On this date in Ohio State football: Sept. 28, 1968

Staff Writer
Buckeye Xtra
Quarterback Rex Kern's debut as a Buckeye featured 139 yards passing and three total touchdowns against SMU. [Dispatch file photo]

Taking a look back at a game Ohio State played on this date:

Ohio State 35, SMU 14

Setup: Throughout 28 years as Ohio State football coach and chief autocrat, Woody Hayes managed to stay one step ahead of the posse. Early and often in his tenure, the old man would be the target of whispers or grumbles or even hung effigies about not being up to the task. Columbus was, remember, a coaches graveyard then. But then a 1954 supernova would form, or a ’57 or a ’61, and things would quiet down. By the dawn of the 1968 season, however, the Buckeyes had gone six straight seasons without winning a Big Ten title, and Hayes was feeling the heat. And yet he kept his cool. Hayes knew he had a secret weapon in his 1967 recruiting class, because he saw how they performed in practice as ineligible freshmen against his varsity. Starting with an opener against SMU and coach Hayden Fry, the direction of the 1968 season — and maybe Hayes’ job — would rest on how well Rex Kern, Jim Stillwagon, Jack Tatum, John Brockington and the other now-eligible sophomores would mesh with a decent crop of returning players.

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Stars: Kern’s debut was dubbed the best for an OSU player since Hop Cassady in 1952, with 139 yards passing and three total touchdowns. Junior Dave Brungard caught two of Kern’s TD passes and added 103 yards rushing. Ohio State’s defense, meanwhile, survived an SMU aerial attack as Chuck Hixson completed 37 of 69 passes for 417 yards. The Buckeyes intercepted five passes to stall drives at the OSU 12-, 19-, 18-, 2- and 20-yard lines.

Turning point: Late in the second quarter, Kern had a 16-yard run on fourth-and-10 to set up an 18-yard scoring pass to Brungard to give OSU a 26-7 halftime lead. The Buckeyes led only 26-14 in the fourth quarter before Mark Debevc recorded a safety by tackling Hixson in the end zone, and Kern added a clinching touchdown pass to Brungard.

Impact: Like some of Hayes’ best teams before them (and the 2002 team years later), the 1968 Buckeyes lived a charmed life on the way to a national title. They shut out No. 1 Purdue in week 3, survived close shaves against the likes of woeful Illinois and middling Michigan State, and then destroyed Michigan for a shot at O.J. Simpson and Southern California in the Rose Bowl. Super sophs, super team.

Quotable: “We were about as sharp as a wet doughnut in the second half. But our first quarter was pretty good football.” — Hayes, who learned some valuable lessons in patience with his young team

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