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Two days before the Ohio State opener against Syracuse last Saturday, Buckeye Coach Earle Bruce was fidgeting in his dressing room at OSU's practice facility. The Buckeyes had just completed a crisp workout, and Bruce, a round-faced, rumpled man, was now painfully discovering that he lacked the virtue of patience. "Jimmy Christmas," he finally moaned out loud, "I can't wait for Saturday to find out if this team is as good as it seems."
Bruce had ample reason to be optimistic about the 1980 Buckeyes. His 1979 team, most of which was returning, had come within two points of a perfect season, losing only to powerful USC 17-16 in the waning moments of the Rose Bowl. In preseason polls both the writers and the coaches had picked Ohio State No. 1. Buckeye fans, excited by the rankings and the fact that their team is led by the runaway favorite for the Heisman Trophy, junior Quarterback Art Schlichter, were already dreaming about OSU's first national championship in a dozen years. The only appropriate title for the Buckeye opener was Great Expectations.
Well, before it was all over in Ohio Stadium, Great Expectations had almost turned into Apocalypse Now. Ohio State eventually pulled the game out 31-21, but not before Syracuse proved that the Buckeyes and their quarterback are human. Early in the second quarter the Orangemen led 21-3, and during most of the fourth quarter they were within a field goal of a tie, which would've been a death blow to Ohio State's dreams of a national title. Ultimately, it was Schlichter who atoned for some earlier sins by bringing the Buckeyes back. In so doing, he may have enchanced his hopes for a Heisman, which is more than can be said for what the Buckeyes did for their chances of gaining the No. 1 ranking.
The excitement over this season's Ohio State team is in sharp contrast to the scene in Columbus a year ago when the Buckeyes also opened against Syracuse. One 1979 preseason poll had left OSU out of its Top 10, the other out of its Top 20. The Syracuse game marked Bruce's debut as successor to the legepdary Woody Hayes, and Buckeye boosters had clearly adopted a wait-and-see attitude. They were noticeably unenthusiastic at a pep rally the night before the game. "After that rally some of the players were talking about how there weren't many people there," remembers Flanker Doug Donley. "For football and a pep rally, it just didn't seem like Ohio State."
The Orangemen were talking upset last year, but Ohio State won 31-8 and went on to its near-perfect season. Bruce was named College Coach of the Year and was at last embraced in Columbus, as a visit to Jai Alai, one of the town's favorite postgame dinner spots, readily proves. Jai Alai's slogan is "There's only one in all the world." and advertisements with that phrase used to include pictures of Hayes and the Eiffel Tower. An oversized photo of Woody still hangs in the restaurant, but next to it there is now an equally large picture of Bruce.
Bruce's success stemmed largely from making effective use of Schlichter, who had been one of the most heavily recruited high school football players in the nation in 1978. At Miami Trace High in Bloomingburg. 40 miles south of the Ohio State campus, he had thrown for 46 touchdowns and more than 4.000 yards while leading his team to a 29-0-1 record in 3½ seasons as starting quarterback. Every major football power, regardless of the type of offense it ran, tried to sign him because Schlichter is as good a runner as he is a thrower. Ultimately, he chose Ohio State, but as a freshman, playing in Hayes' three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. Schlichter was most notable for throwing 21 interceptions.
Bruce, a Buckeye alumnus and former assistant coach, who had produced three straight 8-3 seasons at Iowa State, brought in a more sophisticated passing game, employing all five receivers on many plays. To open up the Buckeye attack, he switched from a two tight end offense to one using two wide receivers. Most important, he cut Schlichter's interceptions from 21 to six by giving him a receiver to dump the ball off to on every play. He finished the season fifth in passing efficiency, higher than any other quarterback returning to play this season.
When the Buckeyes were struggling in the early part of last season, it was Schlichter who bailed them out. He ran 32 yards for the decisive touchdown in a come-from-behind defeat of Minnesota and completed six passes in six attempts while driving Ohio State 80 yards in 95 seconds for a last-minute victory over UCLA. Later, in the Rose Bowl, he threw for 297 yards, averaging an amazing 27 yards per completion. He was fourth in the Heisman voting, the highest finish ever for a sophomore. The three players ahead of him—Charles White, Billy Sims and Marc Wilson—were all seniors.
This fall Schlichter is also appearing frequently on television. An articulate communications major, he is one of five athletes—and the only undergraduate—showcased on NCAA TV ads stressing the value of higher education. The others include Colonel Pete Dawkins and Arthur Ashe. Meanwhile, Ohio State is using him to promote its academic side in a series of public television spots distributed around the state. "You probably know me as the quarterback of the Ohio State football team," Schlichter says on camera, before declaiming that the university offers much more than athletics. Indeed, Schlichter is so well known in Ohio that a recent letter from Chicago, addressed only to "Art—the best athlete in Ohio—Bloomburg [sic]," was delivered in two days.
Schlichter's correspondent may have had the name wrong, but he had the right description. At Miami Trace he was also a 6'6" high jumper and a first-team all-state guard in basketball. As a freshman he played on the Ohio State basketball team, and hopes to do so again this year. "Art always had great athletic ability," says his high school football coach, Fred Zechman, now a member of the Buckeye staff, "but even with that, he always tried to improve by outworking everybody else." Schlichter doesn't work summers, he practices his athletic skills. He will throw as many as 500 passes a day, into a net if no receiver is on hand. It is probably all this extra work that accounts for Schlichter's remarkable durability. At Ohio State, where he has set school total offense records in each of his first two years, Schlichter has never missed so much as a practice.