Late in the summer of 1981, Keith Byars was still trying to decide where to go to college.

It had come down to a choice between Ohio State and Pittsburgh. Then came the meeting that made the difference. On the Cincinnati Bengals' practice field in Wilmington, Ohio, Byars came face to face with a boyhood hero.

"Everybody in my neighborhood was an Archie Griffin fan," said Byars, who grew up in Dayton. So when Griffin, the two-time Heisman trophy winner from Ohio State, started talking, Byars listened.

"He said most of the best high school running backs in the state of Ohio go to Ohio State," Byars recalled. " 'You ought to be part of the tradition,' he said. And I wanted to be part of it."

After last week's come-from-behind, 45-38 victory over Illinois, Byars has lived up to the tradition nicely. He gained a school-record 274 yards, topping Griffin's single-game mark of 246, and scored a school record-tying five touchdowns.

Going into Saturday's game at East Lansing, Mich., against Big Ten opponent Michigan State, Byars leads the nation in rushing yards with 1,076, in scoring with 16 touchdowns, and in all purpose yards (rushing, receiving, returning kickoffs) with a 243.5 yard per game average.

"If there is a better running back in college football," said Ohio State Coach Earle Bruce, "I don't know who it is."

"The way he pounded at you, his brute strength . . . that was the most impressive thing today," said Oregon State Coach Joe Avezzano after Byars ran for 182 yards in the Buckeyes' season-opening win.

"I have never in my life seen a combination of size and speed that this guy has," said Iowa Coach Hayden Fry before Byars gained 125 yards rushing and caught five passes for 55 yards in the Buckeyes' 45-26 victory four weeks ago.

Those who recruited Byars while he was a three-sport star for Dayton's Roth High School know his potential. He was a tight end until one day in practice in his sophomore season.

"One of my coaches was just playing around and he put me in at running back," Byars said. "The way it worked, if you scored on the first-team defense, you didn't have to run sprints so I said, 'Give me the ball,' and ran over them a few times."

Byars was a tailback the next season and by the time he was a senior, college coaches anxiously awaited his decision. He had developed into a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and averaged 11.5 yards on each of his 147 carries that season.

"You know where you see the movement of Keith Byars? On the basketball floor," said Bruce. In recruiting Byars, Bruce saw several Roth basketball games that year as Byars and his teammates won the state championship. "He could handle the ball -- I couldn't believe it.

"The first thing is he puts those hands up and jeez," Bruce said, recalling how he marveled at their size. "I said, 'Holy cow.' And then he puts the ball down on the floor and boom-uh-boom-uh-boom . . . "

Last season, his first as a full-time Buckeye tailback, Byars gained 1,199 yards and scored 22 touchdowns as a sophomore. And Byars' performance against Illinois came as no great surprise.

"Your great players should always play their greatest games in the big games," said Bruce. "That's why you come to Ohio State: to have a chance to play in the big games."

The Buckeyes rallied from a 24-point deficit against the Illini. And after scoring his first touchdown of the afternoon, Byars looked into a television camera, said hello to relatives in Dayton and then proclaimed, "We're coming back."

"When we were down, 24-0, you couldn't help but start to second-guess yourself," Byars said. "That's why I'm thankful to the Lord. He put it on my mind not to give up, not to say I quit."