OHIO STATE’S GREATEST DRIVE #2
Numerologists were having a field day as Ohio State prepared to face Miami in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl for the 2002 national championship. Take “34” for instance- the Buckeyes were aiming for their first national crown in 34 years, since Woody Hayes’ “Super Soph”-led squad reached the summit in 1968 (OSU is credited with the 1970 title from the National Football Foundation, an award they shared with Texas. The Bucks and Longhorns gained the honor before their bowl games, which each team promptly lost. The NFF began presenting their award AFTER the bowl games the following season). Meanwhile, the Hurricanes were riding a 34-game winning streak, which had launched following a 34-29 loss at Washington on September 9, 2000.
And how about “13”? The Scarlet and Gray were 13-0, the first team in school history to win a bakers’ dozen, with #13, freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, a major cog in the offense. 13 Buckeye seniors, led by safeties-and captains- Michael Doss and Donnie Nickey, had provided the leadership which had helped the team climb from its #13 preseason ranking. And yet, for all that Ohio State had achieved, the odds makers had made them a 13-point underdog for this matchup with the powerful ‘Canes.
Even some numerologist who didn’t know squat about football would have given the Bucks no chance to win. All of the nailbiting wins during OSU’s regular season combined with Miami’s lethal offense would certainly be a recipe for disaster. The media was drooling so much over the ‘Canes firepower that Sun Devil Stadium would resemble a spit bucket in a boxing ring corner. Miami’s coronation as the second coming of Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams of the ‘50’s- they of the 47-game win streak- was all but in the bag. Years down the road, CBS’ Tim Brando (who predicted a 48-10 ‘Canes win) would be able to set his hair dye bottle down, put his grandkids on his knee and regale them with tales of the MIGHTY Miami Hurricanes.
But the fishwrap hacks and hairspray crowd had overlooked a few things. While John Cooper certainly deserved credit for bringing the pieces of this Ohio State team to Columbus, Jim Tressel was now wearing the headset. Also, to paraphrase Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”, “Toto, we’re not playing the Big East anymore”. And for all the talk of Miami’s speed, the ‘Canes were about to find out just how fast the Buckeyes were. In fact, in Sports Illustrated after the game, writer Austin Murphy alluded to a meeting where Miami’s coaches and the offensive line were going over what they needed to do against the Buckeye defensive front seven. From the uncertain stares, it was easy to gather that the “big uglies” knew they had a major problem on their hands.
Maybe Buckeye Nation wasn’t quite ready to bet the ranch on a victory, but they had OSU’s back. No further proof was needed than on December 26th, when the team left campus to head to Port Columbus Airport. Their buses detoured through downtown, where thousands of fans lined the streets in 29-degree weather to send the team off.
Preparations seemed to be going well in Arizona, but the storm cloud known as Maurice Clarett was about to darken “The Valley of the Sun”.
Back in Youngstown on December 21st, Clarett’s friend, Juan Bell, had been gunned down in a drug-related shooting. Clarett wanted to fly back for the December 30th funeral, but was unable, apparently because he hadn’t filled out the proper paperwork to arrange payment for an airplane ticket. During the Media Day gathering on Monday the 30th, Clarett made the issue public, saying he had completed the needed forms, and before everything had quieted down, he had accused OSU officials of caring more about football than someone’s life and called them “liars” for saying he hadn’t filled out the forms. While making it clear that Maurice hadn’t been banned from leaving, Jim Tressel sympathized with his tailback. Clarett’s teammates didn’t seem to think it would affect his play in the game, something even Maurice agreed with. Buckeye fans had been relieved to know that the layoff since the November 23rd Michigan win had allowed Clarett’s shoulder to heal up. But anyone looking for something else to read or hear about in the game buildup, besides how invincible Miami was, probably could have done without the plane ticket flap.
The night before the game, the Big Ten got a big shiner as co-champion Iowa got smoked 38-17 by USC in the Orange Bowl. Now the media had two more reasons to trash Ohio State. The Hawkeyes, with their flashier offense that the talking heads just love, hadn’t played the Buckeyes head-to-head, leaving many to doubt that OSU was even the best team in their own league. The ESPN know-it-alls hammered on that angle all during the run up to January, but then even they turned on Iowa after the loss in Miami. Somehow the Hawkeye loss was proof that the Big Ten couldn’t handle a big-time opponent and that fans should be ready for more of the same in Tempe. USC, with early losses to Kansas State and Washington State (who the Bucks had whipped, by the way), had run off 8 wins in a row and some were even whining that the Trojans deserved to play Miami more than the Buckeyes. Southern Cal and Ohio State had taken somewhat similar routes throughout 2002. Both had been under the radar at the dawn of the season, but while the Bucks hadn’t done much on the national scene since 1998, USC had fared no better than 8-5 going back to their Rose Bowl team of 1995. Like Jim Tressel, Pete Carroll was in his second year at the helm in Los Angeles, and with one “dynasty” destined to end in Arizona, Carroll was cooking up another.
Friday night, January 3rd finally rolled around, and for only the second time since its inception in 1998, the BCS national championship game would match two undefeated teams. ABC provided the national television broadcast, and while Brent Musburger and Gary Danielson had covered more Buckeye games than anybody except the OSU radio team, Musburger was instead shifted to the NFL playoffs. So fans had to suffer through Keith Jackson, who, while certainly being a legendary voice, had never cared for Ohio State, and Dan Fouts(near left), a former San Diego teammate of Kellen Winslow(far left), whose son, Kellen, Jr., was the ‘Canes tight end. It didn’t seem to matter that neither Jackson nor Fouts knew either team well since they had called West Coast games all year. But they were sure up to speed as far as kissing Miami’s collective butts.
Their broadcast was reminiscent of a TV meteorologist who breaks into your favorite prime-time show telling you that the world’s coming to an end, and then absolutely nothing happens. All night long the pair warned viewers about an impending Miami onslaught, but the proverbial hurricane never made it inland. (Click here for the Buckeye 50 preview for the game)
Ohio State had first possession from their 20, but right out of the gate they were flagged for a twelfth man in the huddle in a rather inauspicious start. The offense couldn’t move the chains, although quarterback Craig Krenzel gave a sign of things to come with an 11-yard scramble up the middle out of the shotgun. Andy Groom boomed a 56-yard punt and Miami would fire up that scary offense from their 20. It wouldn’t take long for the fears of the ‘Canes’ offensive line from that meeting to be realized.
Quarterback Ken Dorsey, an All-American and Heisman finalist, was 38-1 as a starter, including the entire run of the 34-game win streak. One final victory over OSU would tie him with Toledo’s Chuck Ealey for the most consecutive wins by a starting QB with 35, which Ealey had accomplished with the Rockets from 1969-71. But the signal came early that this would be a tough night for Dorsey as defensive end Will Smith blew right by tackle Carlos Joseph on the first play and dropped Dorsey with one hand for a loss of three. Next up was All-American tailback Willis McGahee, also a Heisman finalist. With the departure of Clinton Portis, Frank Gore had been expected to start at tailback but had suffered a season-ending injury. McGahee stepped in and promptly rushed for over 1,600 yards and 27 touchdowns, providing exceptional balance to the Miami attack. But now, one play after Smith’s sack of Dorsey, McGahee got the call and lost 2 more yards as All-American linebacker Matt Wilhelm shot the gap. Facing 3rd-and-15, Dorsey had to burn a timeout, and while it was extremely early, it was smart. Buckeye Nation had overtaken the Phoenix area for this game, and Sun Devil Stadium resembled a home crowd at the ‘Shoe. The two straight negative plays had amped the volume considerably. I’ll never forget as the first O-H-I-O chant made its way around the stadium, the young Miami coed next to me, who had been, shall we say, thirsty before the game, said, “That’s great that you guys can spell your state”. My response? “We’re just pointing out to you how much you’re out manned, dear”.
To Miami’s credit, they came through as championship teams do. Out of the timeout, Dorsey connected with Andre Johnson on a crossing route for 20. Johnson, who had gone over the 1,000-yard mark in receiving during ’02, was the most lethal receiving weapon Dorsey had, and Buckeye fans were hoping that Chris Gamble, playing just his sixth full game at corner, could keep him in check. The ‘Canes got an added bonus on the play in addition to quieting the pro-Buckeye throng as Cie Grant left temporarily after injuring himself trying to tackle Johnson. Cie would return but for now his outside ‘backer spot would be in the hands of freshman A.J. Hawk.
Facing 3rd-and-5 moments later, Dorsey and Johnson hooked up once again for 11 on a quick out. But then the defense began to assert itself. Defensive tackle Kenny Peterson, the lone senior on the “D”-line, beat guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli and spun Dorsey down for a loss of 5. After only being sacked 8 times all year, Miami’s senior QB had already been flattened twice on this opening drive.
Miami had to punt from the OSU 44, no small feat considering the ‘Canes had scored on their opening possession in 7 of their last 8 games. Freddie Capshaw dropped a beaut that Antrel Rolle kept from going in the end zone, and Sean Taylor hustled downfield to ground the ball at the one. After two runs and an incompletion, Groom was called on again, and his 44-yard boot was fair caught by Roscoe Parrish at the Miami 48.
Kellen Winslow, Jr. hauled in a second-down strike from Dorsey, shook Donnie Nickey and scooted for 28 to the Buckeye 23. With all the experts nodding knowingly, Kenny Peterson struck again, smacking McGahee down for a loss of 2. Dorsey took another timeout, then unloaded deep but incomplete for Johnson as defensive tackle Tim Anderson decked him. With Miami’s offensive line resembling a sieve, Donnie Nickey was sent on a third-down blitz. McGahee just did clip Nickey at the last second, giving Dorsey time to find Roscoe Parrish open at the 6. Parrish, who had beaten Michael Doss badly, dragged the All-American safety into the end zone for a 25-yard score. Todd Sievers added the PAT and Miami had drawn first blood at 7-0.
Maurice Hall ill advisedly brought the ensuing kickoff out from 5 yards deep in the end zone and was stopped at the 15. On the first play, Craig Krenzel went deep for Chris Vance, but “Spiderman” never had a chance as Kelly Jennings blatantly interfered with him. No flag came, and to make matters worse Sean Taylor tipped the ball up and made a super diving interception at the Miami 35. Although I was so mad I could spit over the missed interference call, I’ll admit that for the first time since Purdue I started to have a bit of doubt. I had to believe the football gods would right the injustice of Vance being practically tackled, but I also wondered if I had traveled all this way to see just what the media had been promising. It was a defining moment of the game, and the defense didn’t let us down.
A quick pass to Andre Johnson was good for 14, but little did anyone know it would be a LONG time before he would be heard from again. Matt Wilhelm and Tim Anderson rang up two-yard losses on Willis McGahee on consecutive plays to short-circuit the drive, and Capshaw punted into the end zone. At this stage of the game, McGahee had carried six times for minus-2, with four negative rushing plays.
Tight end Ryan Hamby was called for a false start on OSU’s first play, so for the third time the Buckeyes would take a snap from their own 15. Krenzel kept for 5, then fired to Michael Jenkins for 11 and Ohio State’s initial first down of the evening. With a bit of momentum, Tressel called for a reverse to Chris Gamble. The play was perfectly set up with blockers out in front, but unfortunately Gamble had to take a handoff from Maurice Clarett. The freshman faked the reverse and was immediately swarmed under for no gain by four green shirts. The first quarter ended with the ‘Canes holding the 7-0 lead, but the reverse call couldn’t have come at a better time and the Bucks had gotten squat from it. Radio color man Jim Lachey pretty much summed up everyone’s feelings by pointing out that the quarterback should be calling the audibles, not a tailback. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork barged in to rope Clarett for a six-yard loss to help extinguish the drive, so once more Andy Groom trotted out to kick it away. Groom lived up to his All-American status by delivering a 58-yard bomb, pinning Miami at its own 13.
Miami got a gift first down as Chris Gamble was called for holding Andre Johnson, then two McGahee carries earned six to the ‘Cane 34. Once again OSU’s defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio came with a blitz, and with Matt Wilhelm airborne over McGahee trying to get at Dorsey, the senior signal-caller airmailed one towards Parrish. The pass was way off target and settled right into the arms of corner Dustin Fox at the Miami 49. Fox managed 12 yards on the return and the Buckeyes finally had field position at Miami’s 37.
A nine-yard keeper by Krenzel moved the sticks, but Clarett could only manage 3 yards on two totes, giving him 34 yards on 12 carries and bringing up what was becoming a consistent theme in the radio booth- Clarett was trying to do too much instead of taking what was there. After a delay of game, OSU faced a 3rd-and-12 from the ‘Cane 28. Krenzel took off again and picked up 10, so All-American kicker Mike Nugent entered for what looked like a chipshot 35-yard field goal try. But the call from the sideline was for a fake, which Miami defended beautifully, stopping holder Andy Groom a yard shy of the first down. I know there were a few Scarlet and Gray faithful around me scratching their heads, but I felt it was a good gamble the way the defense was playing and was more of a credit to Miami’s field goal coverage unit making a great play.
Ethenic Sands snared a 14-yard aerial from Dorsey to give Miami some breathing room, but on 3rd-and-6 from his own 34, Dorsey fired an absolute bullet towards Andre Johnson. Matt Wilhelm, who had dropped into coverage, waved at the ball and whiffed, but that was enough to distract Johnson for a split second. Johnson tipped the ball right to Michael Doss, who picked it off at the ‘Cane 48. Doss headed towards the Buckeye sideline and for a heartbeat looked like he would go the distance, but Willis McGahee angled him down at the 17. Sun Devil Stadium was in a complete uproar and this time the much-maligned OSU offense wouldn’t be denied.
With Clarett trying to do everything too fast, Lydell Ross came in at tailback to start this critical series. Two Ross carries netted five, then Krenzel went with a slant call to Chris Vance. Had the ball been on the money, Vance would have scored easily, but under pressure, Craig had to unload early and the pass was behind Vance. Chris made a clutch adjustment and snagged the throw for a first down at the Miami 4, but the ‘Cane defense wasn’t going down without a fight. A first-down fade to Michael Jenkins was complete, but Jenkins had a foot out-of-bounds. Freshman center Nick Mangold had entered the game, so on second down Vince Wilfork tried to get the jump on the rookie, but ended up being offside, moving the ball to the two. Ross could only manage one, then Krenzel was stood up for no gain on a third-down sneak. Facing fourth-and-goal at the one, the Bucks took a timeout and decided on another quarterback sneak, but with a wrinkle. Krenzel took the snap and hesitated for a moment before hammering over the right side behind tackle Shane Olivea and spinning into the end zone for the hard-earned score. Nugent was perfect with the PAT and with 2:28 left in the half it was 7-7.
Nugent’s boot went out of the end zone, so Miami had 80 yards to navigate. They had scored 37 of 67 touchdowns in 2002 on drives of 2 minutes or less, including 18 that took less than a minute, so Buckeye fans weren’t exhaling just yet.
Dorsey dropped to throw, and Kenny Peterson thundered around from the backside and stripped the ball away. Darrion Scott scooped the ball up on a friendly hop but was tackled immediately at the 14. The joint was coming apart at the seams and I vividly recall from my vantage point in the top row of the opposite end zone feeling the concrete shake underneath me. Lydell Ross popped for 2, then defensive tackle William Joseph jumped offside, setting up a 2nd-and-3 at the Miami 7. Clarett re-entered the game, and got the rock instantly. Shane Olivea got a great block on linebacker Roger McIntosh; meanwhile, Alex Stepanovich helped double on Joseph, then broke off to take out linebacker Jonathan Vilma as he filled the hole. Clarett followed his blockers and dragged linebacker D.J. Williams into the end zone to give the Buckeyes their first lead of the night. Nugent’s kick made it 14-7 with 1:10 to go, and the flurry of turnovers had given Ohio State control of the ballgame. McGahee picked up some garbage yards as the ‘Canes, having had to burn the two earlier timeouts, ran out the first-half clock without mounting a charge. McGahee had 25 yards rushing on 12 carries, with 22 of those yards coming at the end of the half. Mix in three sacks on Dorsey for 14 more yards in losses, sprinkle in the two picks and Scott’s fumble recovery, and the college football world was beginning to understand what had gotten the Scarlet and Gray to Tempe in the first place.
The Buckeye karma even carried over to halftime. Two cheerleaders from each school, one male and one female apiece, competed in a field-goal kicking contest for charity. The Miami contingent came up empty, but Tara Zinslen from Canton punched over a 20-yard kick to earn $10,000, and then Mike Fresch of Dublin nailed a 35-yarder, good for a whopping $100,000. In a year where Ohio State’s kickers, Andy Groom and Mike Nugent, had both earned first-team All-American recognition, it was only fitting.
Miami got the football to begin the third period, and the Buckeye defense immediately re-established command. Will Smith pulled McGahee down from behind after a 3-yard pickup, then after a four-yard catch by Parrish, McGahee tried to spin away from Dustin Fox after catching a short pass and lost his footing a yard shy of a first down. Miami punted and the Bucks revved it up from their own 28.
Clarett hit for three, then on his best run of the night so far stiff-armed safety Maurice Sikes and scampered for 11. Miami’s defense stiffened and OSU was looking at 3rd-and-15 from their 37. While Ken Dorsey had tried several times to go deep with no success, Krenzel had only chucked it long once for Vance and Sean Taylor had come up with a pick. If Miami thought Ohio State would shy away from their athletic secondary, they were in for a surprise. Krenzel fired long for Chris Gamble, who had dusted Alfonso Marshall on a fly route. Craig’s pass was actually a bit underthrown and Gamble had to wait on it, but he made the catch for a 57-yard pickup to the Miami 6. It was Ohio State’s longest pass play of the season, and all of a sudden Miami was facing a two-score deficit.
On first-and-goal, Krenzel looked right and flung it for tight end Ben Hartsock. Sean Taylor, who appeared to be covering fullback Branden Joe in the flat, made a great adjustment and fell back in the end zone to nab his second interception of the game. Bringing it up the Miami sideline from six yards deep in the end zone, Taylor came upon Maurice Clarett at the 20-yard line.
With Taylor carrying the ball in his right (outside) hand, Clarett reached in and grabbed the ball. Taylor got his other hand in to try and retrieve it and the two tumbled to the ground at the 28. Two officials were right there and signaled “Buckeye ball”. It happened so fast that many in the crowd didn’t even notice that the OSU offense was still out there. Clarett had certainly been a pain in the butt at times throughout the season, and Lydell Ross had gotten some carries in this game as the coaches tried to get Maurice settled down. But there was little doubt that the freshman had made arguably the play of the game and grabbed momentum right back from the ‘Canes, thanks to a simple, basic thing called hustle. And speaking of hustle, ABC sure showed it. As Lydell Ross lost 2 on the first play after Clarett’s recovery, ABC ran a replay of Alabama’s George Teague stealing the ball away from Miami’s Lamar Thomas on a long pass play in the 1993 Sugar Bowl, which Alabama went on to win to capture the national title.
Two plays only gained three, so Mike Nugent came on for a 44-yard field goal try. The sophomore was right on the money and OSU’s lead extended to 17-7, thanks to ‘Nuge’s 9th field goal in 10 tries from 40+.
Neither team could get a first down on their next possessions, but Miami caught a break as Andy Groom could only manage a 30-yard punt to the ‘Cane 45. Kellen Winslow, Jr. came open down the seam for 23, then McGahee danced for 10 more to the Buckeye 21. On third-and-five from the 16, following yet another Miami timeout, Dorsey found Winslow for 7 and a first-and-goal at the 9. It was Miami’s first third-down conversion since Roscoe Parrish’s first quarter touchdown. On the next play, McGahee took a handoff, and behind great holds…uh, blocking…he circled the right side and went in standing up for his 28th rushing score of the year. Todd Sievers’ conversion narrowed the count to 17-14 with 2:11 left in the third.
Ohio State quickly went three-and-out, and with a more typical 49-yard punt from Groom, Miami began the fourth quarter at their own 24. With the offense starting to hum, Dorsey moved the ‘Canes to Ohio State’s 35. After missing Parrish deep, Dorsey gunned one towards Andre Johnson that Michael Doss read perfectly. Only the heat behind the pass kept Doss from picking it off and taking it to the house. As it was, the ball fell incomplete as Michael couldn’t get a handle on it. On third-and-10, McGahee caught a screen pass in the right flat, but nickel back Will Allen flew up and cut Willis down for a two-yard loss. While TV’s use of “super slo-mo” replays definitely helps the viewer to better follow the action, it’s not so good when you get an excruciating look at a guy’s knee being hyperextended. McGahee was done for the night, and I remember wondering if this were really going to help Ohio State since the game would be in Dorsey’s hands now. Chris Gamble was doing a tremendous job locking down Andre Johnson, but the Bucks really had no answer for Winslow. I always thought one key to this game was how Miami coach Larry Coker continued to run McGahee even after it was obvious the Buckeye defense had his number. It had somewhat been a blessing in disguise that McGahee had scored six rushing touchdowns in Miami’s regular season finale against Virginia Tech, perhaps giving Coker an inflated sense of his rushing attack’s prowess. Now with McGahee out, would the pass rush continue to pound Dorsey or would he make enough plays to pull it out?
In the immediate aftermath of McGahee’s injury, Coker may have decided his team needed a lift, so Sievers was sent in to try a 54-yard field goal to tie it up. The kick had enough leg but missed wide right, so OSU took over with 11:26 to go.
Michael Jenkins and Chris Gamble made clutch receptions to secure first downs, then two runs by Clarett advanced the ball to the Miami 28, putting the Bucks in Nugent’s range. The ‘Canes forced OSU into a 3rd-and-12, so Tressel played it safe and ran Krenzel. The junior QB gained 5, setting up a 42-yard field goal for Nugent. As Sievers had done, Nugent missed wide right, so Miami was back in business with 6:36 to go. The miss would cap off an incredible season for ‘Nuge, who went 25 of 28 in 2002.
Winslow made two more first-down catches as the Buckeye linebackers tried to keep up with him. From the OSU 47, Dorsey got great protection and nailed Parrish down the middle at the 27. Parrish spun away from Donnie Nickey at the 25, giving Dustin Fox a chance to close. Fox knocked the ball free and Will Allen crawled furiously to dive on it at the Ohio State 18. 5:08 remained in the game, and the Buckeyes found themselves in the exact same position that they were in at Champaign and against TBGUN- possession of the ball, late in the game, needing a couple of first downs to seal the deal. It hadn’t worked in the previous two games, as the Illini kicked a field goal to force OT, while Will Allen’s end zone pick salvaged the Michigan game. Would three be the charm?
Clarett ran for five yards on first down, but cramped up and the clock stopped as he limped off. Lydell Ross hit the line for nothing, and quickly it was 3rd-and-5. Krenzel scrambled, made a terrific spin move to avoid Maurice Sikes and just did get the first down at the 28. Ross managed three on first down, and the Hurricanes called their second timeout with the clock down to 3:09. Clarett dove for 1, and now it was 3rd-and-6. Krenzel rolled out to his right, and fired a low throw for Chris Gamble at the sideline. Gamble, who had been held by Kelly Jennings as he broke for the sideline, made a great catch but he was ruled out of bounds. Fans watching the replay at Sun Devil Stadium howled at the Jennings grab as Gamble made his cut, then roared louder as it appeared he had managed to get down inbounds. It didn’t matter, though- it was 4th down and up to Andy Groom. The former walk-on drilled a 44-yard effort, which Roscoe Parrish gathered in at his 24. Breaking up the Miami sideline, Parrish had a convoy, highlighted by Jarrell Weaver, who absolutely blasted Mike Kudla with one of the hardest hits of the entire ballgame. Groom and Michael Doss finally managed to corral Parrish at the OSU 26, and with just over two minutes left the Hurricanes were alive and well.
I immediately breathed a sigh of relief on first down as Larry Coker ran the ball with Willis McGahee’s replacement, Jarrett Payton. Payton, son of Chicago Bears’ legend Walter Payton, got nothing, and it was apparent that Coker wasn’t going to play for the win. It basically became academic on the next play as Dorsey, forced out of the pocket by Will Smith, got wrapped up at the 30 by Simon Fraser, making the play of his career. Dorsey came back with a 7-yard throw to Payton, and the ‘Canes called their last timeout with the ball at the 23, setting the stage for Todd Sievers. You could cut the tension with a knife, and the Bucks prolonged it a little longer, using up their last two timeouts.
With play back in, Sievers was booting towards the north goalposts, coming right at me. He got the kick away, and for a heartbeat it appeared it was starting to drift to the right. But the ball stayed straight and just snuck in the upright. The game was tied at 17 and we were going to overtime. Miami was 1-1 lifetime in overtime games, with their last extra session coming in a 27-20 loss to Virginia Tech in 1998. OSU, of course, had just ventured into overtime waters for the first time against Illinois on November 16th.
Ohio State won the toss and elected to play defense first. Payton carried on the first play for Miami and was dragged down for no gain by Will Smith. Andre Johnson, who had been MIA since the first quarter, hauled in a 9-yard toss, and an 8-yard bolt by Payton earned a 1st-and-goal at the 8. Payton bulled for 1, then Dorsey went up top for Kellen Winslow, Jr., who made a great play reaching over Will Allen in the end zone for the touchdown. An interference call on Allen was declined, and the Hurricanes, for the first time since the second quarter, had the lead at 24-17.
Now it was Ohio State’s turn from the Miami 25, and Craig Krenzel continued his ground assault with a pickup of 5. But the Buckeyes gave it right back as Ben Hartsock was whistled for a false start. Defensive end Jamaal Green hit a serious uppercut on the next play as he raced in to sack Krenzel for a 4-yard loss. Hoping to negate the Hurricane pass rush, Jim Tressel went with a screen to Clarett, but the ball fell incomplete. It was fourth-and-14 from the 29. It was fourth-and-the season. Going with a slot left and Jenkins split right, Krenzel stood in the shotgun with split backs. Stepping up in the pocket, he fired right for Jenkins, who jumped up, grabbed the pigskin and got both feet down inbounds before being run out at the 12. First down, Buckeyes. Unbelievable.
With Buckeye Nation breathing again, Krenzel went back to Jenkins on the flag route but the pass sailed out of bounds. On second down, Krenzel scramble up the middle and made it to the five before being absolutely planted by Jonathan Vilma and Sean Taylor. Krenzel seemed a bit woozy, but hung in there. It was 3rd-and-3 at the 5, and again Krenzel looked to run out of the five-wide formation. It appeared he had the daylight to get the first down, but with defenders closing in he threw for Hartsock and Sean Taylor batted it away. Fourth down….again. Time out, Miami.
As ABC returned from commercial, their cameras were trained in the huddle on the Buckeye sideline. Tressel stood silently as Krenzel basically made the call- they would look for the slant to Jenkins from the left side. But Craig warned Chris Gamble, “If we got one-on-one, I’m putting that bitch right on you”. I had to laugh later watching the replay to see Tress turn to Gamble and very nonchalantly say, “OK?”. But I can assure you that in the upper deck of Sun Devil Stadium at that moment nothing was funny.
Again in the five-wide set, Krenzel noticed Gamble getting single coverage from freshman Glenn Sharpe. Craig didn’t hesitate, taking a three-step drop and slinging the ball for Gamble. Chris tried to go over Sharpe to make the catch but Sharpe had him wrapped up. The ball fluttered incomplete and it appeared the dream season had ended. I vividly recall seeing the line judge at the pylon wave incomplete, and then looking toward the Miami sideline and seeing it empty as fireworks went off. It was over.
But hold on- it wasn’t over. Back judge Terry Porter had thrown a late flag, signaling interference on Sharpe. It would be Ohio State’s ball, first and goal at the Miami 2. The suddenness of the Clarett swipe from Sean Taylor was nothing compared to this. The media that had engulfed the gridiron- looking like they were sprinting to a free buffet- were cleared off, and while the smoke from the fireworks was still hanging thick in the air, Clarett hit the middle, bounced outside and still got nothing. Clarett came back on second down and burrowed to the one-foot line. Finally, on 3rd-and-goal, Krenzel hesitated, and then got in behind right guard Bryce Bishop and right tackle Shane Olivea and scored. On the point-after, Sean Taylor’s bluff rush caused Marcus Green to move, costing OSU five yards. Unfazed, Mike Nugent drilled home the PAT, and somehow, someway, the game was tied again at 24 and headed to a second overtime.
Ordinarily, just as Ohio State had done, teams choose to play defense if they win the overtime coin toss. The prevailing thought is that your offense will know what it needs to do when it gets the ball. Now, with the Buckeyes having first crack in overtime #2, the opposite was in their favor. Both teams were absolutely spent, but now the Miami defense, which had Ohio State down to their last play twice on the previous drive before OSU wriggled off the hook, had to be mentally cooked. For a few fleeting seconds, they had defended their title. And if they were anything like their fans that were around me, they were still in shock over the interference call. Now the Buckeyes were in tall cotton as they could go to work on an exhausted Miami defense, get some points, then put the game right where everyone wanted it- in THEIR defense’s hands.
Lydell Ross started the second OT with a nice 9-yard pickup around right end, but he headed to the Buckeye sideline in a pose that OSU fans had become aggravatingly accustomed to with Maurice Clarett- dangling his arm with a shoulder stinger. Clarett got back in, but gained zilch on second down. Nothing was coming easy in short yardage situations against this Miami defense, but Krenzel sneaked right up the middle for 4 yards and a first down at the ‘Cane 12. Michael Jenkins shook free on a crossing route for 7, and it was 2nd-and-3 at the five.
Clarett was the lone back, and he took the handoff on Ohio State’s bread-and-butter running play, the “Power O”. Sidestepping Maurice Sikes at the five and getting a great block on Roger McIntosh from Ryan Hamby, Clarett ducked and dove into the end zone for the go-ahead score. From my vantage point above the red “Ohio State” end zone, I saw Clarett kind of disappear into a pile of bodies, but I can still see him diving over the goal line with the ball outstretched. Nugent added the point and it was 31-24, Buckeyes.
The rested OSU defense came out with a vengeance. Matt Wilhelm belted Jarrett Payton for a loss of one, then turned in one of the key plays of the night. Dorsey threw incomplete for Winslow, but Wilhelm had come clean on a blitz. Burying his facemask in Dorsey’s chest, Wilhelm wrapped Ken up and drove him into the ground. Dorsey slowly got to one knee and tried to get up, but fell right over like a punch-drunk fighter. An official’s timeout was taken, meaning Dorsey would have to leave, so backup Derek Crudup was thrown into the fire. Despite hardly any preparation, Crudup hit fullback Quadtrine Hill with an 8-yard pass, presenting Miami with a manageable 4th-and-3.
The Hurricanes called timeout, not only to figure out what play to salvage the season with, but to give Dorsey time to get the cobwebs out. He came back in, and just as Miami got to the line of scrimmage, the Buckeyes took their one overtime timeout, getting a chance to assess Miami’s personnel. Dorsey went to his money man, Kellen Winslow, Jr., and the sophomore tight end reeled in his 11th catch of the evening for a first down, with a five-yard facemask penalty on Dustin Fox tacked on. With the ball now at the six, Dorsey had Andre Johnson open on the slant, but the pass was high. Chris Gamble, however, knowing he was beaten, had grabbed Johnson, and the interference flag moved the ball to the 2, where it was first-and-goal.
Jarrett Payton went up the middle for a yard. Freshman tight end Eric Winston, motioning from left to right on second down, broke wide open in the flat but Dorsey’s pass was off target, illustrating fully that the quarterback still hadn’t shaken off the Wilhelm hit. Trying to catch the Bucks off guard, fullback Quadtrine Hill tried a quick hitter up the middle on third down and ran right into Matt Wilhelm for no gain. For the fifth time in the contest, one team or another was down to its last gasp.
As Miami exchanged the big bodies for receivers for this fourth down play, the defensive call came from the Buckeye bench-Tight Will Tulsa. It called for outside linebacker Cie Grant, who had played cornerback in 2001, to come on the blitz. And as the teams lined up, there was no tight end over Grant. As Cie put it later, “It was just me and the big boy (offensive tackle)”, and he got the jump of his life. Grabbing onto Dorsey at the 10, Grant tried to spin him to the ground. Dorsey still managed to get the pass away towards the end zone, but there was nothing there but a host of white jerseys. Donnie Nickey knocked it down, and the Ohio State Buckeyes were the 2002 national champions of college football, capping off an unbelievable season with a classic, double overtime win over the Miami Hurricanes 31-24.
During the second quarter that night, a young couple, both Miami fans, had come up to the top row where I sat and asked if it was OK to stand there. I told them there hadn’t been any security or anything, so be my guest. We talked throughout the game and lived and died with the rollercoaster ride playing out in front of us. At halftime, I told the husband, jokingly, that they could certainly afford to spare a national title considering Miami had won five since 1984 while we were in a 34-year dry spell. He said that it never got old winning it all, but that he had attended the 1984 Orange Bowl as a boy when the Bernie Kosar-led ‘Canes upset Nebraska to capture the school’s first ever national title. All the championships were great, he had stated, but nothing would top the thrill of winning that first one. I could understand. I was all of one year old when the Buckeyes won the 1968 crown, so really this was the first national championship experience not only for me, but many Buckeye fans as well. And as the Florida Gators unfortunately proved this season, you shouldn’t ever take them for granted. Hopefully we’ll all get to see Ohio State reach the summit again, but one thing’s for sure- it’s almost an ironclad guarantee no season will ever play out like 2002 did.