After half the 1967 season had elapsed, Ohio State sat slumped at 2-3 and already out of the Big Ten race. But Woody Hayes was beaming. "That's the greatest freshman team (NCAA rules made freshmen ineligible for the varsity) I've had here in 17 years," he enthusiastically stated.
Darrell Royal at Texas had quite a group of youngsters himself. Known as the "Worster Bunch" based on the prize capture of superstar fullback Steve Worster, seasoned zealots of Southwest Conference football believed Texas' 1967 freshman squad was the most powerful they'd seen in the history of the storied conference. After plowing through its five games, those newcomers were expected to boost the varsity's sagging football fortunes.
The Longhorns had staggered to three consecutive 6-4 regular season marks from 1965-'67, but Ohio State's struggles had been even greater. Though Woody Hayes had given Buckeyes two national championships, the latest had been 1957, with their last Big Ten crown coming back in 1961. Further, Hayes had just a 10-8 mark his prior two seasons. Though Ohio State won its last four to close out an otherwise uninspiring '67 season, its victims had been paltry, keeping some of the fandom questioning whether Woody still belonged.
This didn't phase the longtime Buckeyes' leader. "This is the best sophomore group we've ever had because of its speed. The biggest mistake a soph can make is to doubt his own ability. This team won't make many mistakes. Yeah, I think we're a title contender, in an outside sort of way." The writers tabbed Ohio State second only to Purdue in the 1968 pre-season Big Ten poll.
Darrell Royal, meanwhile, believed Texas would also be in contention. But writers voting his team Southwest Conference favorites baffled him in light of his Longhorns' three straight 6-4 years. "Why are they picking us? We don't have a championship boy on our team…Texas A&M won the championship and has everybody back."
Further reflected Royal, "When the town tough gets whipped two or three times, a lot of people want to take him on. After we got whipped a few times, we weren't the town tough anymore."
Other coaches in the conference didn't share his humility. Stated one, "Competition in the conference is so even that even any thought of a dynasty is ridiculous—except at Texas. Texas has the people to win the conference for the next three years, if things go well for them."
Things didn't go well at all early as the Longhorns unveiled their new players and new Wishbone offense. After being tied by Houston and losing in Lubbock to Texas Tech, Royal insisted, "We need any kind of win in the worst way." The ‘Horns got it over Oklahoma State, even if not in the most convincing manner.
Up in Columbus, the 55-year old, conservative Hayes' trust in his group of youths (12 of the starting 22 were sophs) paid off quickly. His new leader was quarterback Rex Kern, who Woody quickly raved about as the best he'd ever had. After the Buckeyes comfortably withstood a 76-pass aerial assault from record-setting Chuck Hixson of SMU, they next halted Oregon.
The stage was set for both Ohio State and Texas to face their biggest challenges—Purdue and Oklahoma—on October 12.
The prior year, the now top-ranked Boilermakers had run roughshod over the Buckeyes, 41-6. Texas was in a different predicament, having given Oklahoma its only loss the last season. Said Darrell Royal, "That probably cost them the national championship. They'll be out to avenge that loss."
The Sooners may have been screaming for vengeance, but recently named starting quarterback James Street and the Longhorns' Wishbone offense made the loudest statement, capturing the Red River Shootout with a thrilling, late game comeback, 26-20. Royal beamed, "A win like that's got to do something for a quarterback and his team. I know it does something for me."
That same afternoon, Ohio State, primarily with great defensive play, upended top-ranked Purdue, 13-0, intercepting a pass for one of its scores. Middle guard Jim Stillwagon, linebacker Doug Adams, and defensive backs Mike Sensibaugh and Jack Tatum were among the newcomers shutting down the Boilermakers.
The great Leroy Keyes, Purdue's Heisman candidate, was held to 19 yards on seven carries and 63 cumulative yards. Jack Tatum, shadowing Keyes all day, also broke up five Boilermakers' passes and sacked quarterback Phipps twice. Said then backfield coach Lou Holtz, "Tatum had to play the greatest game of his life and he did."
Led by James Street, Texas proceeded to steamroll all of its remaining opposition, including powers Arkansas and SMU, to finish out its regular season with eight straight victories. In the Thanksgiving Day finale, Royal and the Longhorns easily avenged their 1967 loss to Texas A&M, exploding to a 35-0 lead by halftime before emptying the bench in the second half. Said all-conference defensive tackle Loyd Wainscott, "We were out of our mind for them…We weren't going to let happen what happened last year."
Ohio State, in contrast, narrowly escaped Illinois, Michigan State, and Iowa, all mediocre conference foes. Still, the Buckeyes were on the brink of an unbeaten season and even in line for the national championship, if they could only get by hated rival Michigan. As Ohio State turned a tight contest into a 50-14 rout, Woody Hayes went for a two-point conversion after the last score. When asked following the game why, he barked "because I couldn't go for three," reminding of his tenacity toward the Wolverines.
Texas, while out of the running for the national title because of its 0-1-1 start, could claim itself as the hottest team going and would face another orange-clad ‘T', the Tennessee Volunteers, in the Cotton Bowl. The Dallas classic was then considered one of the "big four" among bowl games. Tennessee head coach HC Doug Dickey predicted, "I'd be surprised if there is a whole lot of offense...I doubt the game will be broken completely wide open." Doubting Doug shouldn't have disbelieved the ‘Horns offensive juggernaut.
Mixing its unstoppable Wishbone ground game featuring fullback Steve Worster with two touchdown bombs from James Street to Cotton Speyrer of 78 and 79 yards, the Longhorns obliterated the Volunteers, 36-13, in a contest much more lopsided than the final score.
Meanwhile, Ohio State, which had moved up to number one in the polls by regular season's end, was on the doorstep of its first Associated Press national title since 1957 and had already been awarded the Coaches trophy.
The Buckeyes' position at the top drew criticism from John McKay, coach of Ohio State's Rose Bowl opponent, USC. In complaining of OSU being the only school still playing nine regular season contests, "I'd like to have seen them play 10 games. Maybe they could have met Notre Dame (which tied USC) in their 10th game. After all, we would have been unbeaten and untied, too, if we had played only nine games," he pointed out. "Fortunately, Ohio State will have to play a 10th game —against us. I think the game should be sudden death if it ends in a tie at the end of regulation time."
There would be no need for any overtime. USC, the defending national champ with a point to prove, bolted to a 10-0 early lead. The Trojans' superstar O.J. Simpson electrified the capacity crowd of over 102,000 by bursting through left tackle, cutting back to the right, and blazing past Buckeye defenders on his way to an 80-yard gallop. But OSU's Rex Kern, true to his character, brought the Buckeyes back into contention by engineering a 70-yard drive.
With the score tied 10-10 at halftime, Woody Hayes' defense dominated the remainder. The only Trojans score came on a controversial scoring catch, while Jack Tatum and company suffocated Simpson to 34 second-half yards and multiple fumbles.
The Buckeyes' workhorse fullback Jim Otis grinded out 101 yards, while Leo Hayden added another 90 for the ground-gobblers.
Ohio State had now captured an undisputed national title, 27-16. Texas, in turn, ended ranked number three, making the first time since 1961 that both had finished in the top five. With great sophomore groups in place, both programs were positioned to win big in the coming seasons.
As 1969, the 100th year of college football, approached, ABC's analyst Beano Cook had a premonition of sorts, declaring the annual Texas-Arkansas bloodbath should be moved to the end of the season, as a potential national title game, or at least that would have serious implications for it.
Undoubtedly, the likes of defending champion Ohio State and Penn State (owners of a long winning streak that grew by 11 in 1969) growled in response. Whatever the case, the upcoming season proved to be all that the century celebration promised.
Ohio State began as the pre-season number one, followed by Arkansas, Penn State, and then Texas. After the Longhorns mauled Navy, 56-17, to go 3-0, Darrell Royal's squad rose to #2 in the land, with Woody Hayes' guys still #1.
As the Buckeyes bulldozed through the '69 season at a clip more convincing than the prior year's national title bunch, it created a dilemma for the Rose Bowl, which had a no repeat clause, meaning even an unbeaten Ohio State wouldn't be invited. Said the chairman regarding the big upcoming game with powerful Purdue, "We love Ohio State and Woody Hayes, but Purdue would ease such problems if it could win over Ohio State."
Additionally, the Boilermakers had made a reputation as spoilers of top-ranked teams, having knocked off a plethora of them over the last couple of decades, including three in the last four years. What more natural than for the "Spoilermakers" to return the favor after Ohio State's upset of top-ranked Purdue the year before? QB Mike Phipps and company had already knocked off powerful Notre Dame and were ranked a highly respected #10 nationally, with just one loss.
Led by the continued brilliance of signal caller Rex Kern, Ohio State entered leading the nation with 47 points a game. After putting a 42-14 hurt on the Boilermakers, the Bucks made believers of anyone still questioning. "They've got it all," a dazed Purdue head coach Jack Mollenkopf admitted. After his Heisman candidate quarterback was picked off five times, he allowed, "There's no defense better unless it's the (Super Bowl-bound) Minnesota Vikings."
But that same day, Texas was making new believers of its own. TCU's Fred Taylor, who suffered the misfortune of facing both teams in the same season confessed, "I said Ohio State had the best material we ever played against, but after playing Texas…doggone, they've got a lot of good ones. The only way to compare them is to have them play each other." His struggle to name the better program was understandable, since the Longhorns had matched Ohio State's earlier 62-0 margin with a 69-7 demolition of the Horned Frogs.
Potential controversy was brewing with Ohio State, due to the Rose Bowl's no repeat clause, staying home for New Years Day. Should the Buckeyes remain as #1 even if #2 were to win its bowl game? Would it be fair to remove them from the top just because of some silly rule preventing them from being able to defend their title on January 1?
One task remained for Woody's bunch of "unbeatables," as they were termed by some—that of playing Michigan, whose new coach, Bo Schembechler, had made beating Ohio State his top priority and who had modeled his program after Hayes, having played and coached under the Buckeyes' legendary leader.
Schembechler reminded the Michigan players all week of Woody's running up the score in '68 by posting "50" (points the Bucks scored) everywhere in the locker room, and by taping it on every Wolverine's practice uniform.
In front of a record Michigan crowd (103,588), Ohio State roared to the first score, but Michigan responded with a touchdown of its own, putting the Buckeyes behind for the first time all season, 7-6. Rex Kern's 22-yard strike to Jan White put OSU back in a customary lead, but Michigan again had an answer. By halftime, the scoreboard told a stunning story, 24-12, Wolverines.
With all that scoring, the second half was conversely every bit as quiet, with the exception of continued, uncharacteristic Buckeye turnovers—seven for the day. Michigan, under rookie coach Bo had a shocking victory over a team the media had dubbed, "the greatest college football team of all time."
(Texas Sports Photography)
Now it was Texas' turn to carry the pressure of being number one, and it didn't take long before the ‘Horns' mettle was tested, with Beano Cook's recipe for a national title game with unbeaten Arkansas coming to fruition. In a cold, dreary and often very long day for the Longhorns, James Street's heroics and some clutch defensive play gave the top-ranked visitors a dramatic, late-game triumph, 15-14, in a game forever known as the "Big Shootout." Razorbacks' head coach Frank Broyles reflected on how strong each team was, but that "Street was the killer."
Royal, Street, and the Longhorns would have one more stage to perform on, while the season's curtain had closed in a shocking manner on the Buckeyes.
As was still standard procedure, the Coaches awarded Texas the national championship, while President Richard Nixon, among the crowd at Arkansas, personally gave Texas a plaque honoring it as college football's best.
Texas' setting was all the more dramatic in that Notre Dame, lifting its self-imposed 45 year bowl ban, chose the Cotton Bowl for this famous occasion. Like the Arkansas tilt, the Longhorns found themselves behind early and often against the massive Irishmen, having to battle uphill on a torn up turf. But Royal's Wishbone ripped up its own share, gouging the much heavier Notre Dame defense for 331 yards on the ground alone.
Inspired by the sight of their fallen teammate, Freddie Steinmark, who had lost a leg to cancer after the Arkansas game, the Longhorns rallied from behind to score the winning touchdown with 1:08 to play. Like against the Razorbacks, it took a last moment interception by Tom Campbell to seal the deal, giving Texas an undisputed national championship, 21-17. James Street had exited with a 20-0 record as Royal's starting quarterback.
Ohio State and Texas, two of the most magnificent programs of all time but each who had fallen on relatively hard times, suddenly emerged as back-to-back national champions.
As 1970 brought in the new decade, it also ushered in the senior seasons of those monstrously talented '67 freshman classes. These now matured groups would lead their programs to undefeated regular seasons once again, with Steve Worster and Texas slaughtering Arkansas, 42-7, in the supposed "Big Shootout II." The Longhorns' stampede of 464 rushing yards never let the dream rematch materialize while running their winning streak to 30 games.
Undeterred by the sour ending to ‘69, Woody's Buckeyes stormed back in 1970. Again unblemished going into the war against the disdained rival Wolverines, it glared at an adversary also unbeaten.
Hayes' hatred for Michigan was shared by his wife. Upon her son's graduation from high school, she warned him, "Steve, I'll pack your bags and we'll send you to any college in the country, except one. If you pick Michigan, I'll throw you out on the sidewalk…and your bags after you!"
A classic struggle ensued, with Tim Anderson's block of a Michigan extra point keeping Ohio State with the slimmest of leads, 10-9, going into the fourth quarter. As the team leader, Rex Kern went to work, leading the Buckeyes to ten points in the last 15 minutes while the great sophs of ‘68—now seniors—provided their last heroics at home. They held the Wolverines scoreless, giving Woody Hayes his delicious revenge, 20-9.
With that, Ohio State captured another Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl invitation. Though that New Years Day of ‘71, both Texas and Ohio State would lose out on opportunities to clutch another national title, their respective accomplishments were almost too numerous to cite.
Those banner classes of Texas and Ohio State had each captured undisputed national crowns and parts of others in their three years with the varsity from 1968-‘70. Texas had run off a streak of 30 wins in a row, while Ohio State had boasted one of 22 games. Royal's Longhorns had a record of 30-2-1, even including its transitional bumps to the Wishbone. Woody's Buckeyes went 27-2. Each school racked up conference titles (solo or shared) every year and finished in the nation's top five. Their respective greatness had brought innumerable moments of joy for their fandom and awe from outsiders.