Step back in time to when the Big Ten conference had (ready for it?) 10 members. A time (in this specific case, 1958) when Sports Illustrated called the Big Ten “the toughest of all football leagues.” ‘Toughest’ here means both the best teams and, therefore, the toughest conference in which to win a championship, and also the physical, hard-nosed, football played by conference members.
Background to a rivalry
With the exception of 1959 — an off year for both teams, as Wisconsin won the league — Iowa and Ohio State battled for the Big Ten championship from 1956 through 1960, and were in the hunt for national titles as well. These were the great years of this rivalry. Yes, the Buckeyes still played TTUN in the final regular season game, but, in these years, the Wolverines didn’t have much and didn’t put up much of a fight. Not the case with the Hawkeyes, though, who faced the Buckeyes each season in the next to last game.
The teams in the rivalry were similar. They were characterized by toughness (that word again), tough lines on both sides of the ball, big tough running backs, hard-hitting defenses. (Remember Alex Karras, the Iowa star?) And they were characterized by their legendary coaches – Woody Hayes for the Bucks and Forest Evashevski for the Hawkeyes. Hayes began as OSU head coach in 1951, and Evashevski began at Iowa the following year. Hayes remained as head coach through the 1978 season, but Evashevski moved on to become Iowa Athletic Director in 1960, a post he held for ten years.
The 71-player Iowa roster that Evashevski inherited in 1952 had 56 Iowans on it. In fact, only four players came from somewhere other than Iowa, Illinois, or Missouri. By the time that 1958 rolled around, and Evashevski staked his claim to a national championship, more than two thirds of his players were from out of state. The coach well knew that he couldn’t be a performer on the national stage – always his ambition for the program – with only players from small Iowa farm towns.
1956: Iowa wins its first solo Big Ten football championship
On Nov. 17, 1956, the Ohio State Buckeyes arrived in Iowa City bringing with them a 17-game Big Ten win streak. A month earlier, the Bucks had lost 7-6 to independent Penn State, but their record was otherwise unblemished. They were clearly the dominant team in the Midwest and had been for a while. Ranked No. 6 in the nation, they expected to handle the No. 7 Hawkeyes with some ease. They didn’t.
The Iowa defense stymied the Buckeyes all afternoon. They held the vaunted OSU rushing attack to a mere 147 yards — its lowest total in over two years. The Hawkeye offense didn’t fare much better, except for one nine-play drive that covered 63 yards, capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ken Ploen to Jim Gibbons. The extra-point kick attempt was off the mark. The score was 6-0 after Iowa’s first possession of the second half. And it stayed that way.
The win over Ohio State sent the champion Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl, where they beat Oregon State 35-19. Writer Bert McGrane of the Des Moines Register said, “This was the greatest victory of all. It meant more than any game ever played in Iowa Stadium.” The Columbus Citizen’s Kaye Kessler agreed: “A football dynasty died here this bright Saturday. But another was born.” And so, the rivalry began.
Buckeye revenge in 1957
After getting shutout by Iowa in 1956, the Buckeyes also failed to score against Michigan and lost 19-0 to finish the season a disappointing 6-3 (4-2 in conference play). Woody and his team hoped to right the ship in 1957 but suffered an immediate setback, as they fell to TCU 18-14 in the season opener. Then the Buckeyes reeled off six straight wins and, with their 6-1 record and No. 6 national ranking, got ready for the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa was actually slightly better at 6-0-1 and a No. 5 ranking.
Even though Ohio State would intercept three Iowa passes, the game was close throughout. Third-string fullback Bob White, whom Sports Illustrated would call “a tank with cleats” the next year when he was a starter, scored a late fourth-quarter TD to give the Buckeyes a 17-13 victory and hand Iowa what would turn out to be their only loss of the 1957 season. The conference title went to OSU, who went on to beat Michigan 31-14 and then Oregon 10-7 in the Rose Bowl. With a 9-1 season record (7-0 in the Big Ten), the Buckeyes finished ranked No. 2 in the polls.
Home field edge broken in 1958
1958 was an odd season for Ohio State. Beginning the year ranked No. 1 in preseason polls, the Bucks won their first four games, then tied No. 13 Wisconsin 7-7 in the fifth game. The Buckeyes then were shocked by Ara Parseghian’s Northwestern Wildcats 21-0 in Evanston. Another tie, this time with Purdue 14-14, finished off a rough three-game stretch. The Bucks limped back to Iowa City with a 4-1-2 record and a No. 16 ranking.
Iowa sought to avenge the one loss from the previous year — a loss that likely cost them a national championship. The Hawks were unbeaten in conference games and ranked second in the nation. It was another close one. The score was tied 21-21 at the half and 28-28 after three quarters. But Ohio State scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and won the game 38-28. The game was so exciting that the Iowa fans cheered both teams at its conclusion. Even Evashevski said that he would have enjoyed it if he had been in the stands rather than coaching.
Iowa won the Big Ten championship anyway and then beat Cal in the Rose Bowl. LSU finished top-ranked in the polls, with Iowa second. But one of the polls considered regular season games only, and Iowa fans believed that a re-vote after the Rose Bowl would tell a different story. Once again, the loss to the Buckeyes was costly.
Iowa gets payback in 1960
Ohio State was ranked No. 3 when they rolled into Iowa City in the next to last game of the regular season in 1960. The Buckeyes boasted of a running game that combined the talents of QB Tom Matte with the power of Bob Ferguson. And on that November day, Matte ran for 118 net yards, and Ferguson picked up 80 more.
And No. 5 Iowa rushed for 361 yards and routed the Buckeyes 35-12. With the score at 28-6, it was really over at the half. And the Hawkeyes finally had their revenge. But it was the final game of this brief, but intense rivalry for Big Ten dominance. Forest Evashevski moved on to the AD job after the season. The Hawkeyes fell to 5-4 in 1961, the glory days already beginning to fade.
But Iowa will return this year to Ohio Stadium on Oct. 22. The series will be renewed, and I hope that the Buckeyes are ready. I also hope that there will be a distinct memory of what happened in 2017, when the Hawkeyes ruined OSU’s season with a 55-24 drubbing, Iowa’s largest margin of victory over the Buckeyes in the long series. Vengeance time. And time for a new rivalry to begin.