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How Hopalong Cassady won the Heisman Trophy in 1955 and kicked off an Ohio State tradition

With the Heisman Trophy set to be handed out this weekend, BSB takes a look back at the Buckeyes’ winners from 20, 40, and 60 years ago, starting with the legendary Howard “Hopalong” Cassady.

When the news broke Monday that night three players – none of them Buckeyes – would be heading to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, it broke one of sports more unknown and underappreciated streaks.

Every 20 years, it seems, a Buckeye running back – Howard “Hopalong” Cassady in 1955, Archie Griffin in 1975 and Eddie George in 1995 – won the famed stiff-arm trophy. And it appeared OSU had a good chance this year, too, as Ezekiel Elliott won league player of the year honors but fell just short in his quest for to keep the streak alive.

That doesn’t mean we can’t look back at how those previous Buckeyes worked their way into glory, and we start with the man most know simply as Hop.

Born and raised in Columbus in The Bottoms neighborhood, Cassady snuck into Ohio Stadium as a high schooler to watch the exploits of Heisman winner Vic Janowicz, and after starting at Columbus Central High School he showed quickly as OSU he might follow in the footsteps of the Buckeye legend.

Cassady scored six times as a freshman, tallied eight more touchdowns as a sophomore – including the winner in a tight 20-19 win vs. Wisconsin – and starred as a junior. The Buckeyes won Woody Hayes’ first national title that season, and Cassady ran for 701 yards and six touchdowns while adding 13 catches for 148 yards and also playing defensive back in the days of two-platoon football.

That year, his 88-yard interception return vs. Wisconsin overturned a second-half OSU deficit on the way to a win, and his 47-yard run set up the winning score in the Michigan game.

“In my opinion, Hopalong, probably as much as anyone in Ohio State football history, made the big play when the team really needed it,” Ohio State historian Jack Park told BSB. “He was a true Mr. Clutch. There are guys who can hit home runs when his team is up five runs and break a big touchdown run when the game is already decided, but Hop was one of those rare guys who could produce a great play when Ohio State needed a great play, and I mean at that very moment.”

It was more of the same as a senior, as Cassady ran the ball 161 times that season, amassing 958 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was near the top of the national charts in rushing and scoring, and he helped lead the Buckeyes to an unbeaten 6-0 conference mark and second consecutive conference title.

He found out he won the Heisman from an unlikely source. Cassady’s friendship with George Steinbrenner began when the latter was stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus, and Steinbrenner left in 1955 to become an assistant coach at Northwestern.

Because of his connections in the football world, Steinbrenner found out about Cassady’s honor before anyone else, and he wasn’t shy about delivering the news.

“He said to me, ‘Hop, from all my secret investigative reports, I’m 95 percent sure that you won the Heisman,” Cassady once told BSB.

It was the case, and the Buckeye had the largest winning margin in the history of the award at the time. Cassady received 594 first-place votes and 2,219 total points, far outpacing TCU halfback Jim Swink’s marks of 128 and 742, respectively.

Even more impressively, he was named AP Athlete of the year, beating out boxer Rocky Marciano as well as baseball stars Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams.

"When you’ve got a great team, you’ve got a chance to win the Heisman,” Cassady said. “If you don’t have those people up front blocking for you, you’re not going to win anything. But you have to have a winning team and outstanding players, and that’s how I won it.”

BSB now takes a look back at, game-by-game, how Howard “Hopalong” Cassady won the Heisman Trophy.

Game 1: Nebraska, Sept. 24

Ohio State welcomed Nebraska to Ohio Stadium for the season opener and escaped with a 28-20 win in Columbus.

A year after finishing third in the Heisman voting, Cassady didn’t take long to show exactly how good he was. Cassady carried for 6 yards on the first play of the game, went for 7 two plays later, ran for 9 after that and then took a 14-yard run up the middle for a touchdown just 4:02 into the game.

It kicked off an effort in which Cassady paced OSU’s 321-yard showing on the ground with 21 carries for 170 yards and three touchdowns. The one TD he didn’t score was set up by a 43-yard run by Cassady in which the official play by play says he “went wide around his right end, cut back in to the middle, sidestepped a half-dozen tacklers and was downed” at the 2-yard line.

Afterward, Lincoln Journal and Star sportswriter Dick Becker described Cassady as an “artist.”

“Desire. Spirit. Blocking. Tackling. They had them all,” Becker wrote of the visiting Huskers. “The only thing they lacked was a lariat. They needed it to lasso Howard (Hopalong) Cassady, a true All-American who led Ohio State to a hard-fought 28-20 victory over the University of Nebraska.” 

Game 2: At Stanford, Oct. 1

Ohio State’s hopes to repeat as national champions took a major hit as the eighth-ranked Buckeyes’ trip to the West Coast for the second game of the season ended with a stunning 6-0 loss at Stanford.

Cassady was kept in check in the nationally televised game, rushing just 11 times for 37 yards despite playing all 60 minutes. He was also 0 for 1 passing and caught one pass for 6 yards.

Ohio State’s offense never could get in gear in the team’s first loss since its season-ending game vs. Michigan in 1953, totaling just 218 yards and 13 first downs and putting the ball on the ground four times. Stanford scored on its opening drive and held on from there, turning aside five OSU drives into Indians territory in the second half.

The win for the Indians, who were just 4-6 the year prior under head coach Chuck Taylor and lost the week prior to Oregon State, delighted Ray Waddington of the Stanford Daily.

“None of the blame should be put on Cassady’s shoulders,” he wrote. “Hoppy tried hard, but there were just too many bad Indians. … Taylor’s plan was to contain Cassady, give up ground through the middle if necessary, but quell all breakaway threats. The Indians did this with splendid exactitude. Cassady revealed himself as a potentially dangerous runner, but it was always only the potential danger. He was never given the opportunity to get loose. The breakaway never came.” 

Game 3: Illinois, Oct. 8

Out of the rankings after the shutout loss the week prior at Stanford, Ohio State opened Big Ten play with a bang, returning home to down Illinois by a 27-12 final.

Cassady again was in many ways the engine of the Buckeyes offense, rushing 18 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns. After Illinois opened the game with a score to take a 6-0 lead, Cassady fumbled the opening kickoff but picked it back up and returned it to his own 46 before being tripped up by a teammate. Two plays later, Cassady went inside his right end for an 18-yard score and the game was tied.

A pass from Frank Ellwood to Fred Kriss later in the first gave OSU a 13-6 lead, and the Buckeyes never trailed from there. The lead was extended to 20-6 in the third quarter as Ohio State scored on a 16-play drive that took nearly eight minutes, with Ellwood running for the touchdown.

Cassady provide the exclamation point on the win in the fourth, returning a punt to near midfield, pushing the ball inside the 20 with a 23-yard run and then going over from 5 yards out for the Buckeyes’ final score.

“Hop played a whale of a team game,” head coach Woody Hayes said afterward, as Cassady also threw two passes, played on defense and punted once.

Game 4: Duke, Oct. 15

The defending national champions were shocked by a Duke team that would go on to tie for the ACC championship behind quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Ohio State fell to 2-2 as the Blue Devils scored 20 unanswered points to win a 20-14 final in Ohio Stadium.

Things started well for head coach Woody Hayes’ men. Despite an early fumble in Duke territory by Cassady, the Buckeyes got the ball back and scored on a two-play, 47-yard drive when Jim Roseboro took a reverse 44 yards for a touchdown.

The lead doubled in the second. Ohio State couldn’t score after Cassady recovered a fumble early in the frame, but Duke was pinned deep in its own territory on its next possession and Cassady returned a punt 37 yards for a touchdown that made it 14-0.

That was about all the good news for the Buckeyes, though, as Duke got on the board with a disputed touchdown with just a second left in the first half. The Blue Devils tied the score in the third and then went ahead for good with 11:47 to play when it capped an 18-play, 76-yard drive with a touchdown run by Jurgensen.

OSU tried to rally back but Cassady was intercepted twice, including on the final play, to cap a day in which he had 40 yards on 11 carries and was 1 of 5 throwing the ball for 14 yards.

Game 5: At Wisconsin, Oct. 22

Ohio State made the long trip to Madison and left with a 26-16 victory vs. Wisconsin

After a scoreless first quarter – kept that way by an interception by Cassady at the goal line – the Badgers took a 14-0 lead in the second. Ohio State roared back, though, scoring twice before halftime.

Cassady ran through a gaping hole out of the T-formation for a 13-yard TD to make it 14-6, and then, after a fumble by Wisconsin on the kickoff, OSU cut the deficit to 14-12 as quarterback Frank Ellwood sneaked in for the score.

The score stayed that way until Ellwood scored on fourth-and-goal at the 1 with 11:32 left to give OSU a 19-14 lead. After a Badgers punt, Cassady was the key man on the next drive, rumbling for 17 yards and then 28 before taking a pitch and throwing 25 yards to John Roseboro down the right side to the 1. Elwood sneaked in again, and OSU had all the points it would need before taking a late intentional safety.

Cassady had a huge day, rushing 17 times for 100 yards in addition to his near scoring pass and 37-yard interception return.

The Badgers were 19-6-3 the previous three years under Ivan B. “Ivy” Williamson and shared the 1953 conference title but were on the way to a 4-5 season.

Game 6: Northwestern, Oct. 29

It was a light day of work for Cassady, as Ohio State welcomed Northwestern to Columbus rather rudely in a 49-0 homecoming win that moved the Buckeyes to 4-2.

Playing in front of his friend Steinbrenner, Cassady didn’t even have to see the field after halftime. Woody Hayes’ men were dominant from the outset, scoring 14 points in each of the first two quarters before coasting to the win.

Cassady played just 27.5 minutes, and 38 players – a season high – got in the game for OSU as the Buckeyes ran for 395 yards. Cassady himself ran 10 times for 77 yards and two scores, while Jim Roseboro and Joe Cannivino each topped 100 yards with 104 and 137, respectively.

Cassady began the scoring for Ohio State on its second drive, bursting through the middle of the line with 6:24 remaining for a 29-yard scamper. Galen Cisco’s 40-yard punt return set up the next score before OSU made it 21-0 on a fumble return touchdown, then Cassady completed his day with a 3-yard TD run late in the second quarter.

“Ohio has a great team and fine speed and a great inspiration in Cassady,” Northwestern coach Lou Saban said afterward.

Game 7: Indiana, Nov. 5

Ohio State won its third game in a row and improved to 4-0 in the conference, beating Indiana by a 20-13 score in Ohio Stadium. In addition, Illinois’ upset of Michigan moved the Buckeyes into first place in the league alone by themselves.

It wasn’t easy, however, as Indiana had more first downs than OSU, 16-13, and had a 301-251 yardage edge helped by a 142-0 advantage through the air. But Cassady was a key force for a Buckeye team that didn’t complete a pass, rushing 19 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the win.

After Indiana fumbled a punt late in the first quarter at the OSU 33, Cassady ran six times on the ensuing drive, finally getting over the goal line from a yard out 1:05 into the second to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead. Indiana answered with a score and missed the extra point, but Cassady broke over right end on the next drive for a 46-yard gain one play before scoring a 3-yard touchdown that made it 14-6 at the half.

Cassady did fumble in the fourth quarter, but the defense held and OSU iced the game with a 74-yard drive that took 7:20 off the clock and ended with a TD run by Jerry Harkrader.

Game 8: Iowa, Nov. 12

Ohio State put itself in the driver’s seat to capture the Western Conference championship, moving to 5-0 in the league with a 20-10 victory against No. 20 Iowa in Ohio Stadium.

Cassady was a workhorse for the 10th-ranked Buckeyes, rushing 26 times for a season-high 169 yards and all three OSU touchdowns, allowing him to set the all-time school scoring record. The Buckeyes did not complete a pass on the day, with Cassady rushing for all but 104 of Ohio State’s offensive yards.

It was a fitting performance on Dad’s Day in the Horseshoe, and Cassady took the field accompanied by his father, Pearl, before his dominating showing.

He gave OSU a 7-3 lead in the first quarter with a 45-yard run over the right side on his first carry of the day, then went around right end for a 10-yard score that made it 13-3 in the second quarter. Cassady finished iced the win with a 3-yard plunge for a score with 4:50 to go before one final curtain call in the stadium.

“It was a great finale, for the small redhead gave the huge throng the performance they had come to see,” The Lantern reported at the time. “The seconds ticked away and when the clock showed 18 on its black face, the fans got what they were waiting for. Joe Cannavino trotted onto the field and No. 40 trotted off to a standing ovation of a happy crowd. And they were happy for Hoppy.”

After the win, Cassady was carried off the field by his teammates.                                                           

Game 9: At Michigan, Oct. 19

Ninth-ranked Ohio State clinched an outright Big Ten championship with an unblemished record, traveling to snowy Ann Arbor and blanking No. 6 Michigan by a 17-0 score.

Cassady played a big role – as did every Buckeye who saw the field, as just 21 players were trusted by head coach Woody Hayes to take on the team’s archrival. Cassady ran 28 times for 146 yards and a touchdown.

“The Wolverines hit the indomitable Irishman with everything but the goal posts, but he still kept driving away, as he has done for four years,” (Cleveland) Plain Dealer correspondent John Dietrich reported. “Not in the generation will there ever be another Cassady.”

The score was not without controversy, though. The Buckeye star scored from 2 yards out on the third play of the fourth quarter to extend OSU’s 3-0 lead, but according to play-by-play, “Michigan protested vehemently that he’d fumbled, but he was already in the end zone when the ball bounced loose.”

The Wolverines couldn’t come back from that blow, throwing an interception to Don Vicic on the next possession. OSU added a safety after pinning Michigan deep in its own territory late in the quarter, then things really got wild.

The Buckeyes got the ball back on the ensuing onside kick by Michigan All-American Ron Kramer, and as OSU tried to run out the clock, the play-by-play reads, “Fans already had torn down the north goal posts with 1:30 left in the game. (OSU’s Frank) Ellwood raced for eight on a sneak and was roughed unnecessarily by Kramer, the penalty giving Ohio a first down on the six. Michigan bad-mouthed the officials and Ohio was awarded a first down on the Wolverine one. Kramer was raging. The ref fired his red hankie again, then sent Kramer to the showers and put the ball on the half-yard line.”

Vicic scored with 1:15 left, icing OSU’s then-record 13th consecutive league victory.

“It was the greatest game I ever have had a team play,” Hayes said. “It was magnificent. Did you ever see anything like that?” 

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