Chris Spielman and Thomas Johnson, Ohio State's salt-of-the-earth and pepper inside linebacking duo, were sitting in the athletic dining room, engaging in a verbal tune-up for the showdown with No. 1 Iowa. Without a ballcarrier to pummel, they were dealing coaching clichés the old high-low. "You can't let the great quarterbacks like Chuck Long set up and pick you apart," said Johnson, a cocksure senior who nevertheless talks softly. "You have to make them play great."
"Dare them to," added Spielman, a sophomore tobacco dipper. "It's not a matter of what they do on offense..." started Spielman.
"...It's what we do on defense," finished Johnson. Spielman spat. Johnson glared. And so the seeds were sown.
For what the Buckeyes finally did, and Long and his cohorts didn't, was to paint an artful victory on a cold, wet and windy Saturday afternoon. Before a history-making crowd (90,467, the most to see a home game in 95 years), Ohio State beat the Hawkeyes 22-13 and moved to the front in the Big Ten. Iowa, meanwhile, tumbled into the land of losers. Said Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry, "The players feel like they've been pushed into the grave." What it surely buried was a sixth week of easy pickings for the college football pollsters. When it comes to No. 1, they wouldn't have Iowa to punch in anymore.
They would have a resurrected Ohio State to consider, however. In Saturday's imagemaker, the Buckeyes not only followed the traditional Buckeye guidelines—the ball-control offense, the bruising fullback, the bone-crushing offensive line, the forcing of backbreaking turnovers—but also filled their eyes with a fire that had coach Earle Bruce brimming with pride. "We played hard today," said Bruce, "as hard as I've seen Ohio State play in a long time—a long, long time."
All week long the Buckeyes had expressed outrage at being considered underdogs—albeit by less than two points—at Ohio Stadium, where they had won 19 straight games, the longest home winning streak in the country. And only a 31-28 Buckeye loss at Illinois on Oct. 5 had kept this matchup between the first-and ninth-ranked teams from being No. 1 vs. No. 2. "It's like a stab in the heart," said Spielman. "Saturday we're going to pull the knife out."
By the morning of the game, the Buckeyes had another unkind cut to cope with. Burt Graeff, a columnist for the Columbus Citizen-Journal, facetiously sniped at the Buckeyes' secondary, suggesting that Long, the NCAA's top-ranked quarterback (67.7% completions), might be good for, oh, about 1,000 yards through the air. True, the Ohio State secondary, a quartet of sub-6-footers who proclaim themselves the MOB—Men of Brutality—had been more like Mites of Beneficence, surrendering an average of 217.6 yards per game. But four figures? "That's personal," said safety Terry White. "That's saying, 'I'm going to come in your backyard, take your candy and run away with it, too.' I say, 'You might take my candy. But you're going to have a heckuva time getting away.' "
Then came the coup de psych. At a players-only pregame meeting on Saturday morning, with blood aboil, an unlikely spokesman bubbled to the surface. It was All-America Keith Byars who had touched the ball for Ohio State just 44 times this season; normally, that would be a day's work for the tailback who had been considered a strong Heisman Trophy candidate. Byars had reinjured his right foot against Minnesota the week before and was unable to practice.
Byars made his imprint with a monologue punctuated by two airborne lunch trays and a crashing glass of water that drenched him. "He said he was going to be in every one of our shoes, on every one of our shoulders and in our hearts," Johnson said. "It gave me some chills."
The Buckeyes' defensive scheme was more substantial than their motivation or the pervasive mist. Their corners tightened up on the wideouts, coverages were constantly mixed, and whenever Long scrambled, seeking secondary breakdowns, the MOB shadowed his receivers. Hoping to play keep-away from Ohio State, Long contentedly handed and dumped off to tailback Ronnie Harmon, who carried the ball 18 times and had five receptions on the Hawkeyes' 43 first-half snaps. But when Iowa wasn't Harmonizing, Long struck some sour notes: He threw three interceptions in 19 pass attempts. "He seemed confused," said receiver Scott Helverson, "and frustrated."
Ohio State, meanwhile, zipped down-field smartly behind quarterback Jim Karsatos. His prime targets were Mike Lanese and Cris Carter; their five catches for 104 yards highlighted two first-quarter drives that produced a Rich Spangler field goal and a 3-0 lead.
When Sonny Gordon snuffed an Iowa punt in the end zone for a safety to make it 5-zip, Ohio State fattened the season's most amazing stat. In seven games, the Buckeyes had converted 18 turnovers into 83 points, while committing just four, which cost them nil. Then, two plays after Ohio State cornerback William White picked off a Long pass, tailback John Wooldridge bolted 57 yards for a touchdown. "Coach said, 'I want you to go in and run,' " said Wooldridge, pained by bruised ribs. "When I was crossing the goal line it felt like a good idea." A field goal raised the lead to 15-0 before Iowa went on an 88-yard march that ended with Harmon dashing three yards for a TD.
With 5:26 remaining in the third quarter, Hawkeye safety Jay Norvell intercepted a Karsatos pass, and suddenly the Hawkeyes were on the OSU 19. It was time for the Buckeye defense to reap its harvest. Harmon ran once for three yards. A second time for five. On third-and-two, he tried the middle again. Johnson slipped a block and darted into the hole. "Harmon had been cutting back on me all day," he said. "I wasn't going to get embarrassed again on national TV. I had people in Detroit watching. So I didn't watch his hips. I looked him straight in the eye and said no."
After Johnson's stop, Spielman applied the crusher. On fourth-and-one, with Fry passing up a 27-yard field-goal try, who should the Hawkeyes fail to block but.... "We didn't execute," Fry said. Spielman did. He pinned a diving Harmon to the turf for no gain. "I just popped him," offered the soph, who intercepted two passes and, like Johnson, had a shoulder in 19 tackles. At home, Woody Hayes was elated. "That Spielman, boy, he's a real football player," said the ex-coach, who's recovering from a heart attack. "And that Johnson, he hammers you, too. Boy, they can hit."
Iowa traded TDs with Ohio State, and midway through the fourth quarter was threatening again when 5'9" Terry White knocked the wind out of himself while jarring the ball from Hawkeye receiver Quinn Early near the goal line. On the next snap, Rob Houghtlin's 42-yard field-goal try sailed left in the swirling stadium winds, taking Iowa's No. 1 ranking along with it.