By the midpoint of the 1967 season, Woody Hayes was on shaky ground as OSU’s football coach. The decision by the school’s Faculty Council to deny his 1961 Big 10 championship team a Rose Bowl trip had seriously hindered recruiting that decade. And after suffering a 4-5 season in 1966, Hayes’ ’67 group had come out of the gate 2-3, including a 41-6 beating at the hands of Purdue and a 17-13 loss to Illinois- the Bucks’ second straight loss to the Illini.
No one could have forecast it then, but that loss to Illinois would be the last time Ohio State would taste defeat until November 22, 1969 in Ann Arbor. The 1967 team got the ball rolling by winning their last four, and waiting in the wings as freshmen (who were ineligible for varsity games) was arguably the greatest recruiting class in Ohio State history. Collectively, they would come to be known as the “Super Sophs”, and in 1968 a dozen of them would eventually crack the starting lineups.
The ’68 Bucks withstood a 76-pass barrage by SMU to win their opener, then dispatched Oregon before pulling off the legendary 13-0 upset of #1 Purdue. OSU moved up to #2 in the AP poll after derailing the Boilers, and justified the ranking by routing Northwestern 45-21 the next week. The 4-0 start had all been accomplished within the friendly confines of Ohio Stadium, and now the Buckeyes would take their overall 8-game win streak into Champaign for Illinois’ homecoming game.
The Illini were winless to this point of the season, and it showed as the Buckeyes steamrolled to a 24-0 halftime lead. Jim Roman got OSU on the board with a 21-yard field goal in the first quarter, then in period two fullback Jim Otis had scampers of 31 and 17 on a drive that he capped off with a one-yard plunge over the right side. Later quarterback Rex Kern sneaked right up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown to make it 17-0, OSU. The yardage continued to come in chunks as Kern passed to wingback Larry Zelina for 10 and tight end Jan White for 23 on a march that he would cap with his second TD of the day- a 15-yard option keeper over the left side.
Things had come easily to Ohio State in the first half as 17 first downs, 294 yards and 24 points would attest. At halftime middle guard Jim Stillwagon was basically informed he was done for the day, and as he told former Columbus Dispatch writer Paul Hornung in the book “Woody Hayes- A Reflection”, Hayes used the halftime to pontificate about Abraham Lincoln since they were in Illinois, “The Land Of Lincoln”.
“Woody came into the dressing room and started talking about Lincoln…Here we were…in the middle of a Big Ten game- and he was talking about Lincoln. We went out in the second half and almost got our a##es beat.”
Ohio State was actually fortunate to that point that the offense had brought their “A” game. Linebacker and captain Dirk Worden was out, corner Mike Polaski and end Mark Debevc hadn’t even made the trip, corner Tim Anderson had gone out in the second quarter with a back injury and Jack Tatum hadn’t played yet with an ankle injury he suffered the week before against Northwestern. The patchwork defense had held Illinois to only 3 first downs and 84 total yards in the first half but the dam was about to break.
Illinois started the third quarter with a spread offense. Their offensive tackle lined up further away from the guard and a slotback filled that gap behind them. The Illini ran their backs out of this look to the tune of 177 yards in the second half. A Rex Kern interception set up a short scoring drive for the Orange and Blue that Richard Johnson finished with a 2-yard TD run. Johnson also scooted for the 2-point conversion to make it 24-8. On Illinois’ next drive they converted a pair of fourth-down plays and hit paydirt as quarterback Robert Naponic went over from 2 yards away. Naponic added another 2-point conversion and after three quarters it was suddenly 24-16, Buckeyes.
Late in the fourth quarter the Illini pulled even as a drive that was aided by an OSU personal foul penalty was topped off on a short run by backup fullback Ken Bargo. Amazingly, Bargo did the honors on a 2-point run and in a comeback that probably had Lincoln rolling in his grave the game was now tied at 24. In 159 previous games under Woody Hayes only 13 opponents had scored 24 or more points on Ohio State, and what’s worse is OSU had lost every one of them. Now, after Jim Otis fumbled and recovered Illinois’ ensuing kickoff on his own 26, the Bucks had 4:38 left to salvage their 4-0 start.
Rex Kern scrambled for 8 and Zelina picked up 2 to give Ohio State a first down at their own 36. On the next play Kern was dropped for a loss of 6 and just to throw more gas on the fire Rex had to leave the game with a head injury. Ron Maciejowski came on and revved up the dormant OSU offense, dialing up Zelina for 10 and then racing for 12 yards and a first down on the Illini 48. The back-to-back quick strikes had the Illinois “D” confounded and they lined up for the next snap without formally huddling. Wingback Larry Zelina got lost down the middle and “Mace” hit him with a perfect toss at the 27 which Zelina then took all the way to the Illini 4. Without question, in this magical season of ’68 the 44-yard pass play would shine brightly by year’s end. From here it was Jim Otis’ turn and the junior plowed over two plays later from the 2. Roman’s PAT made it 31-24 with 1:30 to go.
Illinois had made hay with their running attack in the second half but now had to go to the air. Safety Mike Sensibaugh just missed a diving interception but on the very next play the Illini went in his direction again and this time Sensibaugh picked it off to seal the deal. Illinois would finish the 1968 season at 1-9, but for 30 minutes had given the Bucks all they could handle. Maciejowski would earn the nickname “Super Sub” for his heroic efforts down the stretch in relief of Rex Kern and OSU would continue on their way to a national championship. In the book “Ohio State ’68: All The Way To The Top”, Mike Polaski admitted that the tight Illinois win “…might have been the best thing for us, because if there’d been a blowout there it might’ve led to big-headedness down the road.”