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O-HIGH-O BUCKEYES

Stalled on the ground by a furious Michigan defense, Ohio State took to the air to rescue the game and strengthen its grip on the National title

By JOHN UNDERWOOD

On the third play of the game, Rick Leach, the freshman quarterback, threw a swing pass to Gordon Bell coming out of the Michigan backfield. As the play unfolded a voice in the press box, surely that of a veteran Ohio State-Michigan watcher, screamed, "He’s passing!" The voice was thick with discovery and awe, the kind of sound one might make to announce that someone was stealing his wallet ("He’s stealing my wallet!") or undressing at midfield ("He’s undressing at midfield!"). The play gained only eight yards, hardly a blockbuster, but, ah, what a foretaste.

The game that probably won for Woody Hayes a fourth national championship to curl up with this winter as, say, he contemplates retirement at 62 – which he says he would not tell you if he were – was nothing if not a discovery. A discovery that Michigan-Ohio State could be one of those games you never dreamed about when you were watching them slog it out at 10-10. An exquisitely exciting, breathtakingly imperfect football game – that’s what last week’s showdown in Ann Arbor turned out to be. Just like nobody said it would.

So Ohio State wins, but the score is not two field goals to one, it is 21-14. Not since the start of the decade has the winner needed more than two touchdowns in this game. And if Ohio State-Michigan is always three yards and a spray of Astronap, what are they doing making 40-yard runs (well, underdog Michigan is making 40-yard runs; No. 1-ranked Ohio State is mostly recovering Michigan fumbles) and throwing long, arcing devil-may-care passes? And completing them. And if these are teams that button down all the flaps and always keep to the right on the freeway, what are they doing committing eight turnovers (they are also intercepting long, arcing devil-may-care passes) and pitching the ball around so hairily?

The question will arise – did the game get out of hand? Was it so good only because the two teams played out of character? Thirty-seven passes may not seem like much, but when it’s Michigan-Ohio State it’s much. By comparison, the 20 they threw last year made you feel as if the ball were flying around all afternoon.

Alas, traditionalists, you will be surprised to learn that it was no accident at all, that it was all right there in the game plans just the way those two old sticklers-in-the-mud, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, wrote them. "We will pass," said Hayes to a friend in Columbus a day beforehand, "because that is where they are vulnerable." Hayes has been known to rip out the field phones when such strategy was proposed in the past. "I really wouldn’t be surprised if it came down to passing," said Schembechler in his office on Friday. He said he knew he would be necessarily be asking a great deal of freshman Leach, pitted against the experienced Ohio State secondary, but he had already crossed that bridge ("He may be a freshman, but he was born to compete"). Schembechler told Bud Wilkinson he would play it from the start "like we were behind in the fourth quarter."

In those frenetic countdown hours there had been no hint that the two old rivals (Bo coached under Woody for six years) were anything more than fashionably irascible for the big game. Getting closer to their collars, they made predictable news – Hayes locked practices, held one icy press conference that lasted 97 seconds (a reporter timed it) and was steadfast in not being willing to express the word "Michigan" in conversation. But a close friend said Woody was actually "breezing—I’ve never seen him so loose. Uh, relatively speaking." Schembechler, for his part, waged a two-day war with United Press International over a photographer he caught aiming a sequence camera at his secret practice from an apartment building across the street. Before that slapstick was over, Schembechler had led a charge—battalion strength, presumably—on the building, got the police to confiscate the undeveloped film and, to demonstrate his indignation, resigned from the UPI ratings board. He also barred the UPI from the next day’s press conference and called the photographer’s attempt to sneak a picture "a shabby trick." The photographer called the Michigan coaches "bullies."

Schembechler smiled on Friday when he outlined the "secret formation" he was afraid the UPI man had photographed—a short-yardage alignment (picked up from watching films of Indiana’s near-upset of Ohio State) in which, a la Indiana, he shifted a 230-pound defensive tackle to blocking back and adorned him with a camouflaging (though legal) No. 30 jersey. As it developed, the one time he had a chance to use the play against Ohio State it lost a yard.

Ironically, the behind-in-the-fourth-quarter approach actually got Michigan ahead in the fourth quarter, and only then—after almost three quarters of practically perfect play—did the Wolverines go awry, unfastening in a blink what seemed a secure, and deserved, victory. This is not to say that Ohio State did not deserve to win, rather to give Schembechler credit for a gallant try to overcome what has become his and his team’s singular failing: an inability to tick for 60 minutes against Ohio State. In the last 70 regular-season games under Schembechler, the Wolverines have lost only four games—all to Ohio State.

Here, then, some familiar scenes and characters in Bo’s recurring nightmare:

Archie Griffin. Heisman Trophy Archie. Hundred-yards-a-game Archie. Archie goes out for the pregame coin toss before 105,543 fans in Michigan Stadium (announced as a record crowd, though a contingent of freeloading Cub Scouts supposedly swelled the limit to 109,000 in an earlier game) on a bright, clear, cold day, with a national television audience witnessing, and gets hugged by archrival Gordie Bell. In front of all those hot-eyed partisans wearing "Ohio Is a Four-Letter Word" buttons, or singing "We don’t give a damn about the whole state of Michigan." Is it a demonstration of affection, or is it just a demonstration? (See, guys, here’s how you put the clamps on Archie—right arm around his neck, left armÖ)

No matter. The rest of the afternoon Griffin is passed from hand to hand like a cheap artifact at a swap meet. Not since he was a freshman and a green apple in Woody Hayes’ eye does Griffin have such a terrible time. Michigan’s line plays straight-on when Ohio State expects it to slant; it slants when the Buckeyes do not expect it to at all; drops to a three-man front with filling linebackers; and swarms, swarms, swarms. Everywhere that Archie goes the blue shirts surely follow.

After a first-possession 63-yard touchdown drive which he sparks with a pass reception and a number of short, darting runs, Griffin is neutralized. Over a stretch of seven carries, he makes a net of three yards; his longest run is five. On a no-gainer sideline play he is submarined by Wolfman (Roverback) Don Dufek, an omnivorous defender, and in rapid order is struck by three flying Wolverines. Archie Griffin has gone 31 regular-season games without making fewer than 100 yards; in his last two against Michigan he has made 163 and 111. But on this day he gets 46 in 19 punishing (for him, not Michigan) carries. "It’s not the 100 yards that matters, it’s the average per carry," Schembechler had said. In this game Archie averages a meager 2.4 a carry.

So is Archie crying? No, Archie is rejoicing. "I’d give up all 31 of those 100-yard games for this one," he says afterward. Typical Griffin. "The greatest, the most unselfish player I’ve ever known. Archie Griffin could be the first black President," says Hayes, who is now unstoppable (no 97-second press conference this time). He calls the Buckeye comeback "the greatest in my 25 years of coaching."

What has Griffin’s 46 yards to do with it? Heat, mainly. The heat he takes off the rest of the Ohio State offense. Eventually. But to set it up further:

In seven possessions, from their second play of the second quarter until only seven minutes remain in the fourth, the Buckeyes on offense are three plays and out. Not a first down in more than 30 minutes. Michigan dominates. During that stretch the Wolverines get six yards for every one they give up. Bell and Fullback Rob Lytle rip into the Ohio State defense with startling success, and Leach refuses to accept the opportunity to choke. Only when he is confronted, and confused, by a surprise seven-man line does he act his age, and even then, even after an errant pitchout stops one Michigan drive, and an interception another, and his own fumble a third, he is not discouraged.

He marshals Michigan 80 yards to a tying touchdown just before the half, the Wolverines achieving it on an 11-yard pass from Bell to Wingback Jim Smith, who makes as if to block Cornerback Craig Cassady, then shields him away with his backside as he turns for a stretching fingertip catch just inside the flag at the goal. And after sparring fitfully through the third quarter, Leach takes Michigan 43 yards to a 14-7 lead, setting it up with two passes to Smith and getting the touchdown himself on a one-yard keep off the left side.

Now there is only 7:11 to play, and time to reintroduce Ohio State Quarterback Cornelius Greene. You remember Corny from past episodes. He is also called "Flam," which is short for flamboyant. Flamboyant is the color of Corny Greene’s wardrobe, but flamboyant is not what you would call his quarterbacking, through no fault of his own. His body might belong to his haberdasher, but Greene’s arm belongs to Woody Hayes. Woody is sometimes called "Wood." His critics say that is just about the consistency of his thinking when it comes to passing the football. But with the ball on the Ohio State 20 after Michigan went ahead, Greene is sent in with orders to do exactly that.

Television is renewing itself with a commercial break so Greene summons the Buckeyes together "for a prayer." What does he pray for at a time like that? "Extra strength," he says. He seems to get it immediately. On the first play he winds up like Sandy Kofax and throws downfield, badly overshooting his receiver with what looks suspiciously like a desperation pass. On second down he is rushed into his end zone by blitzing Wolverines, somehow escapes and throws into a cluster of the wrong people. Two Michigan players get dibs at it and come up empty.

It must be recalled at this point that Corny Greene averages 8.7 passes a game. In two years he has not thrown as many as 16 passes, the number he is to throw this game. On third and ten—really desperate now—he calls a play-action pass off a fake to Griffin. The Michigan linebacker on the side he wants to throw draws in out of respect for Archie, and Greene throws to Wingback Brian Baschnagel over the coverage for 17 yards—Ohio State’s first first down since the second quarter.

And just like that it became Ohio State’s game.

On the next four plays Greene got four more first downs—two passes to Split End Len Willis, an 11-yard Griffin run (his longest of the day) and a 12-yard keeper to the Michigan 8. From there, Hayes reverted to what he calls his "button-shoes-robust," a tight T with a full-house backfield. In four slugs Fullback Pete Johnson scored the tying touchdown.

Alas, now freshman Leach gets his comeuppance. He is sacked for a nine-yard loss to his 11, throws an incomplete pass—and then hangs one dangerously high in the air over Jim Smith’s head. Raymond Griffin, Archie’s younger brother, steps in front of Smith going full speed at the Michigan 32 and is down to the three before Leach blocks him out of bounds. On first down Johnson once more pounds into the end zone and Ohio State is ahead.

With an interception by Cassady to seal it, Hayes’ "greatest comeback in 25 years" puts him in the Rose Bowl for the eighth time. It is clearly the easiest way to go for the national championship, considering the battered Pacific Eight opposition that awaits him there. By comparison, Bo gets to play Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl as a consolation prize.

Leave it to Woody to take care of his friends.