When was the last time that the Purdue Boilermakers were #1 in the country in football? The real answer to that question is October of 1968.
College football and sports in general were not as popular back then. There wasn’t all the money involved with major college football programs like there is today. Because of that, the seasons usually didn’t start until mid to late September. They started later and only played 10 games and then they had the bowl games no later than January 1st. There were only 10 bowl games back then, not the huge number of bowls like we have now. It’s all about the money.
The Purdue Boilermakers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are huge rivals and they have been since 1896. As one would expect, Notre Dame owns the series with a 57-26-2 lead.
Purdue began the season on September 21st, 1968 with a 44-6 beating of Virginia. #3 Notre Dame whipped #5 Oklahoma 45-21 in South Bend. #2 USC beat #15 Minnesota in Minnesota 29-20 and mysteriously dropped a notch to #3 as the Irish became #2 setting up a classic #1 vs #2 battle between the Boilermakers and the Irish.
The perfect match up was set. Old time traditional in state rivals, Purdue and Notre Dame would meet again and this time the battle was for #1. This would be the only game in this storied rivalry that featured #1 vs #2. Directly after this game was the only time Purdue football ever made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
It was billed as the Battle of the QBs, Mike Phipps vs Terry Hanratty. Hanratty was the All American QB in 1968 and Phipps would be the All American QB in 1969.
Purdue had QB Mike Phipps, All Americans Running Back Leroy Keyes and Nose Guard Chuck Kyle.
Notre Dame countered with All Americans QB Terry Hanratty, WR Jim Seymour and Offensive Tackle George Kunz.
In spite of all of the hype and the build up to the game naming this the battle of the QBs, it was RB Leroy Keyes that stole the show and scored 2 TDs on the ground and threw for another. Keyes along with Bob Dillingham who caught 11 passes that day.
Boilermakers scored first on a 34 yard FG. Notre Dame drove down the next series and scored to go up, 7-3.
Mike Phipps then impressively drove his team down the field with three throws to Dillingham and one to Keyes. Then, Keyes had an impressive 16 yard TD run to put Purdue back in the lead at 10-7 with 5 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Irish tried to answer, and Hanratty’s pass got tipped and then picked off and returned to the Irish 30 yard line. On an option pass, Keyes then hit Dillingham for a TD to put the Boilermakers up 17-7. Notre Dame then fumbled on their own 41. 2 passes from Phipps to Dillingham and the Irish were down 23-7 going into the half.
The Irish scored in the 3rd to close the gap to 23-14, but Purdue came right back and Keyes took it in from 18 yards out for another TD and a 30-14 lead.
Hanratty threw another interception. Purdue scored again to go up 37-14 and would hang on to win, 37-22.
This game, unlike the previous years hyped up game USC vs UCLA, did not live up to expectations as Purdue won rather easily.
The significance in my eyes was that Purdue was #1. September 28, 1968.
Purdue would remain #1 up until October 12, 1968 when they lost to Ohio State 13-0. It was the last time at #1 for Purdue and I always wondered if they knew what they were getting into when they met the super sophomores of Ohio State. They basically ran into a buzz saw.
The 1968 season would climax with yet another battle between #1 and #2 when Ohio State won the Big 10 and USC again won the Pac 8.
In 1967, USC took on #1 UCLA in what would be a physical mismatch due to USC having so much talent. In 1968, that was not the case at all. Ohio State was absolutely loaded just like the Trojans. The Buckeyes had the famous ‘super sophomore’ class which contained QB Rex Kern, Jim Otis, John Brockington, Jack Tatum, Mike Sensibaugh and Jim Stillwagon. All of those guys went on to pro football careers. They also had Dave Foley and Rufus Mayes in the Offensive Line. Dave Foley was a 1st round draft pick by the Jets and would be traded to the Buffalo Bills where he would ironically block for the Trojan’s OJ Simpson for the rest of his career. Sensibaugh still holds Buckeye interception records, he punted and also returned punts. A player punting and also returning punts is just something you don’t see anymore. Times have changed.
Tatum was one of the greatest college and NFL players of all time. Woody Hayes was the Head Coach for the Buckeyes but on his staff that year was Offensive Line coach Earl Bruce and Defensive Backs coach Lou Holtz. Bruce would later become the Buckeye head coach and Lou Holtz would coach Notre Dame to a national title after successful coaching jobs at North Carolina State and Arkansas.
Incidentally, it was Woody Hayes that was famous for so many old school football sayings like ‘3 yards and a cloud of dust’ and ‘3 things can happen when you throw the ball and 2 of them are bad’. He also said ‘you can count a loss for every sophomore you have in the starting line up’.
This 1968 team has been called the greatest in Ohio State history and a good portion of the starters were sophomores. They did not lose a game in 1968, so one could mark Woody Hayes saying losing a game for every sophomore starting as just a clever saying. Certainly wasn’t true of the sophomores on this team because they went undefeated in 1968 and 27-2 over all in their entire career at Ohio State.
USC, had Heisman Trophy winner OJ Simpson, Bob Chandler, Bob Klein, Al Cowlings, Sandy Durko, Jimmy Gunn, Bill Hayhoe, Mike Holmgren, Gerry Mullins, and Sid Smith. USC was loaded like most years.
The hype leading up to this game was amazing. 1969 was to be the 100th year of college football and I remember schools wearing the number 100 on their uniforms. January 1st, 1969 was the beginning of all of that.
President Nixon called this game ‘the prize game for all bowl games’.
This one was for all the marbles, the national championship.
USC dominated early. The Trojans drove down and kicked a Field Goal to go up 3-0. OJ Simpson then took a student body left pitch and cut back against the grain to take the ball 80 yards for a TD. USC is up 10-0, on Simpson’s amazing run.
Ohio State drove it down the field with the key play being a Rex Kern 3rd and 13 pass to Ray Gillian down to the USC 3. Jim Otis scored on a 1 yard dive.
OSU drove the ball and kicked a 16 yard FG right before half time to tie it 10-10.
Second half, USC started turning the ball over. Pitch out to OJ bounced right off his chest and the Buckeyes’ Sensibaugh recovered. Buckeyes kicked a Field Goal to take the lead. Then, the Buckeye defense sacked Trojan QB Steve Sogge which caused him to fumble.
That time, super sophomore Rex Kern led the Buckeyes to a TD which took them to a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter.
Sogge threw a swing pass to OJ and OJ fumbled the ball, which Sensibaugh of the Buckeyes recovered for another break.
7 sophomores started on buckeye offense and the young guys drove it down and scored on a Kern to Gillian pass.
Desperate USC attempted a pitchout to Simpson who tried a halfback pass which got picked off in the endzone. OJ was responsible for 3 of the turnovers. One might say he had a horrible day but Simpson still managed to rush for about 170 yards.
USC got a late score on a bad call which made it 27-16 giving Ohio State the outright national title.
Without all of the turnovers, this might have been a different game. But, that’s football.
The Ohio State Buckeyes won the 1968 National Championship with a team filled with sophomores and the rest of the country needed to beware of them in 1969 and 1970