Things were so much simpler when it was the Big Two and the Little Eight. Late each November you could find out all you needed to know about the Big Ten by watching Ohio State and Michigan have at one another like a couple of angry elephants, and that was that. But now.... Now that Iowa has gone to the Rose Bowl, now that Northwestern is next to unbeatable, now that the conference is the Big Ten again, the old and the new keep getting mixed up and everybody's a little confused.
Take last Saturday's game between Ohio State and Illinois. The Mini (5-1) were favored by 5½ over the Buckeyes (2-3), losers of three straight games for only the fifth time in this century, an accomplishment that had Coach Earle Bruce looking over his shoulder. Illinois favored? Ohio State a doormat? What in the name of Wayne Woodrow Hayes was going on here? What were 73,488 fans—the largest crowd in Memorial Stadium in 36 years—doing there in old Champaign-Urbana? What's that? The mailing address is Urbana-Champaign? Why, they even changed the name of the place!
Not only that, but the Illini and Buckeyes unveiled a new kind of football game Saturday afternoon: best two out of three falls. Things are really different in the Big Ten these days. In the first round, which went about 38 minutes, old Ohio State, with its 248-pound classic tank of a fullback, Vaughn Broadnax, leading the way for Tailback Tim Spencer, beat up an old Illinois in the traditional way. And the Buckeyes got ahead even with freshman Kicker Rich Spangler missing three easy field goals. There were also four passes from sophomore Quarterback Mike Tomczak to his veteran receivers which, had they been caught, could have made the field-goal attempts unnecessary. As it was, the first two Buckeye TDs during this span came more as a result of lax Illini defense than any indomitable Ohio State charge. One was a 74-yard Tomczak-to-Cedric Anderson pass and run, the other a 44-yard right-end sweep by Spencer—who gained 151 yards on the day. Score the round Ohio State 21, Illinois 7.
In the second round, about 18 minutes long, new Illinois, with its California golden boy Quarterback Tony Eason, Champaign Tony, loosened up and throwing on three of every five downs—his 25 completions in 44 attempts for 284 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon were right around his season's average—made new Ohio State look just as bad as Wisconsin, Florida State and Stanford had made the Buckeyes look in the previous three weeks. In hooking up with Mike Martin for a touchdown (the one in the first round) and with Kirby Wilson for another and then executing a brilliantly set-up three-play TD drive on the ground against Ohio State's thoroughly confused 3-8 defense, Eason gave the homecoming crowd all that it expected—or almost all.
The combatants were now locked in a 21-21 tie, and it looked like another chorus of bye-bye Brucie would be sung back in Columbus when Illinois Safety Dave Edwards intercepted a Tomczak pass at the Ohio State 41 midway through the fourth quarter. This time, though, Eason could not advance the ball. That hardly seemed to matter as barefoot Illini Mike Bass's 56-yard field-goal attempt with 5:56 left went soaring toward its mark. "If I had kicked it from five yards farther back [that would have been 61 yards!] it would've drifted through," said Bass. As it happened, the ball collided with the right upright, and bounced the wrong way for Illinois. Score the round Illinois 14, Ohio State 0.
In the third and deciding round, taking up all but three seconds of the final 3:52, the best of the old and the new Ohio State combined for a 14-play, 69-yard drive against the best defense that the new Illinois could put up. That march ended with a 27-yard field goal by Spangler, and that turned out to be the game-winner. Illini Coach Mike White, who with his team in the conference driver's seat (4-0) had been quite prepared to accept a tie, watched his defense being picked apart. Here was Tomczak, a beleaguered quarterback of a beleaguered team—a 36% passer going into the game—making like Art Schlichter, whose graduation last spring has been, almost by itself, the reason for this season's Buckeye downfall. "The coaches told us they had quarterback problems," said Illinois Safety Charles Armstead, "but Tomczak kept finding all our seams."
Seemed like old times—at least the score did—with Ohio State winning 26-21, the extra two points coming on a safety when Eason was tackled in his own end zone on the game's final play.
Bruce tried to act like all was well again, but his was a thin smile. Had he won? Or had he just saved himself for another week? "We're Ohio State," he said, "and we travel well." What? That hardly sets the Buckeyes apart from the Ringling Brothers Circus, which also travels well.
"I can't tell you the problem because we can't pinpoint it," Bruce had said during a week of Hayesian-style closed practices. "I'll tell you this, though, some of our fans could use a few lessons in manners." Bruce was referring to the many instances of booing in Ohio Stadium in recent weeks, and the chanting of "We Want Woody!"—can't imagine why—while the Bucks were dropping those three in a row. The most crushing loss of all was the first one, 23-20 to Stanford, which could easily have been blamed—and generally was—on the now infamous Bruce's Boner. Bruce called for a pass play on second-and-12 with the Buckeyes holding a 20-16 lead and 1:38 remaining. What three things can happen when you pass? How many of them are bad? If Woody said it once.... Sure enough, Stanford intercepted, and Quarterback John Elway led the Cardinal to the winning touchdown. "One more loss and it was going to be lynch Earle time," said Ohio State Lantern Sports Editor Mike Pramik. Plans were under way for a massive campus protest march. A protest march against the Ohio State football coach! Woody would have put down that idea with the Ohio National Guard.
Bruce was hardly a beloved figure in Columbus even before this year's disaster, despite three fine seasons: 11-0 before a Rose Bowl loss to USC in 1979, his rookie season in Columbus after six years at Iowa State; and 9-3 in both '80 and '81. It's not that Bruce isn't enough like Woody—who could be? It's just that Bruce is, well, no fun. Many coaches keep tight rein on their players, but Bruce goes farther than that. Players aren't allowed to talk to the press if they haven't played. When Tomczak's confidence needed shoring up after the Stanford interception, instead he was benched in favor of junior Brent Offenbecher, who hadn't played a down for the Buckeyes and who threw four interceptions in the losses to Florida State (34-17) and Big Ten rival Wisconsin (6-0).
It was all too obvious that the Buckeyes missed Schlichter terribly. What happened to the four great quarterbacks Bruce had recruited to replace him? One Columbus reporter wanted to find out and asked permission to interview Tomczak and Offenbecher, plus freshman Jim Karsatos, a big California passer, and junior Tim Stephens. Bruce blew up. The reporter could talk with the two who had played, but not with Karsatos or Stephens. "They have nothing to say," said Bruce. "They're not news yet. They'll be news when they play."
But the news is the quarterback situation because, other than Schlichter, virtually everyone else is back from Bruce's 9-3 teams. Schlichter was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts, and before the NFL strike, he was playing backup to fellow rookie Mike Pagel of Arizona State. Though Schlichter has never acknowledged it publicly, people close to the Buckeyes say there was a constant struggle between Bruce and the quarterback.
"When Woody recruited him, he promised to build the offense around Arthur's talents," said Schlichter's father, Max, last week. "When Earle came in, that went out the window. The offense isn't built around the quarterback at Ohio State."
What's wrong, then, with the Buckeyes? "There are a lot of starters back," said Max. "Draw your own conclusions." In case you have trouble: "It's obvious they miss Arthur more than they thought they would."
Was, or is, Bruce's job in trouble? No one in the Buckeye hierarchy would say yes last week, but no one would come forth with a vote of confidence, either. For his part, Bruce said, "There's always a lot of pressure when you've lost three in a row in Columbus, Ohio." Only he would know, because in the 92 years of Buckeye football, Bruce's winless streak on consecutive Saturdays at home is unique.
White was naturally concerned about facing Ohio State after the Buckeyes' three straight losses. He hadn't beaten Ohio State in his two previous seasons at Illinois, but in the '80 game Dave Wilson, the first of White's California junior college-bred quarterbacks, threw for an NCAA-record 621 yards and got a standing ovation at Columbus. "That really told the Big Ten and the country who we were and what kind of football they should be expecting out of us," says White.
White, 46, a fast-talking, young-looking Californian, was a protégé of John Ralston at Stanford, a Bill Walsh assistant with the San Francisco 49ers and head coach at Cal. And what he brought to Illinois and the Big Ten was the wide-open passing offense he had learned in the wild west, along with a cadre of California J.C. transfers to run it. "Now wait a minute," says White, somewhat defensively. "I didn't just drive a truck in here filled with jukes." But that is precisely what he did. Along with tough Chicago kids—like Tackle Mark Butkus, nephew of Chicago Bear Hall of Fame Middle Linebacker Dick—came 20 California flashes from such bastions of higher education as Pasadena City College, Los Angeles Harbor J.C., Long Beach C.C. Let the Illinois boys do some line work and headhunting; let the California kids do the throwing, and catching; let the Big Ten do all the griping it wanted. That was White's feeling.
And indeed the Big Ten struck back. Right away it jumped all over Illinois, questioning the matter of Wilson's eligibility, combing through transcripts. The conference said Wilson would have to sit out for a year. Wilson said the heck with that, filed suit and got a court injunction that allowed him to play. The Big Ten retaliated by slapping the Illini with three years' probation, a two-year ban on postseason play for all men's teams and the withholding of all conference TV revenue for two years (a sum of more than $1 million). Illinois appealed. Later the penalties were reduced to two years' probation, with the provision that it could be cut to one year for good behavior (it was), a one-year ban on bowl appearances and the withholding of TV revenues for a year.
Some of the newer coaches in the conference liked White's moxie, though. During the Wilson ordeal, Iowa's Hayden Fry, who had polished his skills at North Texas State and SMU before coming to Iowa in 1979, told White he was sorry and he hoped things would work out for Wilson. Says Fry, "Mike said, 'That's okay, Hayden, because I have a guy redshirted who can throw the ball better than Wilson.' I thought he was crazier than hell."
That redshirt turned out to be Eason, whom White had signed out of American River, a junior college located in Sacramento.
Champaign Tony. You expect, perhaps, to find a tall, dark and suave youth. What you get is Dennis the Menace with brains. "What am I supposed to look like?" he asks innocently. And then, after the game, just as innocently, he says, "Everything I saw on film Ohio State did. We tried to mix them up with some running in the second half and it worked, but when we had to move the ball for the winning score we just couldn't do it. They were playing six and seven defensive backs. I don't know, I really thought we could win it."
The quarterback was indeed the story on Saturday, but instead of Champaign Tony, it turned out to be Ohio State's baby-faced Tomczak—14 of 34, 247 yards, his best game ever—who directed the winning drive. "Art [Schlichter] came out last week, and I spent most of Sunday with him," Tomczak said. "We went to the stadium and threw the ball a little and had a good time. Art told me to relax and play my game—worry about myself. I had something to prove to the fans. I didn't know if that was me. I've always been a team player. But it worked."
Much to Earle Bruce's relief.