There was little indication during the early part of the Rose Bowl that Oklahoma would have the remotest shot at the national championship. By half-time Ohio State led UCLA only 3-0, but it seemed like 33-0. The Buckeyes, led by two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin and Football Writers' Coach of the Year Woody Hayes, were favored by two touchdowns or more, and were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in both polls. In the first half they controlled the ball almost 21 of the 30 minutes, and were ahead in first downs 11-2 and in rushing yardage 155-9. They had romped over UCLA 41-20 earlier in the season and now it appeared they were going to come out in the second half and trample the Bruins' overworked defense.
During preparations for the game Hayes had indicated privately that this might be the best team in his 25 years at Ohio State, superior to the 1954 bunch that starred Hopalong Cassady and the 1968-69-70 teams led by Rex Kern and Jack Tatum. "It's a closer team than last year's," he said, "and our seniors have played and acted like sophomores. They've been inspirational."
But the Buckeyes, 30 minutes from a national championship, never got there. All of a sudden UCLA Quarterback John Sciarra, who wasn't supposed to be able to pass even the butter with much accuracy, was connecting left and right, long and short, as if he had just undergone an arm transplant. All of a sudden UCLA's running attack, which had gained 61 fewer yards than Griffin had in the first half, was rolling along like Pat-ton's army. With eight seconds to go the Bruins had the game won 23-10 and were running out the clock near the south end zone when Hayes sadly walked directly across the field to congratulate UCLA's Dick Vermeil, a young man who had thoroughly outcoached him.
What did UCLA do at halftime to change things around so surprisingly? "We just came in and ate a little raw meat and spread some gunpowder on everybody's dish," said Bruin Nose Guard Cliff Frazier.
In fact, it was less emotional and more technical than that. Ohio State feared UCLA's veer options, in which Sciarra runs with the ball himself or pitches out at the last moment to speedster Wendell Tyler. So the Buckeye staff came up with a fairly radical plan. Ray Griffin, Archie's younger brother, played much closer to the line of scrimmage than is usual for a safety and, because of his own fine speed, was assigned to nail Tyler should he get a pitchout going either left or right. There were other nuts-and-bolts defensive changes from the previous game against UCLA, including the use of man-to-man pass coverage rather than zone.
"I was really worried with what we were trying to do on defense," said Dick Walker, who coaches the Ohio State secondary, "but we had 16 practices to test the new ideas against good competition—live ammunition—and it worked."
It certainly worked in the first half. The Bruins, who were confident they could move the ball against even the Pittsburgh Steelers, seemed to be butting their heads against the San Gabriel Mountains, visible over the bowl's north rim on a beautiful, crisp day. Three times UCLA had to punt and on the fourth possession a long Sciarra pass up the middle was intercepted by a diving Bruce Ruhl. When UCLA finally got its first first down near the half's end and managed to stick its big toe into Buckeye territory, the drive was killed when sophomore Tackle Eddie Beamon sacked Sciarra for an eight-yard loss.
But somehow Ohio State couldn't cash in. Some of its inability to do so was caused by UCLA's improved defense and some of it by the inept play of Ohio State Quarterback Cornelius Greene, who was the most valuable player in the Rose Bowl two years ago and in the Big Ten this season. And, although it didn't seem to affect him much, Archie Griffin suffered a broken bone in his left hand on the third play of the game.
Ohio State took the opening kickoff and marched smartly down to the UCLA 25. Tom Klaban kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. Nothing much went right on offense after that. With fourth and two on the UCLA 33, Greene opted to pass rather than give to Griffin or his human tank, Fullback Pete Johnson. The pass was incomplete. An offensive pass-interference penalty and a Greene fumble killed two other drives.
For his part, even though his offense had been completely bottled up, Vermeil was not worried at halftime. He had been notably more in control of himself in this, his second season as a head coach, and his confidence had influenced the team. It was probably a sign of his determined approach to this game when his players staged a mini-revolt during Rose Bowl preparation and complained that he was working them too hard. "We thought it was going to be a piece of cake," said Sciarra. "We thought it would be parties, bows and good times. I think we acted a little bit childish. We felt we might have been working a bit too hard. We thought it would be a lot more fun."