily old Woody.

Another national championship this season would mean something special to this most cantankerous and yet fascinating of coaches. It would give him five such titles, tying him with people like Frank Leahy and Bernie Bierman as having the most ever—and it would put him safely and surprisingly up on a number of coaching geniuses like Bear Bryant, Knute Rockne and Wilkinson, who each won only three. And next year of course Woody would have a chance to make it six, given the good health of Rex Kern and Jack Tatum.

Kern was involved in three plays against Purdue that demonstrated precisely what kind of athlete he is. On one of them he proved he has as good an arm as anyone when he drifted back to throw that long touchdown pass to End Bruce Jankowski. The Purdue rush, big and tall, was bearing right into him, right there in his face, but Rex let sail a beauty that must have traveled 40 yards in the air and Jankowski never broke stride to take it between two defenders who were half a step late. This was the play that made the score 28-0, a runaway, for it also proved not only to Purdue but to the national television audience that Ohio State can beat you every way there is.

Kern does a lot of running on intentional option keeps but he rambles just as well when he darts out of a passing pocket and improvises. Doing both he got nearly 100 yards on the Boilermakers, but he gave back a whole bunch of it the one time the Purdue rush trapped him. Anyhow, there was this one special time when Rex came out of the pocket and steamed upfield and hurled himself headlong into a clutch of defenders. It took one of them a couple of moments to get up while Rex bounded back to the huddle clapping his hands.

The other time when Kern showed what kind of iron framework he has was when he unleashed a long incompletion under another furious rush. The instant the ball left his hand a big Purdue end, Bill McKoy, who happens to be 6'4", 230 and mean, popped him so hard Kern did an absolute backward flip and sort of skidded to a halt. At first it looked as if several things had been broken because Rex held his chest and moved slowly. In a minute, however, he was running as fanatically as ever, looking for somebody to hit.

Although he has splendid help from players like Otis and Leo Hayden and Larry Zelina, Kern is the player who gives Ohio State a great attack, just as Jack Tatum stands out among Lou McCullough's glittering array of defenders, which include the nose guard Jim Still-wagon, the other stars in the secondary such as Mike Sensibaugh, Ted Provost and Tim Anderson and Linebacker Phil Strickland. All of their headgear are littered with those leafy decals for valor. Buckeye leaves. They get them all kinds of ways, and as many as 42 have been awarded in a single game. They wear them only on the right, which may or may not have any significance.

The unfortunate thing about this Ohio State team, as we all know, is that it has no place to go on New Year's Day. Woody has said that if—if, he stresses—his team winds up No. 1, it will be a shame to hide it, this being the centennial year of college football. He would go back to the Rose Bowl if the Big Ten would waive the no-repeat rule, or he would even go somewhere else to play Texas or whoever winds up No. 2. The chance remains slim, however, that the Big Ten faculty representatives will permit it. College football might be 100 years old, but books and lectures are older.

And anyhow, it might not be so bad to spend the holidays the way Halfback Larry Zelina expects to spend them in Ohio.

"It might be kind of fun to sit by the fire on New Year's Day and watch all the games," Zelina said. "Knowing you're No. 1."

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Showing what he does best, Kern starts what might be a pass but probably will be a run.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Kern's wizardry bedeviled Purdue all day. Here he hands off to Hayden (22). Or does he?PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Jim Teal (49) and Bill Yanchar converge to stop Hayden, but Kern has kept the ball.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.As Hayden is wrestled to earth by deluded defense, Kern skirts end in relative privacy.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Jack Tatum (32), a lion on defense and the cause of many Purdue incompletions, stalks a fallen Stan Brown as the ball rolls loose.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Dueling for a Phipps pass, Mike Sensibaugh outpositions Ashley Bell.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Sensibaugh wins the battle, one of five State interceptions.THREE PHOTOSWALTER IOOSS JR.Hurried, Phipps gets the ball away but takes a helmet in the stomach in return. The day was so icy it caused Woody Hayes to break with tradition and don a jacket while a Purdue cheerleader huddled in double misery.