Long before the Bowl Championship Series or the College Football Playoffs, national championships came about as the result of votes. The best that you could hope for was a “consensus” championship; that is, the various voters – coaches, sportswriters, etc. – would agree with their respective polls. Because of the conference bowl tie-ins, an end of season game between No. 1 and No. 2 was pretty rare.
It did happen, though, on Jan. 1, 1969 in the Rose Bowl following the 1968 season. After running the table and sitting at 9-0 (7-0 in big Ten play), the Ohio State Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the nation and were headed to Pasadena to play the No. 2 Trojans of the University of Southern California.
By the season’s end, the Bucks were the best team in the country. When they lined up in late September for the opener against SMU, however, a great season was certainly not assured. The Buckeyes began that season ranked No. 11, but there were a lot of question marks. Maybe 16 of them. That’s how many sophomores started in the Rose Bowl for Ohio State and had started for most of the year. Remember: freshmen weren’t eligible, so these players were all playing in their first season.
A lot of OSU’s “Super Sophs” etched their names in the record books, and were All-Americans and even Hall of Famers. We know the names: Rex Kern (QB), Jim Otis (RB), John Brockington (RB), Leo Hayden (RB), Jim Stillwagon (DL), Jack Tatum (DB). We know what great careers they had in Columbus, and we know about the great teams that they played on in 1969 and 1970, as well as 1968. But they were untested. The young team was lucky, I suppose, that the first four games were played at home.
The Bucks took care of the non-conference teams pretty handily, beating the SMU Mustangs 35-14 in the opener and then shooting down the Oregon Ducks, 21-6, in the second game. OSU had moved up in the AP poll from No. 11 to No. 6 for the Oregon game. They jumped two more slots after that second win.
On Oct. 12, the Boilermakers of Purdue came into town, ranked No. 1 and presenting the young Buckeyes their first big challenge. Purdue had beaten the No. 2-ranked Irish of Notre Dame by 15 in South Bend, and, with Mike Phipps at quarterback, were a force. The challenge was met, as the very tough defense prevailed: Ohio State 13, Purdue 0. The Buckeyes moved up to No. 2 in the polls, where they stayed until the end of the season.
The defense was great. Kern, Otis, Tatum and Stillwagon were getting better game by game, and the wins kept coming. But they weren’t romps; they were tough, grind-them-out, Big Ten games. OSU 45, Northwestern 24; OSU 31, Illinois 24; OSU 25, No. 16 Michigan State 20; OSU 43, Wisconsin 8; OSU 33, Iowa 27. 8-0.
Then, it was time for TTUN. Michigan was ranked No. 4 and came to Columbus to play in the traditional final game of the regular season. A lot of hype, a lot of buzz on both sides. Bump Elliott’s Wolverines lost their season opener to Cal, 21-7, but then reeled off eight victories in a row, including lopsided shutouts against Northwestern and Illinois. Like Ohio State, Michigan was 6-0 in the conference, and the championship and Rose Bowl bid rested on the outcome.
But the outcome wasn’t in doubt for very long, as it quickly turned into a Buckeye rout. By the time that the Michigan drivers were starting up the buses, the final score was OSU 50, UM 14. That was enough for the AP balloters, and the Buckeyes moved up to No. 1.
The Rose Bowl
The Trojans won the PAC-8 conference and, after a No. 2 preseason ranking, had been ranked No. 1 for most of the year. While the Buckeyes were pounding TTUN, USC tied Notre Dame, 21-21, allowing OSU to trade places in the rankings. And the Rose Bowl was set for one versus two. The game was huge. Over 102,000 attended, among them President-elect Richard Nixon.
Southern Cal, coached by John McKay, had been a national powerhouse for years. Their trademark tailbacks and solid passing game gave opponents headaches. The 1968 season was no exception.
At tailback for the Trojans was Heisman Trophy-winner O.J. Simpson. The Bucks had handled Michigan running back Ron Johnson, but Simpson’s world-class speed was another matter, as the Buckeyes discovered about halfway through the game’s second quarter, when Simpson broke free for an 80-yard touchdown scamper. The score followed an earlier Trojan field goal, and USC led 10-0. Buckeye coach Woody Hayes, whose vaunted defense had yielded only one run of more than 15 yards all season, was livid with his players. The tide turned at that point. Ohio State scored 27 unanswered points. Southern Cal didn’t score again until only six seconds remained in the game.
The Buckeyes tied it up before the first half ended on a one-yard touchdown run by Jim Otis and a 26-yard Jim Roman field goal. Roman hit another one in the third quarter, and the Bucks led 13-10 heading into the fourth. The Trojans fell apart. Two of their five turnovers occurred deep in their own territory in the final quarter. The Bucks capitalized on both. Kern threw a four-yard TD pass to Hayden at the 13:52 mark and then found Ray Gillian in the end zone less than four minutes later. Roman’s PATs made the score 27-10. Six points at the end of the game made the final score a little more respectable for USC, but they were beaten soundly.
O.J. ran for 171 yards in the game – stats certainly boosted by the 80-yarder. But two of the Trojan turnovers were his. Ohio State put up 260 rushing yards; Otis ran 30 times for 101 yards, Hayden 15 for 90 yards. Rex Kern was named the game’s most valuable player after passing for 101 yards (9-of-15) with two TDs and rushing for 35 more yards .
The game’s significance
John Brockington is reported to have said, “we had no fun in California. All Woody wanted to do was kick their asses and go home.”
The ass-kicking proved important in a number of ways. Some Buckeye football historians see that 1969 Rose Bowl as a pivotal point in OSU history. It’s certainly true that the Buckeye winning percentage is considerably higher after this game than before. More importantly, I think, Ohio State won – and won big – on the biggest national stage. It’s one thing to beat a good Iowa team or to contend with Michigan for a conference title. But, with that decisive win over O.J. Simpson and his Southern Cal team, Ohio State became a true national power. They were now on a par with Oklahoma and Notre Dame and Texas. OSU would start recruiting nationally and play to a national following.
The following two seasons (1969 and 1970) had disappointments, but look at the accomplishments. In 1969, the Buckeyes were ranked first in the preseason and first all year, as they won their first eight games. The disappointment came in the ninth game, in Ann Arbor, 24-12. No bowl game. Prior to that loss, the Bucks had clobbered all opponents, no game closer than 27 points. In 1970, OSU won all nine of their regular-season games, paying the Wolverines back, 20-9. The disappointment this time was in the Rose Bowl, as the Buckeyes lost to Stanford and Heisman-winner Jim Plunkett, 27-17.
But the point is that Ohio State was now in the conversation for national titles every year —and usually has been since then. The 1969 Rose Bowl win was one of the great moments in the very storied history that is Ohio State football.