Ohio State and Michigan have played each other 116 times on the football field. That’s a lot of games and a lot of opportunities for “big moments”. The series started out pretty rough for the Bucks, as they lost that first contest in 1897, 34-0, and won only the 16e meeting in 1919. Prior to this game, Wolverines had won 13 with two games ending in ties.
OSU’s biggest margin of victory among 51 wins occurred in 1935 at Ann Arbor, when the Bucks won 38-0. Sweet. But it was so far that even I don’t remember the game. I do, however, remember the monumental battle of 1968. The game was important on its own, as are all Ohio State-Michigan games. But this one was special. And really a great time.
Buckeye’s 1968 season
The Buckeyes entered this final regular season game undefeated, 8-0, and ranked No. 2 in the nation. We expected them to be good, but not so good. The Bucks’ preseason ranking was No. 11, and they had steadily risen in the polls as wins increased.
The offense was led by quarterback Rex Kern, a sophomore on a loaded team with them. (Freshmen were ineligible, and OSU started 11 sophomore games against Michigan.) In 10 games that year, Kern threw 131 passes and completed 75 (57.3 percent ) for 972 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Kern was more dangerous as a runner, however. And he loved the options game. As a rusher, Kern gained over 500 yards and scored eight rushing touchdowns.
In the backfield with him were a number of stars and future stars: Jim Otis, John Brockington, Dave Brungard, Leo Hayden and Larry Zelina. They were all carrying the ball. Buckeye’s rushing offense averaged over 300 yards per game and over four and a half yards per carry. Tight end Bruce Jankowski and wide Jan White were top receivers for the rare passing plays.
Jim Stillwagon was the chief of defense, but one of my all-time favorite Buckeyes – Jack Tatum – was roaming high school. And the defense was good. Most teams these days, especially in the Big Ten, were running teams, and the Buckeye D could stop the run. Opponents have averaged just 115 rushing yards per game, 2.7 yards per carry.
Ranked No. 2 entering Michigan’s game, Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes knew a win would put them in the pink bowl, likely against No. 1 Southern Cal. A victory over the Trojans, and the Bucks could hoist the championship trophy. The stakes were high.
Michigan, too, had a great year. Bump Elliott’s club dropped the season opener to Cal 21-7 but went on to win seven straight, coming to Columbus tied for the conference lead and boasting a No. 4 national ranking. Michigan’s rushing offense was formidable. The great Ron Johnson has carried the ball and the team all season. Against Wisconsin, just the week before the Ohio State game, Johnson rushed for 347 yards! Any team would have their hands full trying to stop him.
The Wolverines’ opening practice looked promising, until Tatum rattled off quarterback Dennis Brown, prompting a fumble which the Buckeyes recovered. The Bucks stalled and punted toward UM 20. From there, Michigan ran the full length of the field — in what turned out to be their only sustained drive — to take a 7-0 lead. The lead went back and forth until OSU guard Larry Zelina caught it from the six-yard line to break a 14-14 tie. The Buckeyes extended that 21-14 lead into the half. And then crushed Michigan after halftime.
Ohio State’s defense stopped Johnson in the second half, shut down Michigan’s offense completely, and held them scoreless. As they fell further and further behind, the Wolverines desperately turned to a passing game that wasn’t very good, and OSU completed three of the passes. Ohio State scored 29 points in the second half to make the final score a very satisfying 50-14.
Buckeye’s rushing offense averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That doesn’t seem like much – until you notice they made 79 rushing plays in the game, earning 421 yards. And the defense held Michigan to 140 net rushing yards. Johnson had 91 of 21 carries. Otis rushed for 143 yards on 34 attempts and scored four touchdowns. Kern added 96 rushing yards. And Zelina rushed for another 92. Tatum had 12 total tackles, one forced fumble and one interception. Stillwagon had nine tackles.
why it matters
With the win, the Buckeyes captured the Big Ten title, moved to No. 1 in the AP standings, and defeated Southern Cal 27-16 in the Rose Bowl. They finished the season 10-0 and national champions.
As wins over Michigan come, there are plenty of great ones. Like I said, the 1968 win wasn’t the most lopsided win (it ranks second), and the 50 points on the board are lower than the 56 in 2019 or the 62 in 2018, but this one led to championships. And I’m sure I’m not the only Buckeye fan who remembers it fondly.