Ohio State’s popular national champions of 1968 (10-0) will be on campus to celebrate their 50th anniversary at this weekend’s game against Minnesota. This gifted squad far exceeded most fans’ expectations, while capturing the Buckeyes’ first Big Ten title and national title since 1961.
Earlier in his career Coach Woody Hayes had been hesitant to use sophomores because of their inexperience (Freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition until 1972). Hayes completely changed that philosophy in 1968, when 16 different sophomores started at least one game.
The 1968 season became a transformational year for Hayes and Ohio State. At the end of the 1961 season, Ohio State’s Faculty Council rejected an invitation to face UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Second place Minnesota instead made the trip to Pasadena and defeated the Bruins, 21-3.
OSU’s Faculty Council decision harmed the football program’s recruiting efforts within its own state. Other schools encouraged Ohio high school seniors to stay away from Ohio State, since the school turned down a Rose Bowl appearance even after winning an outright Big Ten title. The Buckeyes’ winning rate of 65.7% from 1962 through 1967 (35-17-1) was well below Hayes’ 28-year OSU career mark of 76.1% (205-61-10). In 1967 Hayes and his staff began recruiting on a national basis for the first time.
Ohio State opened its 1968 season at home with an active 35-14 victory over SMU, coached by Hayden Fry. The game was far closer than suggested by the 21-point margin of victory. The Mustangs completed 40 of 76 passes for 437 yards, but were intercepted five times deep in Buckeye territory. SMU had drives halted at the Ohio State 12, 19, 18, 2 and 20-yard line. Quarterback Rex Kern directed the offense like a veteran senior rather than a first-game sophomore.
Two weeks later Ohio State opened its conference schedule at home against top-ranked Purdue, the preseason selection for the national title. Remembering an embarrassing 41-6 loss on this same field exactly 52 weeks earlier, the Buckeyes had been pointing for this game all summer. With highly-talented halfback Leroy Keyes and quarterback Mike Phipps in its backfield, Purdue was a solid 13-point favorite.
Although Ohio State advanced deep into Boilermaker territory three times, the first half was scoreless. Early in the third period, with Phipps throwing under heavy pressure, junior cornerback Ted Provost intercepted and scampered 35 yards for one of Ohio Stadium's most celebrated TDs. Later that quarter senior quarterback Bill Long scored from 14 yards out to conclude the scoring at 13-0.
Junior fullback Jim Otis led the Buckeye attack with 144 yards on 29 attempts. Sophomore cornerback Jack Tatum was outstanding, especially with his defense of Keys who was held to just 19 yards rushing. Purdue was held scoreless for the first time in 24 games.
The season’s closest call was a very hard-fought 25-20 home victory over Michigan State on November 2. The Buckeye defense was clearly the difference that afternoon, intercepting three passes and recovering four Spartan fumbles. Linebacker Mike Radtke was particularly impressive, forcing MSU to lose two fumbles in the game’s final 12 minutes.
In the regular season finale, Ohio State spotted Michigan an early 7-0 lead before scoring three times to lead 21-14 at halftime. The Buckeyes blanked the Wolverines 29-0 in the final two quarters to triumph convincingly, 50-14. Seldom has Ohio State outplayed an opponent so convincingly for an entire half.
The #1 ranked Buckeyes faced #2 Southern California in the Rose Bowl. After allowing the Trojans to take a 10-0 lead midway through the second period, Ohio State responded with 27 consecutive points. Kern threw TD passes to Leo Hayden (4 yards) and Ray Gillian (16 yards) in the final period. USC scored a controversial touchdown with 45 seconds remaining to make the final score, 27-16.
Offensive tackles Dave Foley and Rufus Mayes were both named All-American, and linebacker Mark Stier was selected the team’s MVP. After the victory, Woody Hayes quickly departed on one of his many self-financed trips to visit with U.S. Troops in Vietnam.
The 1968 Buckeyes were a great team that gave OSU fans many happy memories. But the finest indication of their greatness came during their 20th anniversary in 1988, when they presented their university with a $1.2 million endowment in memory of their beloved head coach.