A pair of quarterbacks take over for a senior returning starter. Underclassmen lead the team in rushing, receiving, interceptions, tackles, sacks and tackles for loss.
Highly recruited players from across Ohio and beyond grab starting roles and excel despite youth and inexperience. Some find new positions to become key contributors in only their second year of college.
At the top, a coach with multiple national championships under his belt pulls the strings, and perhaps a roster of future head coaches under him helps develop a team into a contender faster than maybe even the head coach thought possible.
Are we talking about Ohio State in 2014? Well, we could be, but those descriptions also fit one of the best teams in Ohio State history. While the current Ohio State squad still has one very big challenge left before the job is finished, its story has an uncanny resemblance to the one written by the 1968 Buckeyes.
While Urban Meyer is set to take a team with seven second-year players starting on offense or defense into the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night against Oregon, Woody Hayes had 12 sophomores who were regular starters on his undefeated squad in ’68. In an era when freshmen were not eligible, Hayes’ starting lineup was younger than Meyer’s even if one adds in the four third-year sophomores expected to start against the Ducks.
Both teams featured multiple young quarterbacks, though Hayes did not lose either of his for the season like Meyer, and former offensive players were among his most important defensive standouts. For Hayes there was Rex Kern, the sophomore from Lancaster, Ohio, who won the starting quarterback job but shared reps with Ron Maciejowski of Bedford, while Meyer has won 13 games this season with J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones calling the signals. Meanwhile others have found new starting roles for the Buckeyes this season after playing quarterback in high school, another repeat of the ’68 season.
In interviews done through the course of work on various stories over the years, some of those players from the 1968 season described to BuckeyeSports.com how that magical season came together.
1968 was an interesting time to say the least. Ohio State, despite being coached by a future Hall of Famer who already had claimed national titles three times, was seven years removed from its last one and hadn’t won the Big Ten in that span, either.
At least to some, a decision by the faculty council to turn down a Rose Bowl bid in 1961 had hurt Hayes’ recruiting efforts in Ohio and the Midwest as opposing coaches told prospects Ohio State wasn’t serious about football anymore.
The Buckeyes were still the Buckeyes — in fact they had just recently started wearing those famous decals on their helmets — but they needed a spark to get back to the top.
They found it in the 1967 recruiting class, one that was built with stars from both near and far and would go on to be known as the “Super Sophs,” a group that began building its legend in practice against the varsity in 1967.
“When we ran on offense, we usually scored, and our defense usually held up the varsity offense from scoring,” recalled Bruce Jankowski, a New Jersey native and Ohio State’s leading receiver in 1968. “Woody would go nuts. He would go crazy about it. At that point we were all thinking, ‘We think we’ve got a special group of people.’ To me, it was glaring at that point.”
The Super Sophs might not have expected to win a national championship in their second year in Columbus, but they knew Hayes had put together a pretty good recruiting class before they took the field for the first time.
“It was even better than we thought it was,” Maciejowski said. “Then when we came in that first week I remember Leo Hayden and I were over at the football offices when we were in town for orientation in early September. We went over to the football offices and were talking with (freshman coach Glenn) ‘Tiger’ Ellison and they had the three-deep up and Leo was No. 1 fullback.
“Leo asked about the other two guys, if they were any good and if they could play, and it was Jack Tatum and John Brockington. Tiger said, ‘Well, I don’t know. Brockington and Jim Stillwagon were our last scholarships, and Tatum, I don’t know what we’re going to do here. Leo, you’re going to be in good shape. Don’t worry about it.’ Then we all came to practice the first day and I’m going, ‘Holy crap. I think they sold Leo a bill of goods.’ Because Leo was a very good back, a first-round pick (in the NFL draft), but those guys were extraordinary.”
As it turned out, Kern and Maciejowski displaced Bill Long, the starter in 1967 as a junior, at quarterback. While Jim Otis, a junior from Celina, remained one of the starters at halfback, he was joined in the backfield by sophomores Larry Zelina of Cleveland and Brockingtnon, a bull from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Brockington was the fullback, and remaining at that position was no easy task based the way Hayes liked to recruit. The old coach’s preference was to pillage high school rosters for fullbacks, linebackers and tackles because those were typically the best players on a team at that time. Fullback and tackle also happened to be the most important positions for his Robust T offense — at least until he made some changes in ’68 for the athletic Kern.
While Hayes’ affinity for the T-formation had always been well known, he let himself be talked into installing the I formation in 1968 with the arrival of new offensive backfield coach George Chaump. The move made the perimeter run game more of a threat and let Kern get out on the edge to pressure teams with his legs or his arm (a run-pass option play was among the staples of the attack). The transition was not unlike going from a “pro-style” offense of today to a spread attack.
“We’re now going to run from sideline to sideline instead of from tackle to tackle,” Kern said.
“The whole idea was to spread the space but we also had the athletes like they have the athletes to do that today. Ordinarily Woody was recruiting every linebacker and every fullback in the state of Ohio. He made the fullbacks into linebackers and fullbacks into tight ends and linebackers into defensive ends so that was quite unique.”
Of course Hayes went back to his beloved T-formation when the Buckeyes got inside the 20-yard line, and they proved to be equally dangerous in either set.
“I think by the end of spring practice he felt that that offense was pretty darn good, but it’s amazing — I was talking to a friend of mine and he said Woody would be at the chalkboard and say, ‘You know how many touchdowns we’ve scored from the robust offense?’ ” Kern recalled. “Well, shoot we didn’t run any other offense down there!”
Nonetheless, the changes Hayes installed at the behest of new coordinator George Chaump energized the Ohio State offense. With Kern and Maciejowski at the controls, the Buckeyes averaged 84 plays and 32.3 points per game. Their 323 points for the season were more than the previous two years combined. They ran 98 plays in the season opener against SMU (who threw 76 passes) and 95 more in a week two win over Oregon to set the tone for one of the finest offensive seasons in school history to that point.
“Guys want to go fast anyway,” recalled Maciejowski, who then went on to offer a description of the attack that could just as well fit Oregon today. “You don’t want to be waiting for plays. It’s fun when you get somebody on their heels. You just gained 11 yards and now you’re going to run the ball and they don’t have the right defense and they’re confused and they don’t have the right play or you go up to the line and see a certain defense and then you audible out of a play you had set. You were going to run a play quickly, but now you get a touchdown.”
On the other side of the ball, sophomores were plentiful as well. Jim Stillwagon of Mount Vernon took over at middle guard, where he would eventually be an All-American, while fellow sophomore Doug Adams of Xenia became the team’s top linebacker.
In the secondary, two members of the glut of offensive players found homes where they would eventually become all-time greats. Mike Sensibaugh, a quarterback at Cincinnati Lockland, settled in at free safety and led the team in interceptions in 1968. He remains the all-time leader in school history in that category with 22.
You might have also heard of the other starting safety, too: Jack Tatum. Before he was known as “The Assassin” for the Oakland Raiders, Tatum was an All-America safety for Ohio State. And before that, was a running back prospect for the Buckeyes.
“There were so many players that were offensive stars on that team,” Sensibaugh told BuckeyeSports.com in 2010. “Jack Tatum, my goodness. He was probably the most devastating running back. Woody didn't like how he ran because he would start one way and then turn around and go another way. Woody wanted you to pull up through the hole and keep going, get your three yards or whatever.
“After Tatum passed away I made a lot of flashbacks in my head, and I was going, ‘He's the one running back I couldn't tell you what it was to tackle him because I don't think I ever tackled the son of a gun.' ”
A Magical Run
Although the ’68 Buckeyes went undefeated, their season was not without its trials and tribulations. They knocked off Southern Methodist 35-14 in the opener before downing Oregon 21-6 in their other nonconference game. Then came the biggest game of the season, a 13-0 upset of No. 1 Purdue that featured an interception by Stillwagon that set up one touchdown and a pick-six by Ohio State cornerback Ted Provost, a junior who was an All-American in 1969.
They also endured close calls at Illinois (31-24) and Iowa (33-27) as well as a 25-20 home win over No. 16 Michigan State.
The Buckeyes closed out the regular season by hosting No. 4 Michigan. Ohio State led only 21-14 at the half but rolled the Wolverines in the last two quarters, outscoring them 29-0. All but six of those points came in the fourth quarter, though none on a last-minute two-point conversion, despite what you might read elsewhere.
The subtitle on Dan Jenkins’ story for Sports Illustrated read, “Ohio State's Woody Hayes could sit back and sniff the flowers as his gang of teen-age fakers hid the ball from Michigan, won the Big Ten championship and headed for the No. 1 bouquet in Pasadena.”
Jenkins, the legendary college football writer, was needless to say quite impressed with what he saw in Columbus that afternoon.
“This Buckeye team is unlike any of the other memorable ones, and not just because it throws passes, uses reverses and revels in fakery—things that Woody Hayes used to think belonged in basketball,” Jenkins wrote. “What it brings to the football field is the maniacal enthusiasm that only youth can have, combined with a confidence that stems more from the optimism of immaturity than from the experience of age.”
Indeed, they would claim the No. 1 ranking with a 27-16 victory over No. 2 USC. Trojans tailback O.J. Simpson ran for 171 yards and a touchdown, but Otis and Hayden combined for 191 yards as the Buckeyes prevailed.
It was the culmination of a coronation that began a year before, when a group of hotshots led by Ellison — then the freshman coach for Ohio State but previously a very successful coach at Middletown High School, where he invented the run-and-shoot offense — would routinely bedevil the varsity in 1967.
“(Defensive coordinator) Lou McCullough would say to Tiger Ellison, ‘I want to see you guys score from the 2-yard line,” Kern recalled of his days as a scout team quarterback. “Brockington would score on the first carry. They would move the ball back to the 4 and then Zelina would score. Lou would get mad and move 'em back and get mad and say we weren't running the play the way we were supposed to. All of that built on the camaraderie and the amount of respect we had for each other. It built a bond as a group.
“Those were precious moments.”