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Big moments in Ohio State football history: Nov. 23, 1968

Buckeyes thump TTUN on way to national title.

Ohio State University vs University of Michigan
Quarterback Rex Kern leads the Buckeyes against Michigan
Set Number: X13681

Ohio State and Michigan have played each other on the football field 116 times. That’s a lot of games and a lot of opportunities for “big moments.” The series started out pretty rocky for the Bucks, as they lost that initial contest in 1897, 34-0, and didn’t win until the 16th meeting in 1919. Before that game, the Wolverines had won 13 with two games ending in ties.

The biggest OSU margin of victory among the 51 wins occurred in 1935 in Ann Arbor, when the Bucks won 38-0. Sweet. But it was so far back that even I don’t remember the game. I do, however, recall the monumental battle in 1968. The game was important in its own right, as are all Ohio State-Michigan games. But this one was special. And truly a big moment.

The 1968 Buckeye season

The Buckeyes came into that final regular season game undefeated, 8-0, and ranked No. 2 in the country. They were predicted to be good, just not this good. The Bucks’ preseason ranking was No. 11, and they had moved steadily upward in the polls as the wins mounted.

The offense was led by quarterback Rex Kern, a sophomore on a team loaded with them. (Freshmen weren’t eligible, and OSU started 11 sophomores against Michigan.) In 10 games that year, Kern threw 131 passes and completed 75 of them (57.3%) for 972 yards, seven touchdowns, and six interceptions. Kern was more dangerous, though, as a runner. And he loved the option play. As a runner, Kern gained over 500 yards and scored eight rushing TDs.

In the backfield with him were a number of stars and soon-to-be stars: Jim Otis, John Brockington, Dave Brungard, Leo Hayden, and Larry Zelina. They all carried the ball. The Buckeye rushing offense averaged over 300 yards per game and better than four and a half yards per carry. Tight end Bruce Jankowski and wideout Jan White were the top receivers for the rare passing plays.

Jim Stillwagon was the leader of the defense, but one of my favorite Buckeyes of all time – Jack Tatum – roamed the secondary. And the defense was good. Most teams those days, especially in the Big Ten, were running teams, and the Buckeye D could stop the run. Opponents averaged only 115 rushing yards per game, 2.7 yards per carry.

Ranked No. 2 entering the Michigan game, Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes knew that a win would put them in the Rose Bowl, likely against No. 1 Southern Cal. A win over the Trojans, and the Bucks could hoist the championship trophy. The stakes were high.

The Game

Michigan, too, was having a great year. Bump Elliott’s club dropped the season opener to Cal 21-7, but then won seven straight, coming to Columbus tied for the lead in the conference and boasting a No. 4 national ranking. Michigan’s rushing attack was formidable. The great Ron Johnson carried the ball and the team all season. Against Wisconsin, just the week before the matchup with Ohio State, Johnson rushed for 347 yards! Any team would have their hands full trying to stop him.

The Wolverines’ opening drive looked promising, until Tatum rocked quarterback Dennis Brown, causing a fumble that the Buckeyes recovered. The Bucks stalled and punted to the UM 20. From there, Michigan drove the length of the field – in what would turn out to be their only sustained drive – to take a 7-0 lead. The lead went back and forth until OSU back Larry Zelina took it in from the six-yard line to break a 14-14 tie. The Buckeyes carried that 21-14 lead into the half. And then crushed Michigan after halftime.

Ohio State’s defense stopped Johnson in the second half, stopped the Michigan offense completely, and held them scoreless. As they fell further behind, the Wolverines turned desperately to a passing game that wasn’t very good, and OSU picked off three of the passes. Ohio State scored 29 points in the second half to make the final score a very satisfying 50-14.

Ohio State University vs University of Michigan
Jim Otis scores one of his four TDs
Set Number: X13681

The Buckeye rushing attack averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That doesn’t sound like much – until you notice that they ran 79 rushing plays in the game, gaining a net of 421 yards. And the defense held Michigan to 140 net rushing yards. Johnson had 91 on 21 carries. Otis ran for 143 yards on 34 attempts and scored four touchdowns. Kern added 96 rushing yards. And Zelina rushed for 92 more. Tatum had 12 total tackles, one forced fumble, and one interception. Stillwagon made nine tackles.

Why it’s important

With the victory, the Buckeyes won the Big Ten title, moved up to No. 1 in the AP rankings, and beat Southern Cal 27-16 in the Rose Bowl. They finished the season 10-0 and national champions.

As wins over Michigan go, there are lots of fine ones. As I said, the 1968 win wasn’t the most lopsided victory (it ranks second), and the 50 points put on the board are fewer than the 56 in 2019 or the 62 in 2018, but this one led to championships. And I’m sure that I’m not the only Buckeye fan who remembers it fondly.