SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
November 24, 1969
There may be some frivolous claims for Texas or Penn State, but anyone who saw the Buckeyes dismember Mike Phipps and Purdue last week knows that if you're looking for No. 1, Columbus is it
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November 24, 1969

Ohio State: Alone At The Top

There may be some frivolous claims for Texas or Penn State, but anyone who saw the Buckeyes dismember Mike Phipps and Purdue last week knows that if you're looking for No. 1, Columbus is it

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This is just the seed of an idea, gang, but you can go ahead and slap it on the side of your helmet with all those Buckeye leaves and see if it will stick. The deal is this. On New Year's Day when even Notre Dame is in a postseason football game for the first time in 45 years and when Texas and Penn State are struggling to present their cases for No.1, let's all go back out to gray, icy, contemptible old Columbus, Ohio and play us the game of the decade, which we would call the Woody Bowl. We'll take that Ohio State offense with Rex Kern all wound up and put it at one end of the field, and we'll take that Ohio State defense with Jack Tatum pawing at the turf—and by now wanted for manslaughter in Lafayette, Ind.—and put it at the other. And then on a signal like, say, the dropping of a few assorted No. 1 trophies at midfield, we'll let them come screaming at one another while we, being careful, somewhat like Purdue last week, press our forefingers to our ears and turn our heads away just before impact.

It would be some crash, boy, but it might be the only way this dazed collegiate world of 1969 would ever find out what the best team in the country is. The other major undefeateds can howl all they wish but if the Buckeyes do it to Michigan this week they will be the national champions for the second year in a row—and what the college game will have on its hands is another of those dynasty things, one of those Oklahomas of the mid-1950s which won 4,000 straight games or something.

And the only question left will be this one about whether Ohio State's offense or defense is the more magnificent. There are these two teams out there in Columbus, you see, as most everybody in that disaster area once known as the Big Ten can tell you. There is the offense belonging to Quarterback Rex Kern and occasionally to Coach Woody Hayes—when Woody can get the plays in before Rex can call the snap. It is perhaps the only attack in the nation that makes a defense hear footsteps. It is an offense that rages for about 46 points a game and already is the highest-scoring team in Ohio State history even though the first unit wouldn't know a fourth quarter from chemistry lab.

And then there is the defense belonging to Cornerback Jack Tatum down on the field and Assistant Coach Lou McCullough up in the booth. This is a destruction outfit that encourages itinerant ballcarriers and pass receivers to slip down and crawl under the grass before the redshirts arrive, one that goes around limiting opponents to just over a touchdown per Saturday in an era when touchdowns are cheaper by the dozen.

All season long it has been impossible for Buckeye watchers, who travel in groups of 86,000, give or take an extra mackinaw, to decide which of the two units is more responsible for Ohio State's success or, as a matter of fact, which is the more fun to be awed by.

Last Saturday the Purdue game was supposed to furnish the big answer for everyone. Ohio State would be meeting a good team at last after seven consecutive rag dolls. Purdue was a 7-1 team averaging 37 points a game, a laughing conqueror of Notre Dame, a team with a devastating history of concocting upsets over No. 1s; indeed, a team led by the brilliance of Mike Phipps, who was merely the total offense leader of the U.S., perhaps the top draft choice of the pros and a very serious candidate for that coveted, oversized paperweight known as the Heisman Trophy.

Some answer. The game worked out pretty much the way Woody Hayes confidentially told a close friend it would. "You don't think our kids are gonna let this slip away from them now, do you?" he had said. That philosophy gradually worked its way around Columbus last week and everybody believed it to the point that when Purdue was discussed Buckeye fans would hold up five fingers and say, "We win by this—and I don't mean five points."

They were right, of course. It was about 70-7 in tone and 42-14 on the scoreboard, but it did nothing to settle the gnawing question about the relative stupendousness of those two separate teams that Ohio State has—Kern's and Tatum's. Both played out their roles as friskily as usual, knocking so many Purdue guys backwards and sometimes out you would have thought that Woody had scheduled Hanoi.

With Kern running, passing, faking, blocking and in spare moments looking around for concrete portals to run into, the offense got its usual quota of six touchdowns, four of them before the half, by which time the game was of course over. The 186-pound, 6' junior, who has one of those squinty-eyed expressions like the neighborhood prankster and always seems to be smiling, did everything so expertly he made most of his worshipers forget that their feet were frozen.

On a day when a lot of mistakes would have been excused because of the stadium's refrigeration, young Rex wrought not only those 42 points but some 436 yards in total offense as he personally ran for two touchdowns and hurled a 38-yard pass for another. He was so frenzied out there at times that he had the team racing out of the huddle and lining up before Hayes could shuttle in the call.

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