I once had a conversation with an accountant here in Columbus and the subject turned to Ohio State football. The gentleman in question grew up in the area and talked about how he once played a high school game against Dick LeBeau, the legendary NFL defensive coordinator and the man credited with revolutionizing defensive football at the highest level (LeBeau played high school ball for the Red Raiders of London, OH). "Dick LeBeau, now that guy was a great football player" he said.
It's easy to forget how good of a player LeBeau was now that he has made his fame in the coaching ranks. It's also easy to forget the Ohio State team that LeBeau played on that won a share of the National Championship in 1957. Most people remember the 1942 team, which won Ohio State's first national title, and the 1954 team, which won the first title of the Woody Hayes era. But the hard-working players of the 1957 team are often left behind, victims of time, the lack of a dominant star player, and that one loss that kept them from being perfect.
One thing that is true now that was also true then is that if you are going to lose a game, lose it at the beginning of the season and not the end. This maxim was never illustrated better than in 1957 for Ohio State. This team was also a great example of the old saying that a team improves more between the first and second games than any other time.
The Buckeyes started the season with bitter memories of what had transpired at the end of the previous season. OSU had been 6-1, with their only loss a one-point setback against non-conference foe Penn State, and had won 17 straight Big Ten games. But the wheels fell off the Buckeye wagon in game 8 against Alex Karras and the Iowa Hawkeyes and OSU was shut out at Iowa City 6-0. The demoralized squad then came home and was treated to another shut-out, this time 19-0 against their arch-rivals the Michigan Wolverines.
Opening the new season with a home game against TCU, Ohio State was favored by double-digits and everyone expected them to get the season off to a big start. The team had lost All-American guard Jim Parker (winner of the Outland Trophy) and their entire starting backfield, but they hoped to reload with center Jim Houston, guards Aurealius Thomas and Bill Jobko, and tackles Dick Schafrath and Jim Marshall clearing a path for new backfield starters Frank Kremblas (QB), Galen Cisco (FB), and the halfback tandem of LeBeau and Don Clark. It was a typical Woody Hayes offense, utilizing the T formation and a playbook heavily weighted towards the ground attack.
Early in the opener, OSU struggled to gain a footing against the Horned Frogs. But after trailing 6-0, LeBeau swept around the TCU defense for a 2-yard touchdown run to give the Buckeyes the lead. TCU responded by returning an OSU punt 90 yards for a TD to go up 12-7 (still the longest punt return in stadium history). Shortly before halftime, the Buckeyes took the lead back on a Clark TD run, and they went into the locker room up 14-12. But the offensive woes from the end of the previous season returned as Ohio State was shut out in the 2nd half and ultimately lost 18-14.
The struggles continued in week two as the Buckeyes found themselves tied 7-7 on the road against the Washington Huskies. But reserve halfback Don Sutherin returned a 3rd quarter punt 81 yards for a touchdown, and that score ignited the team. They completely dominated the Huskies from that point, and ultimately left town with a resounding 35-7 victory. After that, OSU scored relatively easy home wins against Illinois and Indiana and pulled out a thriller on the road against Wisconsin, winning 16-13 after falling behind 13-0 in the first quarter.
The offense got rolling again back at home as the Buckeyes dominated Northwestern in Homecoming Week 47-6. Emerging star Don Clark rushed for 127 yards and scored 4 TD's on the day. A 20-7 victory over Purdue the next week set up a pair of showdowns for the Big Ten title in the final two weeks of the season. OSU was 6-1 overall, but 5-0 in the conference, with Iowa and Michigan State just behind them in the standings. It was time for the Buckeyes to take revenge on the teams that had caused their 1956 season to come crashing down.
The 5th ranked Iowa Hawkeyes came to Columbus in week 8, and 6th ranked Ohio State was ready for them. With Clark sitting out due to injury, the OSU offense nevertheless got off to a good start, driving for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead. But Iowa used their wide-open offense to quickly take the lead back 6-3, and it set the stage for a see-saw battle the rest of the way. Trailing 13-10 late in the game, OSU turned to reserve fullback Bob White to carry the load, and he rushed for 66 yards in one 68-yard drive that culminated in a 5-yard TD run to take a 17-13 lead.
At this point, the defense took over. They had stymied the Hawkeyes' double-wing attack for most of the 2nd half, and they held on one more time. Iowa drove to the OSU 32, but Jobko (playing defense in this era of two-way players) intercepted a pass from Iowa QB Randy Duncan and OSU ran out the clock from there. The win sealed an outright conference championship and a Rose Bowl trip for the team. After the game, OSU legend Chic Harley addressed the team in the locker room, and then the celebration commenced in earnest as Hayes was thrown fully-clothed into the shower by the team.
One more game remained on the schedule, a trip to Ann Arbor to face 17th ranked Michigan. Remembering the 19-0 hammering they took from the Wolverines the year before, OSU crushed UM 31-14 to finish the season 8-1 and move up to #1 in the UPI national rankings (they were #2 in AP behind Auburn, who crushed Alabama 40-0 to finish 10-0). With Clark again unable to suit up, Hayes turned to White and LeBeau to lead the running game. White finished with 163 yards on 30 carries and LeBeau scored two TD's to pace the offense.
In those days, the National Championship was awarded prior to bowl games, and so Ohio State split the national title with Auburn. Then they traveled to Pasadena to face the Oregon Ducks. The anticlimactic bowl trip was mostly a vacation for the team, and they played down to the level of the competition but still managed to pull out a 10-7 win. Don Sutherin's 34-yard field goal in the 4th quarter was the game-winner, and it was the only scoring of the 2nd half. It was Ohio State's 3rd straight Rose Bowl victory after losing in their first appearance there back in 1921.
Despite the lack of fanfare, the 1957 team is one of OSU's all-time best. The defense was certainly among the school's finest ever, giving up only 9.2 points per game. They were even better in the clutch, as they gave up only 6 points in the 4th quarter all season long. More than anything else, this team introduced many stars into the pantheon of OSU heros, and two of them became all-time greats in the NFL (LeBeau and Marshall). Not a bad way to be remembered, if you actually do remember them.