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Things were so much simpler when it was the Big Two and the Little Eight. Late each November you could find out all you needed to know about the Big Ten by watching Ohio State and Michigan have at one another like a couple of angry elephants, and that was that. But now.... Now that Iowa has gone to the Rose Bowl, now that Northwestern is next to unbeatable, now that the conference is the Big Ten again, the old and the new keep getting mixed up and everybody's a little confused.
Take last Saturday's game between Ohio State and Illinois. The Mini (5-1) were favored by 5� over the Buckeyes (2-3), losers of three straight games for only the fifth time in this century, an accomplishment that had Coach Earle Bruce looking over his shoulder. Illinois favored? Ohio State a doormat? What in the name of Wayne Woodrow Hayes was going on here? What were 73,488 fans—the largest crowd in Memorial Stadium in 36 years—doing there in old Champaign-Urbana? What's that? The mailing address is Urbana- Champaign? Why, they even changed the name of the place!
Not only that, but the Illini and Buckeyes unveiled a new kind of football game Saturday afternoon: best two out of three falls. Things are really different in the Big Ten these days. In the first round, which went about 38 minutes, old Ohio State, with its 248-pound classic tank of a fullback, Vaughn Broadnax, leading the way for Tailback Tim Spencer, beat up an old Illinois in the traditional way. And the Buckeyes got ahead even with freshman Kicker Rich Spangler missing three easy field goals. There were also four passes from sophomore Quarterback Mike Tomczak to his veteran receivers which, had they been caught, could have made the field-goal attempts unnecessary. As it was, the first two Buckeye TDs during this span came more as a result of lax Illini defense than any indomitable Ohio State charge. One was a 74-yard Tomczak-to-Cedric Anderson pass and run, the other a 44-yard right-end sweep by Spencer—who gained 151 yards on the day. Score the round Ohio State 21, Illinois 7.
In the second round, about 18 minutes long, new Illinois, with its California golden boy Quarterback Tony Eason, Champaign Tony, loosened up and throwing on three of every five downs—his 25 completions in 44 attempts for 284 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon were right around his season's average—made new Ohio State look just as bad as Wisconsin, Florida State and Stanford had made the Buckeyes look in the previous three weeks. In hooking up with Mike Martin for a touchdown (the one in the first round) and with Kirby Wilson for another and then executing a brilliantly set-up three-play TD drive on the ground against Ohio State's thoroughly confused 3-8 defense, Eason gave the homecoming crowd all that it expected—or almost all.
The combatants were now locked in a 21-21 tie, and it looked like another chorus of bye-bye Brucie would be sung back in Columbus when Illinois Safety Dave Edwards intercepted a Tomczak pass at the Ohio State 41 midway through the fourth quarter. This time, though, Eason could not advance the ball. That hardly seemed to matter as barefoot Illini Mike Bass's 56-yard field-goal attempt with 5:56 left went soaring toward its mark. "If I had kicked it from five yards farther back [that would have been 61 yards!] it would've drifted through," said Bass. As it happened, the ball collided with the right upright, and bounced the wrong way for Illinois. Score the round Illinois 14, Ohio State 0.
In the third and deciding round, taking up all but three seconds of the final 3:52, the best of the old and the new Ohio State combined for a 14-play, 69-yard drive against the best defense that the new Illinois could put up. That march ended with a 27-yard field goal by Spangler, and that turned out to be the game-winner. Illini Coach Mike White, who with his team in the conference driver's seat (4-0) had been quite prepared to accept a tie, watched his defense being picked apart. Here was Tomczak, a beleaguered quarterback of a beleaguered team—a 36% passer going into the game—making like Art Schlichter, whose graduation last spring has been, almost by itself, the reason for this season's Buckeye downfall. "The coaches told us they had quarterback problems," said Illinois Safety Charles Armstead, "but Tomczak kept finding all our seams."
Bruce tried to act like all was well again, but his was a thin smile. Had he won? Or had he just saved himself for another week? "We're Ohio State," he said, "and we travel well." What? That hardly sets the Buckeyes apart from the Ringling Brothers Circus, which also travels well.
"I can't tell you the problem because we can't pinpoint it," Bruce had said during a week of Hayesian-style closed practices. "I'll tell you this, though, some of our fans could use a few lessons in manners." Bruce was referring to the many instances of booing in Ohio Stadium in recent weeks, and the chanting of "We Want Woody!"—can't imagine why—while the Bucks were dropping those three in a row. The most crushing loss of all was the first one, 23-20 to Stanford, which could easily have been blamed—and generally was—on the now infamous Bruce's Boner. Bruce called for a pass play on second-and-12 with the Buckeyes holding a 20-16 lead and 1:38 remaining. What three things can happen when you pass? How many of them are bad? If Woody said it once.... Sure enough, Stanford intercepted, and Quarterback John Elway led the Cardinal to the winning touchdown. "One more loss and it was going to be lynch Earle time," said Ohio State Lantern Sports Editor Mike Pramik. Plans were under way for a massive campus protest march. A protest march against the Ohio State football coach! Woody would have put down that idea with the Ohio National Guard.
Bruce was hardly a beloved figure in Columbus even before this year's disaster, despite three fine seasons: 11-0 before a Rose Bowl loss to USC in 1979, his rookie season in Columbus after six years at Iowa State; and 9-3 in both '80 and '81. It's not that Bruce isn't enough like Woody—who could be? It's just that Bruce is, well, no fun. Many coaches keep tight rein on their players, but Bruce goes farther than that. Players aren't allowed to talk to the press if they haven't played. When Tomczak's confidence needed shoring up after the Stanford interception, instead he was benched in favor of junior Brent Offenbecher, who hadn't played a down for the Buckeyes and who threw four interceptions in the losses to Florida State (34-17) and Big Ten rival Wisconsin (6-0).