There's an old saying in football that says "Great players come up big in big games". When you're talking about Ohio State football, there is no game bigger than the annual rivalry game against Michigan. Many Buckeye legends are made with performances against the Wolverines. In 1972, a new player entered the scene as a freshman in his first ever OSU-Michigan game, and that player would come up big. As it turned out, he ultimately became the greatest OSU legend of them all.
For many years, whenever a college had a great recruiting class, the fans would eagerly look forward to the performances of the "super sophs", as freshmen were ineligible to play football under NCAA regulations. However, that rule ended in 1972 and freshmen were allowed to participate in college football for the first time ever. The rule change was an enormous help to Ohio State, as they were bringing in several excellent prospects in the freshman class. One of the most intriguing was a 5'9" running back from Columbus named Archie Griffin. Others were LB Ken Kuhn, Safety Tim Fox, and Wingback Brian Baschnagel.
In the season opener against Iowa, Ohio State cruised to a 21-0 victory. Iowa contained OSU's halfbacks, but fullbacks Randy Keith and Harold "Champ" Henson burrowed through the Hawkeyes for 160 yards. Late in the game, coach Woody Hayes inserted Griffin at halfback during garbage time. The young freshman fumbled his first carry, and he went to the bench for the rest of the game. It might have seemed like the end, but Hayes was determined to get some production from the tailback position, and so Griffin would get another chance against North Carolina in game two.
After a bye week, OSU welcomed the Tarheels of UNC to Columbus for an inter-conference game. The Buckeye offense got off to a slow start, gaining only 13 yards on their first two possessions and getting a punt blocked for a TD to go down 7-0. At that point, Hayes decided to go back to Griffin to try and spark the offense. This time the freshman would not stumble. Griffin rushed for 116 yards in the first half on his way to 239 yards for the game, which set a new school record. Ohio State beat UNC 29-14 and a legend was born.
Ohio State cruised to victory in their first 7 games, but stumbled badly in week 8 at Michigan State, losing 19-12. But they recovered nicely, picking up a road win against Northwestern 27-14 and setting up a showdown at home against the hated Wolverines. Michigan, in their 4th season under former Hayes assistant Glenn "Bo" Shembechler, was 10-0 and ranked #3 in the nation. They had outscored their 7 Big Ten opponents 151-20, shutting out 4 of them. But Ohio State's defense had also been impressive, and the showdown promised to be a low-scoring affair.
As the game began, it was obvious that OSU was having trouble against the stiff Michigan defense, punting on every 1st quarter possession. Meanwhile, Michigan moved down the field crisply on their 2nd possession, led by the running and passing of Ohio native Dennis Franklin. But a 44-yard field goal attempt by Mike Lantry fell short and the two teams were deadlocked 0-0 after one quarter. In the 2nd quarter, Michigan drove again into Ohio State territory, led by the rushing of tailback Chuck Heater. But the drive stalled at the OSU 18 and they had to settle for a 35-yard Lantry field goal.
OSU finally got some offense going midway through the 2nd, with Griffin carrying the load. From the UM 22, Griffin ran for 18 yards to set up a 1st and goal at the 4. They would eventually score a touchdown on a 1-yard dive by Henson. The crowd went crazy as Ohio State took a 7-3 lead, but Michigan was far from done in the first half. With Franklin showing pinpoint accuracy, the Wolverines moved from their own 20 all the way down the field and had a 1st and goal at the OSU 1-yard line. But the Buckeye defense stood firm and stopped the UM running game on 3 tries, leading to a 4th-and-goal from the 1-foot line. Schembechler decided to go for it, but Franklin fumbled the snap on the 4th down play and had to fall on the ball at the 3. OSU had held, and they took the 7-3 lead into halftime.
With momentum squarely on their side coming out of the break, Ohio State moved right down the field on their first possession of the 2nd half. On 2nd and 8 from the OSU 35, QB Greg Hare ran the option left, faked the pitch, and cut back to the left and then back to the right on his way to a 35-yard run all the way to the Michigan 30. On the next play, Griffin carried up the middle behind a block from fullback Randy Keith, then cut to the right and sprinted to the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown. Watching the play from my living room, I remember very clearly seeing several rolls of toilet paper come flying out of the stands as Griffin scored. Ohio State led the #3 Wolverines 14-3 and the crowd was loud enough to hear in Ann Arbor.
Michigan responded on their next drive, consuming much of the 3rd quarter on a 13-play march. On 4th-and-goal from the OSU 1, UM finally found the end zone as another Ohio native, fullback Ed Shuttlesworth, dove in for the score. Michigan went for 2 and converted as Franklin found Clint Haslerig for the score. Now trailing only 14-11, the Wolverines had momentum and began another march into OSU territory in the 4th quarter. But on 4th down from the OSU 20, Schembechler decided to go for it again, and this time Shuttlesworth was stopped for a loss by LB Rick Middleton and Ohio State took over. However, there was one more huge test remaining for the Buckeye defense.
On the ensuing possession, Hare was intercepted by Michigan's Randy Logan, setting UM up with a 1st down at the OSU 29. They drove down to a 1st-and-goal at the Buckeye 5, but the OSU defense rose up again. Three runs took the ball to the 1-foot line, and Schembechler once again decided to go for it. On 4th down, Franklin tried to sneak it over, but he was stopped by OSU LB Randy Gradishar and Ohio State took over at the 1. Michigan never seriously threatened after that, and OSU held on for a 14-11 win. The hard fought victory secured a Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State would go on to lose in the Rose Bowl to eventual national champion USC by a score of 45-17. Griffin would finish the season with 867 yards on 159 carries and 3 TD's, but that was only a taste of what was to come. By the time his career at Ohio State was finished, he would set a new Ohio State, Big Ten, and NCAA record with 5589 yards rushing on 924 carries. He would also become the first and only player ever to win two Heisman Trophy awards. Franklin would finish his career with a record of 0-2-1 against Ohio State, and his injury in 1973 would cause the Big Ten athletic directors to vote to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl instead of Michigan after the two teams tied in their season-ending showdown.