Ohio State is hardly an inexperienced actor on the Big Ten stage, but this year the Buckeyes are behaving like it. They seem to have forgotten their lines. Of the nine 1984 starters who have departed, seven were interior linemen. In the past the Buckeyes have produced behemoth guards and tackles as effortlessly as the state turns out radial tires, but this season the warehouse needs restocking. If the tradition can be continued, Ohio State should roll. If not, it might be goodby, Columbus for coach Earle Bruce.
On offense, where four of five first-string interior linemen were lost, center Bob Maggs (6'5", 274 pounds) and tackle Rory Graves (6'6", 280) will give Ohio State the sort of monoliths Woody Hayes always had by the dozen. However, at the other three interior positions Bruce will go with untested players, which can't make All-America running back Keith Byars happy. The country's leading rusher in 1984 (1,655 yards) and the Heisman heir apparent, Byars leads what will be a potent offense if the line holds up. Also on hand is sophomore wide receiver Cris Carter, brother of Butch Carter of the NBA's New York Knicks. Cris's nine receptions for 172 yards were among the Buckeyes' few consolations in their 20-17 Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal.
A rifle-armed drop-back quarterback named Jim Karsatos will replace Mike Tomczak. The 6'3", 214-pound junior, 3-0 in previous starts, is less mobile than Tomczak but a better passer. "He can throw the home run better than Mike," says Carter. With Karsatos, look for the Buckeyes to take to the air more often, removing some of the pressure from Byars and, presumably, the offensive line. The kicking game is solid: Punter Tom Tupa led the nation last year with a 44.0-yard net average, and placekicker Rich Spangler hit 13 of his last 15 field goal attempts, including a Rose Bowl game record 52-yarder.
The Buckeyes are loaded on defense, particularly at linebacker. All-Big Ten selection Pepper Johnson, Byars's best friend and favorite H-O-R-S-E partner ( Byars's most renowned shot is a backward over-the-head flip from the prone position), is the spiritual leader of the D. Says Johnson, "I'm just a little angel in their heads, preaching to them, 'Run to the ball, run to the ball, you're the greatest.' " Johnson's cohort at linebacker is former Wheaties box-boy Chris Spielman, who had a game-high 15 tackles in the Rose Bowl. Just a sophomore, Spielman will have an unusual incentive against Illinois on Oct. 5. He and his brother, Rick, a linebacker for Southern Illinois, have bet on which of them will have more tackles in respective games against Illinois. The stakes? Forty dollars, or six cans of Copenhagen. "I'll probably take the Copenhagen," says Chris.
To capitalize on the Buckeyes' strength at linebacker and to offset the loss of the three down linemen, Bruce plans to play former linebacker Larry Kolic as a stand-up middle guard in a modified 2-5 alignment. "With Larry's quickness and strength the center's going to have to ask for some help," says Johnson.
The schedule isn't kind. After facing Pitt and Washington State—"You don't want to start out with a final exam," says Byars—in two of their first three games, the Buckeyes must play at Illinois. They also have Michigan on the road. Moreover, Bruce, who has been saddled with the derogative moniker "old nine-and-three Earle," a reference to his won-lost record in each of his last five seasons, is starting to feel some pressure. Most coaches would love to win nine games every year, but that's not good enough in Columbus.