For all its size, Illinois is less likely to trample its opponents to death than it is to smother them. With an organized resourcefulness one would expect of a Light Horse Harry Lee, the lightly muscled ends, Rich Callaghan and Dave Mueller, Tackles Sutton and Bill Minor and Guards Ed Washington and Wylie Fox, quick and expert all, will force enemy backs to the inside, where Butkus and his linebacking sidekick, Don Hansen, can stifle them.
Elliott's offense, mostly a free-and-easy T with split ends and flankers, is moved primarily by Grabowski and Price. Grabbo, a lean-faced driver, seems to enjoy sliding his 207 pounds into a tackler's arms. But just when he appears caught—wham—he shuffles, twists and explodes downfield. This talent earned Grabowski 491 yards rushing last year and he added 125 more in the Rose Bowl game. Price, a lithe 200-pounder with elusive moves, Ron Acks, a converted quarterback, and sophomore Doug Harford, who runs the 100 in 9.9, are the outside threats. The quarterbacking is in capable hands. Fred Custardo, who takes over for Mike Taliaferro, is an adequate passer and good roll-out runner.
For all this obvious affluence, Elliott remains cautious. "We hope we can win again." he says, "but you just never know in this conference. There are always so many imponderables."
One of the imponderables that bothers Elliott is the Big Ten rule that prohibits a team from going to the Rose Bowl two years in a row, even if it should win the conference again. Without this incentive, the Illini could conceivably become complacent, just as Wisconsin did a year ago. But Elliott has a plus factor working for him. His players learned to win last year, and they liked it.
Oklahoma, with 29 lettermen back, is even more prosperous than Illinois. The Sooners have enough seasoned hands around to staff three backfields and two two-way lines. Longtime (17 years) Assistant Gomer Jones, who took over the team when Bud Wilkinson retired to run for the U.S. Senate, plans to platoon his three backfields—one to attack, one to defend and one to go both ways. And he has so many good linemen available that three of last year's starters, All-America Tackle Ralph Neely, Center John Garrett and End Rick McCurdy, were bumped to the second team during spring practice.
But Big Eight teams should not be lulled by this springtime gambit. Come Saturday, when Oklahoma meets Maryland, Neely, all 6 feet 6 and 243 pounds of him, will be flushing out ballcarriers like a spirited, oversized hound dog. He will be supported by some highly competent colleagues in the Sooner line. Players like 240-pound Ed McQuarters and 212-pound Newt Burton, the classy guards, know how to block and tackle. After all, they learned it from Jones, who before becoming head coach was one of the best line coaches in the business.
The running game, just as it was under Wilkinson, will be built around All-America Fullback Jim Grisham, a bruising 211-pounder who is large enough to power inside and fast enough to slip outside the tackles. As a sometime linebacker, Grisham also is a punishing tackier. Helping Grisham with the rushing assignments will be Halfbacks Larry Brown and Lance Rentzel, a big, hard-running junior.
Despite all this talent, Oklahoma's hopes hinge largely on one skinny elbow. It belongs to Mike Ringer, a slick quarterback who looked to be very good as a sophomore in Oklahoma's first two games in 1963. Then he jammed his right elbow into an electric fan, lacerating it badly and notching the bone. After two operations, Ringer's elbow has been proclaimed sound, but he missed spring practice and has yet to test it under pressure.
If Ringer, a competent passer and roll-out specialist, cannot make it, the Sooners' slot T will lack the versatility that Jones desires. Bobby Page, who ran the show last year, is strictly a runner and cannot give the Oklahomans the surprise and versatility they need to divert opponents' attention from all those ground plays.
One coach, of course, who believes he needs no such surprise is OHIO STATE'S pass-defying Woody Hayes, who blandly insists football is meant to be played on the ground. Hayes even shuns such an innovation as the I formation, with its extended motion and trickery, as an unnecessary affront to the game. All Woody ever wants is a collection of direct (and sizable) young men who find it pleasanter going over people than around them. He hasn't had quite the right type the past year or two, but he does now and you just have to believe him when he claims, "We will be better than last year."