NEVER TOO LATE FOR THE SOONERS

In a wild and sometimes woefully inept affray, Oklahoma lost a 20-point lead and its flashy backs lost the ball four times, but it was Ohio State that lost the game on a last-gasp field goal
October 02, 1977

On the Oklahoma sideline Barry Switzer is laughing. Why is Barry Switzer laughing? With six seconds to play. Switzer's team is losing to Ohio State 28-26. The game is in Columbus. Ohio, where, as one Oklahoma coach observed respectfully, even the stadium looks like Woody Hayes—wide and old and menacing. The 88,119 spectators, mostly Ohio State fans, are invoking Woody's wrath on the Sooners, on whom at this desperate moment the sky appears to be falling as well. That sky is bloated with rain and gray as wet aluminum. Switzer's matted blond hair and laughing face stand out.

So, on the field, does the lank and limby and somewhat incongruous figure of the Oklahoma placekicker, standing apart from the huddled Sooners at about the Ohio State 35. The kicker is a 21-year-old with a Smiling Jack mustache. His name is Uwe von Schamann but his teammates call him "Von Foot." As the last chance the Sooners have, Von Foot is being encouraged by the Buckeye fans to grab his own throat. "Block that kick! Block that kick!" they scream. Ohio State has called a just-before-the-kick time out in order to get this encouragement going and to give Von Foot additional time to think about the enormity of his task. Von Foot is not choking, however. In mock orchestration, he is leading the Ohio State cheer, his arms upraised and his forefingers flourishing.

And Switzer, laughing out loud in a giddy release of tension, says to his assistants on the Oklahoma sideline, "What the hell are we doing in this profession?"

The record will show that Uwe (pronounced YOO-va) Von Foot von Schamann then soccered a 41-yard field goal through that immense volume of low atmosphere and high pressure. The record will not show that it was a statement made as emphatically as a cop ringing a doorbell, a booming, authoritative kick, high and far and dead-center true, winning the game for Oklahoma with three seconds to spare. Switzer kissed Von Foot when he came off the field. A sentimentalist, Barry.

What might be made of such an ending—besides reaffirming that what Switzer is doing in this profession is standing it on its ear, having now won 44 of 49 games in just four seasons and three games as the Sooners' head coach—is that this first-ever meeting of the two winningest teams in the past quarter century of college football had a significance, a meaning beyond the score. A triumph, say, of Youth and Loose over Age and Uptight.

Switzer is 38, Hayes is 64, and they make the oddest of couplings. Hayes, an almost Caesarean figure, does not give interviews, he grants audiences. Though a charming and thoughtful conversationalist. Woody automatically veers off when talk wanders too close to the intimate workings of his football team (injuries, game plans, other classified stuff). By contrast, on Friday night in Columbus. Switzer and his defensive coordinator, Larry Lacewell, were among the last to leave a pregame party at John Gal-breath's Darby Dan Farm. (Hayes had made a brief but impressive talk in which he said "winning is the epitome of honesty," and slipped away.)

The game itself was certainly no vindication of one system or style over another. It was, rather, a hair-raising example of what only too rarely happens when you get a lot of good players on one field at one time, on teams contending for the national championship but having to cope with breaks and twists of fortune so violent that it is impossible to play conservatively.

It was a contest both marvelously played and exquisitely flawed (eight turnovers, six by Oklahoma). It was a bruising, helmet-rattling (not to mention body-injuring, for six Sooner and Buckeye regulars went down during the course of play) blockbuster of a game filled with flashes of inspiring resourcefulness and incredible bungling. It was a game neither team should have lost. Or won.

Different, that's what it was. Different because Oklahoma is different. (No, Oklahoma is wild.) And Ohio State is different. Ohio State? Different? Ah, you'd be surprised.

"All football coaches are pragmatists," Hayes said on Friday, sitting quietly and alone in a classroom where he teaches his freshman players "word power" (from a book, Word Power Made Easy, by Norman Lewis). "They go with what works." What Hayes is working on this year is an expanded offense that makes exciting use of the skillful Rod Gerald at quarterback. And pragmatically compensates for the fact that the Buckeyes do not have the traditional 2½-ton truck that usually lines up at fullback for them. It did not take Oklahoma by surprise, but Ohio State ran option plays three out of four times Saturday and looked competent—even nifty—doing it.

Neither does Hayes rip out the headphones any more when George Chaump, his offensive coordinator, calls a pass from the press box, because even Woody thinks Gerald can throw. There is still no power word in Hayes' book for "often," however, and while a dozen passes were called, only six were actually launched by Gerald and his backup, Greg Castignola. The first four (by Gerald) were incomplete; the last two, by Castignola, were caught, one for a touchdown. There is no telling how much more success (if you want to call it that) Ohio State would have had throwing had it dared to be so radical. Oklahoma, under Lacewell, plays a stunting gambling style of defense, and Lacewell virtually conceded the Buckeyes the forward pass. "If Ohio State wants to pass, let them," he said. "Maybe they'll throw it in the ground."

One still got the impression the ball was flying around all afternoon. It was. Only it wasn't being passed. Mainly it was being fumbled by Oklahoma. "We need a new category for statistics," says Lacewell. "Pitchouts attempted and pitchouts completed."

Even Switzer jokes about it because, though they don't always hold on to the ball, the Sooners have, in Quarterback Thomas Lott and Running Backs Billy Sims, Elvis Peacock and Kenny King, perhaps the fastest backfield that ever lined up. "But 24 fumbles in three games, and we lose 17 of 'em," says Switzer. "And still we're 3-0. It's unbelievable."

What makes it even more astonishing is that Lacewell's—not to say Oklahoma's—pride and joy, the Sooner defense, lost its blood scent. Or, more accurately, its bloodlines. Suddenly last season Lacewell had to learn to live without the Selmons and the Shoates and the Jimbo Elrods and the other All-Americas of past championship teams. The Sooner defense went limp. In a game with Colorado, Switzer got on the headphones to Lacewell. "He'd never called me before," Lacewell recalls. "He always left me alone. But Colorado was marching up and down the field. He said, 'Lacewell, can't we do something to slow them down?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Oh.' "

Things haven't gotten much better this season. Before the game in Columbus, Lacewell speculated that Ohio State coaches seeing films of Oklahoma's first two games with Vanderbilt (a 23-point yield) and Utah (24) would have been hard put to find an area they wouldn't want to attack.

Having established Oklahoma as a team that a) fumbles, b) passes poorly and c) plays defense with a kind of creeping neurosis, but d) wins, one is required to add to the assessment the effect that Switzer's personality has had on the team. After successive big-score losses to Oklahoma State and Colorado last year, Lacewell was stunned to hear Switzer tell the squad, "We got 'em right where we want 'em." Which proved to be the case. The Sooners whipped Kansas State, then Missouri and the following week they dumped Nebraska 20-17.

Against Ohio State, much as they did in beating Nebraska with last-minute thunderbolts in 1976, the Sooners experienced a transformation. Trailing 28-20 with six minutes-plus to play, when fumbling could no longer be tolerated, Oklahoma did not fumble. When crucial passing was called for, the Sooners passed adeptly. And when the defense positively had no choice, it rose up.

The game in Columbus was played virtually on one end—the downwind end—of the field. Going up to his press-box seat beforehand, Ohio State's Chaump watched the 20-mph gusts whip trash upfield from the south end zone. "I'd rather it rain," he said soberly.

What Chaump meant was that Ohio State no longer has the strong kicking game that becomes essential in bad weather. Oklahoma, on the other hand, had Von Foot, who also punts. Oklahoma won the toss and chose to kick off with the wind. Von Foot put the ball out of the end zone. His first four kicks landed in the same general area. Ohio State never got to run one of them back.

The Buckeyes did not get beyond their 29-yard line in the first quarter, and by the time the teams changed goals Oklahoma, striking swiftly, had accumulated 17 points largely as a result of the spectacular, hurdling runs of Sims and Lott's counters to the strong side. For the next two periods Ohio State played with the wind at its back. Von Foot had scored the only points that were to be made in the south end zone early in the second quarter on a 33-yard field goal to make it 20-0. Then it was the Buckeyes' turn. An 80-yard drive and the deficit dropped to 20-7. A fumble recovery on the Oklahoma 19, and a Gerald option run inside right end, and it was 20-14.

Ohio State squandered three more chances after Oklahoma turnovers on the Sooner 20-, 33- and 23-yard lines but then drove 48 yards after a third-down quick kick into the wind by Peacock to go ahead 21-20. Shortly afterward a Sooner pass by No. 2 Quarterback Dean Blevins was intercepted at the Oklahoma 33, and Ohio State moved in on Castignola's touchdown pass to make it 28-20.

From that point on, stress worked a miracle cure. The Sooners never made another mistake. Actually, the defense had played well from late in the second quarter, victim only of the offense's largesse (mostly life-or-death pitchouts). The Sooners sought to force Gerald to keep the ball, not because they thought he could not hurt them but because they thought he should be tested. "A matter," said Lacewell, "of chosing your poison."

As it developed, Gerald was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter and spent the rest of the afternoon embracing an icepack. Before that, Linebacker Daryl Hunt had played a tune on him. Hunt's responsibility on the option was Gerald alone. The first time he got to him, after the ends had sealed off the outside pitch and left Gerald to go it alone inside. Hunt whacked him solidly and stripped him of the ball. "It's going to be like that all day," Hunt told Gerald as he helped him up.

In the fourth quarter the wind was again in Oklahoma's sails, and Blevins was at quarterback for the last, breathtaking rally. (Oklahoma's Lott, like Ohio State's Gerald, had been put out of the game with an injury.) On third down at the Oklahoma 46, Castignola was walloped successively by stunting Tackles Dave Hudgens and Phil Tabor. The ball popped free. Middle Guard Reggie Kinlaw, the best of the "new" Oklahoma defenders, came under the stunt to recover it at the Ohio State 43.

Oklahoma scored in 12 plays. Blevins, who had been booed to tears in the opener with Vanderbilt when he started in place of the injured Lott, passed 10 yards to Split End Steve Rhodes for the mover. Then, on a fourth-down play at the Ohio State 12, Blevins kept the Sooners' hopes alive by staggering the cadence on his count, drawing Middle Guard Aaron Brown offside. The play was stacked up, but the penalty gave Oklahoma a first down at the seven. Peacock scored on a fourth-down option from a yard and a half out but couldn't get in on the two-point conversion and it was 28-26.

Von Schamann's ensuing onside kick may have been anticipated by everybody in the stadium, but it was perfectly executed. Von Schamann sliced the ball hard off a Buckeye in the front line—a back inserted to improve the chances of fielding the predictable kick—and the ball caromed free just over the 50. Mike Babb dived on it for Oklahoma.

On first down Blevins got man-to-man coverage again on Rhodes and hit him for 18 yards to the Buckeye 32. From there he worked carefully on the inside legs of the option, deliberately keeping to the middle of the field and working the clock down. With six seconds to play, the ball was on the 23, and Von Foot was ushered into the game.

At that moment, Switzer was asked, could he explain what caused him to suddenly laugh out loud? Probably not. But Larry Lacewell could. Old Barry had 'em where he wanted 'em.

TWO PHOTOSBefore his kick that beat the Buckeyes 29-28, von Schamann (right) coolly looked over the crowd in Columbus, then conducted its "Block that kick" chant. PHOTOOhio State was jubilant at recovering yet another fumble, but didn't capitalize on enough Sooner gifts. PHOTOPeacock made a fan out of Coach Barry Switzer by strutting for a pair of Oklahoma touchdowns.
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