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September 08, 2011
Ohio State was the nation's best—some even hyped the team as Super Bowl material—but upstart Michigan crushed the Buckeyes
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September 08, 2011

Bye-bye, No. 1 (and Hello, Bo)

Ohio State was the nation's best—some even hyped the team as Super Bowl material—but upstart Michigan crushed the Buckeyes

From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 1, 1969

EVEN IN THE DYING seconds the idea persisted throughout Michigan's cavernous old stadium that Ohio State, the awesome Buckeyes, would pull it out. After all, weren't they No. 1 in the nation, winner of 22 straight games and (people were beginning to joke) a worthy opponent for the NFL Rams? Surely the real Rex Kern would expose that hapless impostor wearing number 10 and wriggle through the whole Michigan defense for a couple of life-giving touchdowns. Or, failing that, surely the real Jack Tatum would rise up from wherever he had spent most of the afternoon and knock loose a couple of fumbles. Or, finally, surely some magic play, or piece of wisdom, would spring from a cranny in old Woody Hayes's fertile mind, where it had been stored away for just this kind of emergency. So everyone waited, and waited, and then suddenly, delirious Michigan fans were rolling on the new Tartan Turf rug and tearing the north goalpost right out of its concrete base.

The numbers on the scoreboard were MICHIGAN 24, OHIO STATE 12, but the big winner in sunny Ann Arbor was the Rose Bowl. By Big Ten rule Ohio State could not go because the Buckeyes played in Pasadena last season. Now, instead of having the second- or even third-best team from the conference, the Rose Bowl will get a Michigan team that not only is the league co-champion but also earned its way in style, whipping the Buckeyes head-to-head. As Michigan's bright young coach, Bo Schembechler, told the press after the game, "Nobody here wanted to go as the Number 2 team. That would have been tough. It was an emotional thing for us. Now we're going as co-champions of the Big Ten—and don't forget that."

As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes will sit at home on New Year's Day, but now they will not even have the consolation of being No. 1. Who knows what went wrong—why they had looked so flat all afternoon, even when leading. Perhaps it was a letdown after getting so high for Purdue the week before. Perhaps it was overconfidence or that lack of a Rose Bowl incentive. But a lot of it was Michigan.

The door to Ohio State's locker room remained shut long after the game, except for the 18 seconds it took Hayes to conduct what had to pass for a press conference. Opening the door a crack and thrusting out his gray, jowly head, Woody said, "All good things must come to an end, and that's what happened today. We just got outplayed, outpunched and outcoached. Our offense in the second half was miserable, and we made every mistake you could possibly make." With that, Woody shut the door again, and for the time being that was as close as the waiting world would come to finding out how the Buckeyes felt.

There were 103,588 witnesses to the upset, the largest crowd ever to see a college football game, and what they saw was Michigan playing Ohio State's game better than Ohio State, a turn of events that was by no means accidental. Schembechler, 39, was the Buckeyes' line coach under Hayes for five years. Even as a young man learning at the master's knee he displayed such a passion for Hayes's tactics, both psychological and physical, that his peers dubbed him Little Woody, a nickname that has stuck even though Schembechler himself is not particularly fond of it.

The Schembechler game plan had gone into effect a week earlier, right after Michigan drubbed Iowa 51--6, its seventh win in nine starts. "We knew right then that we were going to beat Ohio State," he said later. Schembechler personally kept the fires burning, even to the point of making the players on his scout team wear a tiny number 50 on their practice jerseys, a gentle reminder of the Buckeyes' 50--14 rout of the Wolverines last year.

Around his home Schembechler, like Hayes before big games, was a monster. He not only ignored his wife, Millie, but he also made her sleep in the baby's room so that neither woman nor child would disturb his concentration. Even on Thursday night, when Millie fixed his favorite dish, Southern-style chicken and dumplings, Bo showed only a glimmer of appreciation. "He was completely preoccupied," Millie said, laughing as wives do on these occasions. "He couldn't remember what he had told me from one day to the next."

The way to beat Ohio State, Schembechler had decided, was to concede fullback Jim Otis his yardage and concentrate on stopping Kern, the Buckeyes' superb quarterback. "We didn't want Kern running the football," Schembechler said, "so we set our defenses for him. We felt that our secondary could stop his passing, and we felt that we could score against their defense by running at 'em, which is something nobody had done." Sound familiar? You can look it up in the Woody Hayes textbook on winning: Always attack an opponent at his strongest point.

As Schembechler was quick to point out, too, Michigan had a few Jack Tatums and Rex Kerns of its own. There was the pass defense, built around Tom Curtis and Barry Pierson, and there was the passing attack, with quarterback Don Moorhead and tight end Jim Mandich. But the surprise find of the season was tailback Billy Taylor, a boy from Schembechler's home town of Barberton, Ohio, who in Michigan's first five games had played only enough to work up a good sweat. But after fumbling on his first two plays against Minnesota, Taylor gained 151 yards in little more than a half, and the Wolverines had themselves a runner.

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