THE WOLVERINES HAD A NAME TO REMEMBER
Rick Leach was on Woody Hayes’ mind as the Michigan quarterback whipped OSU and earned his team a ticket to the Rose Bowl
By RON FIMRITE
The subject of Woody Hayes’ rambling discourse before the Buckeye Boosters of Columbus on the eve of last Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game was, as best anyone could determine, "The Lost Art of Communication." "Students come up to me and tell me they’re majoring in something called ‘Communications,’ and all I hear from them is ‘like’ and ‘you know,’ " the Ohio State football coach lamented. According to Woody, the country has not had a really first-class communicator since Emerson. Thoreau, the coach cavalierly dismisses as "strictly a mama’s boy,’’ but old Ralph Waldo could jaw with everyone from "highfalutin Harvard types" to hinterland rustics.
Midway through these reflections, Woody espied an apparent Emersonian in the audience. "Now there is a man out there that can communicate," he announced happily. Then, disastrously, he drew one of those blanks familiar to us all. "I may not remember your name, sir," he went on lamely, "but I admire you. Would you stand up, Mr. Chief Justice?"
The Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court rose and waved to the crowd. Then he addressed the speaker. "The name is Leach, Woody. Bob Leach."
Ah yes, Leach. Woody knew the name as well as his own, which, unless memory fails, is Wayne Woodrow. Leach. It was a name he would hear time and again the next afternoon, a name he had cause enough to suppress from conscious thought. This second Leach was Rick, the Michigan quarterback, who would communicate to him the sorry message that the Wolverines, not the Buckeyes, would be traveling to the Rose Bowl New Year’s Day to confront Southern California. On Saturday, quarterback Leach, no relation to Justice Bob, led Michigan to a tidy 14-3 win, the third year in a row he had beaten Woody. In these three games Ohio State had scored nary a touchdown against Michigan. When that intelligence was communicated to Hayes during a postgame press conference, this staunch advocate of clear speech launched into a snarling diatribe against his informant, a Chicago newspaperman.
Hayes need not have been so sensitive. His Buckeyes were in no way equal to the team coached by his onetime protégé and current nemesis, Bo Schembechler. Ohio State already had been beaten by Penn State and Purdue and tied by Southern Methodist and, entering Saturday’s contest, had given up 18.5 points per game, the highest average by a Hayes-coached OSU team and the highest for any OSU team since 1946. For that matter, the loss Saturday dropped the Bucks to fourth place in the Big Ten behind co-champions Michigan and Michigan State (currently on NCAA probation and ineligible for bowl games) and Purdue. Still, by prior arrangement, OSU will play Clemson in the Gator Bowl Dec. 29. Had the Bucks beaten Michigan, they would have been the co-champs and Rose Bowl representatives and the Wolverines would have gone to the Gator. Because of a little Schembechler deception, this was not to be.
It is common knowledge that Hayes teams can neither pass nor defend against the pass. This had also been true of Schembechler teams, as the Pac-10 has happily discovered. As a result, recent games between Michigan and Ohio State have been no more progressive than the one they played in 1900, which ended zip-zip. Indeed, the devious Schembechler acknowledged afterward that "what I wanted to do was give them the illusion that this would be the same old Ohio State-Michigan game" -- which is to say the ball would be airborne about as often as an ostrich. In its first two possessions Michigan dutifully stayed on the ground, advancing minimally. The second time Ohio State had the ball it scored its only points of the day, a field goal by Bob Atha from the Michigan 19 with 1:13 remaining in the first quarter.
Now the the illusionist chose to reveal a little of his guile, and a minute and four seconds later Michigan was on the scoreboard -- a lightning stroke by any standards.
Starting from the Wolverine 30 after the kickoff, Leach called a thrust into the line -- for no gain -- by Tailback Harold Woolfolk, a freshman playing for the injured Harlan Huckleby (Michigan players all seem to have been named by Dickens). Then, on second down, Leach faked a handoff and hit Tight End Doug Marsh on a sideline pattern for a gain of 26 yards. On yet another play-action pass he found Woolfolk in the middle for 14 yards. Schembechler sent in an option play on the next down, but Leach, observing that the Buckeyes were virtually in an eight-man line -- five lineman down, three linebackers stacked – called an audible at the line of scrimmage. He connected perfectly with Rod Feaster in the middle of the field, and Feaster, shaking off Mike Guess, loped in for the score. Gregg Willner converted, and, for all purposes, the game was over.
The Buckeyes took their best remaining shot late in the second quarter, advancing on eight plays to the Michigan 21, where they promptly came a cropper. Tackle Keith Ferguson was called for illegal motion. After a run up the middle, freshman Quarterback Art Schlichter, harassed all afternoon, was sacked by blitzing Linebacker Jerry Meter. He fumbled as he was hit, and another linebacker, Andy Cannavino, recovered on the 32. From there Leach, alternating passes and runs, took the Wolverines to the Ohio State 14, where on third and one he hit Tight End Gene Johnson on the two with a perfect pass down the middle for what appeared to be a second touchdown. But Johnson was stripped of the ball a yard later by Safety Vince Skillings, who then recovered it in the end zone for a saving touchback.
Skillings’ heroic defense seemed to offer Buckeye fans new hope, and at that precise juncture the sun burst through a dirty gray sky. But it shone not on Ohio State. The Buckeyes would not cross the 50 until the final 3 ½ minutes of the game, and then only by a yard. The Wolverines would score once more on a Leach pass, this a dinky 11-yard safety-valve toss to Tailback Roosevelt Smith with 4:12 left in the third quarter.
In the fourth quarter Michigan quit fooling around and returned to the "same old Ohio State-Michigan" trench warfare. "We were more interested in controlling the ball than scoring more points," said Leach, who was himself replaced by B.J. Dickey with 5:51 left in the game. This seemed dubious strategy at the time until it was learned that Leach had pulled the hamstring muscle in his left leg way back in the second quarter. Schlichter was also replaced for two series by Rod Gerald, Ohio State’s starting signal-caller last year, a wide receiver this. Gerald, Woody believed, could better elude the fierce Michigan pass rush, though not necessarily to pass. It is significant that when warming up for his quarterback chores, Gerald practiced more pitchouts than passes. He threw only once, for five yards, and ran three times for a net gain of seven yards. So much for Gerald. As for Schlichter, one practiced Buckeye-watcher observed of the freshman, "He has a pro arm with playground pass patterns."
The lefthanded Leach might have impressed more pro scouts as a college passer if he had been called upon to pass more. "I can pass as well as anyone," he stoutly maintains. His second-quarter injury, incurred during a rare sack, took away Schembechler’s preferred option attack, which "is predicated on the movement of the quarterback." Deprived of movement, the dauntless Leach utilized play-action passes and simple handoffs to backs running at him from myriad sets -- pro, wishbone, power I. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 166 yards. The two TD passes gave him 16 for the season and brought the total of touchdowns he has accounted for, passing and running, to an NCAA-record 81. He has quarterbacked more wins-38-than anyone in college football history. If he does not win the Heisman Trophy, says Schembechler, then it does not deserved to be given. Leach, affable, good-looking, is more circumspect. "I won’t be disappointed if I don’t win the Heisman," he says. "There are a lot of guys worthy of it. Whatever happens, happens."
Leach has the athletic options open to one adept at two sports. A centerfielder, he led the Big Ten in hitting this year, and may well have more potential in baseball than in football. To his coach’s everlasting gratitude, he opted for four years of college rather than sign a pro baseball contract. In his conference he is the quarterback ideal, but in his four years as a starter he has averaged only slightly more than 130 pass attempts a season, about what a Pac-10 quarterback will throw in a month. In the NFL, Leach might find himself spending more time on the bench than his namesake in the judiciary. But, as he established last Saturday, he can do whatever is asked of him. Just ask Coach What’s-his-name.