Playing Ohio State is a little like volunteering for a waterfront rumble. It isn't just a sporting event; it's a benefit for bone surgeons. Teams that play Ohio State go into the game feeling that the best that can happen is that they will merely become uninsurable. The worst that can happen is what happened to Illinois' Rose Bowl champions at Champaign last Saturday. They not only lost the game, 26-0, but also their status, their pride, their illusions and—in all probability—their Big Ten football title.
The illusions were the hardest to part with. For four and a half years Coach Pete Elliott has been trying to get Illinois football players to accept winning as naturally as breathing. It was not easy. They once lost 15 consecutive games under him, and the crowds began to dwindle. Against Michigan State in 1962 Illinois drew only 19,547 fans ("They didn't have enough people to hear your echo when you yelled," says one fan). But Elliott carried out one of the most effective recruiting programs in Big Ten history and put together a team that caught the winning idea as if it were virulent. Before it was over, Illinois had won the Big Ten title, gone to the Rose Bowl and left Washington looking like a bunch of guys who had just fallen through a skylight.
Since his arrival at Illinois, Elliott has patterned his teams in the Ohio State image. He wanted—like Ohio State—players so big that seismographs trembled when they walked on a football field. Dick Butkus (SI, Oct. 12), who plays linebacker with the authority of a Marine sergeant, weighs 243 pounds; Tackle Archie Sutton weighs 260. He wanted them tough and hard-nosed but filled with compassion for their fellow man: they were always to frisk their victims for signs of life before throwing them away. Fred Custardo won the first-string quarterback job this year on the day when—as a freshman—he stuck his hand under the face mask of a lineman, mashed him in the face and snapped: "Nobody talks in the huddle but me." It was a little like courting oblivion but the lineman took it—and Custardo took command.
Illinois' style of football became much like that of Ohio State. Nothing fancy—just good wholesome gang war in the interior of the line. Like Coach Woody Hayes of Ohio State, Elliott stressed the quarterback-fullback offense. In Illinois' last 12 games—10 last season and two this season—the quarterback and fullback handled the ball on 72.5% of the plays, letting the halfbacks have it only when the rest of the team went home to eat. Elliott also preferred a defense that gave ground like it was money. On only four plays all last season did the opposition gain more than 20 yards. The other 99% of the time Illinois yielded ground by the inch. To be sure, Illinois didn't have the snap and drill-team precision of Ohio State. Nor did it score big; only once last season did Illinois get more than 20 points in a game. But it was, like Ohio State's offense, enough to suffice—and to win the conference title.
The irony is that as Illinois became more and more a mirror image of Ohio State, Ohio State itself was changing. More and more Woody Hayes was accepting the existence—even the possibilities—of aerial warfare. Last year Ohio State attempted more passes than Michigan State, and completed more, on the average, than Illinois. In practice, the Buckeyes worked on a "volleyball defense," in which a ball is tipped in the air by one player and snared by another. It wasn't the first time that Woody Hayes had tried passing. When he first came to Ohio State he embraced the pass as cordially as any other coach: In 1951 Ohio State threw 172 passes, upped it to 217 the next year, and in 1953 threw another 181. But Ohio State won only 11 out of 20 Big Ten games during those seasons, and the alums were parodying one of their own alma mater's songs:
Come let's sing Ohio's praise;
Say goodby to Woody Hayes
So the next year, 1954, Woody became more conservative. Ohio State threw only 125 passes, and reduced that figure to 50 and 51 in the next two years—or just a few more passes in those three seasons than it had thrown in 1952 alone. It was clear that Woody much preferred grinding away at the middle of the line with the belly series and fullback smashes. Sometimes the action was so thick at center that trying to locate the ball was a little like trying to pick up a token in a subway turnstile during rush hour. Rivals jeered at everything but the results. Ohio State won the conference championship in three of those five years, and in one of them became the only team since 1913 to capture the conference title with seven consecutive wins.
But this season the substitution rule became almost as free as in the postwar years. That means teams could platoon, develop offensive and defensive specialists. Relieved of the burden of teaching both offense and defense to the same boys, Hayes decided to use the bonus time teaching the offense blocking on pass defense, how to run pass patterns and even so alien a concept as how to throw and catch the ball. Hayes became so enamored of the pass that he put two quarterbacks, not just one, into his back-field. One of them, Tom Barrington, plays left half. He is a strong, versatile boy who can—in the tradition of Ohio State quarterbacks—run better than he passes. The other, Don Unverferth, breaks that tradition. He is a quarterback who can pass better than he runs. Unverferth has large hands—he wears a size 13 glove—and he puts the index finger of his right hand on the rear tip of the ball, like a man about to throw a dart. ("You see, my brother was a quarterback, and we'd play catch and he'd always pass it to me but I'd just throw it back to him any way I could,"' he says.) The result is a quick, hard pass that in Ohio State's first two games led to completions 60.6% of the time.
Hayes went about preparing for the Illinois game as carefully as a Prussian general. First he circulated a dirty rumor about Butkus—that he was merely mortal. This was not easy to prove. Last year Butkus nailed Ohio State Halfback Paul Warfield with a tackle that separated him from the football and set up an Illinois touchdown. Then he rattled Unverferth around on blitzes that set up another touchdown. But now Woody was shrewd enough not to test Butkus or the rest of the burly Illinois defense in head-to-head combat. Instead, he decided on a subtler tactic. Its seed could be found in a book on military strategy that Woody tucked into his luggage as he descended on Champaign. Part of its message was the indirect approach to combat delineated by Hanson Baldwin, the military analyst of
The New York Times
The translation from battlefield to ball field became clear in the first few minutes of play when Ohio State intercepted one of Custardo's third-down passes with its volleyball defense. The pass hit the receiver's fingertips, and an Ohio State defender, John Fill, picked it off and ran it back 49 yards to the Illinois 23-yard line. On the first play Illinois was set for a wide halfback sweep or a pass; that's what Ohio State customarily does after a sudden turnover. Woody gave them the illusion of the sweep but not its substance. He set up the whole flow of the play to the right and then sent Unverferth bootlegging inside left end. Butkus and the whole Illinois defense followed the play to the right, searching the various Ohio State backs for the one who had the ball. "Nobody even touched me until I got to the two-yard line," said Unverferth later. That gave Ohio State its first touchdown and set the tone for the whole game. Thereafter, the counteraction plays and bootlegs had Illinois lunging hopelessly in the wrong direction. Butkus' superb instinct for football was entirely neutralized by this indirect approach. When he wasn't frozen by the action of a counter-play, he was wrestling desperately with fullback fakes into the line. "Hanson Baldwin," said Woody, "would have been proud of us today."