As fans of Ohio State football, we all have heard of the legendary 1968 National Championship team. And in connection with that great team, most fans have heard all about the "Super Sophs", i.e. sophomore players like Rex Kern who provided a strong infusion of talent to propel the team to such heights of achievement. But the 1968 team, like most teams under coach Woody Hayes, was a team that moved the ball primarily on the ground. And the leader in that department for this legendary team was a junior fullback named Jim Otis.
As hard as it may be to believe today, Hayes was in danger of losing his job midway through the previous season. In 1967, the Buckeyes had started 2-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten. They had gone 5 straight seasons finishing no higher than 2nd in the conference and had not played in a Rose Bowl in 10 years due to the infamous decision to decline the Rose Bowl invitation they received after the 1961 season.
Hayes was aware of the grave situation he was in and he used the pressure to fire up his assistant coaches and his team. The result was 4 straight wins to finish the season, including a victory on the road against Michigan. With that momentum on their side, plus the addition of all those talented sophomores (still unable to play as freshmen due to eligibility rules), the OSU coaching staff retained their jobs and prepared for the next season with big ambitions and high spirits.
One player who helped fuel that late-season rise was Otis. The sophomore had been given his first real chance to play and he made the most of it, leading Ohio State in rushing yards with 530 on 141 carries despite sharing time at fullback with Paul Huff. Otis was 6-0 223 pounds even as a 19-year old, and he was adept at converting first downs and keeping the clock running with his straight-ahead style of running. Those skills plus his durability (he carried 35 times for 149 yards in the home finale against Iowa) made him the perfect ball-carrier for Hayes' famed "3 yards and a cloud of dust" offense.
Becoming the full-time starter and workhorse for the offense in his junior year, Otis was joined by sophomore halfbacks Larry Zelina, Leo Hayden, and John Brockington and sophomore QB Rex Kern. The offensive line was anchored by future NFL 1st round draft picks Dave Foley and Rufus Mayes at tackle and John Muhlbach at center (all seniors). "Super Soph" Jan White took over at tight end. The offense was a nice balance of experience and youth, but Otis would be the one constant that Hayes could fall back on whenever things got a little tight.
After comfortable non-conference wins in the first two games, OSU welcomed the #1 ranked Purdue Boilermakers to town in week 3. Purdue had trounced Ohio State 41-6 the previous season in a game where they led 35-0 before emptying the bench. Now the Buckeyes, with a fresh supply of young talent, had an opportunity to not only gain revenge for a lopsided loss, but also make a name for themselves in the minds of poll voters.
Ohio State dominated the game from start to finish, but repeated failures in the red zone kept the score at 0-0 going into halftime. In the 2nd half, OSU DB Ted Provost intercepted a pass from Purdue's Mike Phipps and took it to the end zone to put the Buckeyes up 6-0. Later in the 3rd, defensive lineman Jim Stillwagon intercepted another Phipps pass and took it to the Purdue 25. From there, back-up QB Bill Long scrambled 14 yards for a TD and OSU held on to win 13-0.
Scoring a convincing win over the nation's top ranked team got the attention of the poll voters and OSU moved up to #2 in the national rankings. Otis did not score a touchdown, but he played his normal game, running for 144 yards on 29 carries and repeatedly keeping the clock running by staying inbounds and converting first downs. This ball-control domination strategy helped the defense hold the Boilermakers to only 186 yards of total offense. It looked like a formula that the team could win with, and they continued to utilize it throughout the season.
In week 4, Ohio State rolled over Northwestern at home to go to 4-0. The next week, OSU took a seemingly insurmountable 24-0 halftime lead on the road against Illinois, only to see the Illini rally to tie it up at 24 in the 2nd half. With just over 4 minutes to go, back-up QB Ron Maciejowski (subbing for the injured Kern) directed the team down the field on a game-winning 70-yard drive capped off by a 4-yard TD run from Otis. It was his 2nd touchdown of the day and he had shown once again that he could be counted on to get yards when the team needed them the most. But his biggest game was yet to come.
After dispatching conference foes Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, the Buckeyes were still ranked #2 as they welcomed the #4 Michigan Wolverines to Columbus. Spirits were high among the OSU faithful, and the school held a pep rally on Friday night on campus where fans would get to come and meet some of the players to encourage them before the game. One fan in particular was very interested in meeting Jim Otis.
Otis was approached by a young boy and his father, and they had a gift for him. The father had managed to acquire the chinstrap that former OSU star Bob Ferguson wore in the the 1961 game against Michigan, a game in which he scored 4 TD's to lead the team to a resounding 50-20 victory. Otis obviously wasn't going to wear the worn-out old chinstrap on his helmet, but Ferguson had been a hero of his, and so he decided he was going to use it somehow. So he taped it to his shoulder pads.
The lucky charm did its work, as Otis duplicated Ferguson's feat, rushing for 143 yards and 4 touchdowns. Ohio State spotted Michigan a 7-0 lead, but then outscored them 50-7 the rest of the way, including 29-0 in the second half. The ball-control offense ran like clockwork as OSU ground out 28 first downs to only 17 for the Wolverines. The 50-14 win pleased the fans so much that they stormed the field after the game, not only tearing down the goalposts, but carrying them all the way down High Street to the Statehouse, where a huge party commenced.
The rest is familiar history for OSU fans. The team defeated USC in the Rose Bowl to claim their first National Championship since 1957. The next season, it was thought that Ohio State had an even better team, but the undefeated 69'ers were upset in the season finale at Michigan and stayed home for the holidays. Otis led the team in rushing both seasons, becoming the only OSU player ever to lead the team in rushing in every season he was eligible to play.
Otis was named first team All-American in 1969 and finished 7th in the Heisman Trophy voting. He was drafted in the 9th round by the Kansas City Chiefs but played most of his 9 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl after leading the NFC in rushing in 1975. Today Otis is a partner in a property management company in St. Louis and his children have followed in his successful footsteps. Otis still practices the Woody Hayes principle of paying forward as he is involved with several charities including Easter Seals of Ohio, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Boys Club of St. Louis. So even now, you can still count on him when the chips are down.