OHIO STATE’S GREATEST DRIVE #3
“There’s been a lot of kidding that they’re building this new heart hospital at Ohio State just at the right time”- Jim Lachey, color analyst on the Ohio State Football Radio Network, late in the fourth quarter of the 2002 edition of “THE GAME”
I remember coming back from Cincinnati on September 21, 2002 with Buckeye 50 staffer Gregg Watson and family after the Buckeyes had escaped the Queen City with a 23-19 win over the Bearcats that was salvaged on a last-play interception by Will Allen in the OSU endzone (Will is congratulated by teammates in photo to the right). Somewhere in the aftermath I remember telling our group something to the effect of “We knew at some point they would have to win a close game, so now it’s out of the way…” “They” hadn’t even scratched the surface.
The 2006 Ohio State Buckeyes are sixty football minutes away from a national championship. It has been an extraordinary season, and without question there will be more to come in the future. But honestly, folks, will there EVER be another season like 2002? TNT can run that “We know drama” promo until the cows come home. On behalf of Scarlet and Gray believers everywhere that lived through that magical ’02 campaign, I tell TNT, “You don’t know jack”.
The four-point win over Cincinnati had been the closest shave in a 7-0 start for the Bucks that saw them outscore the opposition by an average of 38-15. It was the next 5 weeks where things went deliciously berserk. 5 more wins, with 4 by a touchdown or less. A tough victory in Madison, a defensive gem against JoePa that was Chris Gamble’s coming-out party, the “Holy Buckeye” miracle in West Lafayette (see Drive #7), and Ohio State’s first-ever overtime game in Champaign- a 23-16 triumph that made them the first team in school history to win 12 games in a season. Now, with 12 down and “THE GAME” to go, the Buckeyes were “all in”. Although a win over TBGUN would result in a co-Big Ten title with Iowa, OSU wouldn’t be sharing a trip to Tempe, Arizona to play in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship. It would be theirs for the taking.
But first there was the small matter of putting Michigan away. All week long the failures of previous undefeated Buckeye teams to close the deal against UM (1969, 1973, 1993, 1995, 1996) had been rehashed. Conference crowns, trips to Pasadena and national title opportunities had gone up in smoke at the hands of the Maize and Blue, and during the 2002 Michigan game broadcast, ABC’s Brent Musburger(far left) had even commented on how fans in Columbus, while excited as all get-out, seemed uneasy and nervous. Remember, this was only the second year of the Jim Tressel regime, so not only were memories of Michigan game collapses under John Cooper still fresh, but Buckeye Nation hadn’t yet fully grasped what we all know now- Jim Tressel OWNS the Wolverines. As high noon approached on November 23rd, the Buckeyes were poised to author the most thrilling chapter yet of their storybook season.
Ohio State sat at #2 in the AP and ESPN coaches’ polls, as well as the BCS standings, where they were .001 points behind Miami, FL. Michigan was 9-2, with a 2-point loss at Notre Dame and a 34-9 thumping at the hands of Iowa in Ann Arbor. The Wolves were 12th in the AP and 9th in the coaches’ poll.
Iowa, at 8-0 in league play, would claim an outright Big Ten championship with a Buckeye loss, but OSU held the ultimate trump card- overall record- since the Hawkeyes had stubbed their toe against Iowa State 36-31 on September 14th. Ohio State and Iowa had not met in 2002, which caused unending angst in Iowa City and especially around the ESPN studios in Bristol, CT. Didn’t really matter, though- the Bucks had run the gauntlet unscathed so far, and one more win would put them in the BCS title game on January 3rd.
An all-time record crowd of 105,539 packed Ohio Stadium under cloudy skies for this 99th edition of sports’ greatest rivalry. While Jim Tressel displayed an outward calm and cool demeanor, he did get fired up before the game as the teams were warming up. Glancing up at the scoreboard at the north end of the Horseshoe, Tressel noticed that the scoreboard operator, evidently running a test, had put up fictional numbers showing the Buckeyes outgaining Michigan 502-211. Not wanting the visitors to gain any more motivation, Tressel immediately ordered the stats taken down, but not before some of the Wolverine players had noticed.
Michigan kicked off to launch this epic battle, and Maurice Hall faked a reverse to Chris Gamble and worked his way to the OSU 19. Hall(below), getting the start at tailback, lost a yard on the opening play, and then was stonewalled on a draw. As they had done a couple of times already in this season, Jim Lachey and sideline reporter Jim Karsatos wondered aloud on the radio broadcast why you would call a draw when you hadn’t even passed yet. Craig Krenzel had Michael Jenkins open down the left sideline on third down but overthrew him, so Andy Groom punted away and the Wolverines began at their own 40.
Tailback Chris Perry, who had gouged Wisconsin for 175 yards in UM’s home finale the previous week, bounced off Dustin Fox for 8 yards on the Wolves’ opening play, then hit for 3 and the game’s initial first down. The Buckeye defense forced a 3rd-and-11 call but John Navarre hooked up with Braylon Edwards for 15 and another first down at the Ohio State 35. After a three-yard Perry pickup, the tailback just did manage to handoff to Ronald Bellamy on a reverse as Dustin Fox stormed in. Bellamy dropped the football but picked it up on a friendly hop before Robert Reynolds dragged him down for a loss of 4. Once again, it was 3rd-and-11, but Navarre found Bellamy for 18 and the Wolves were off the hook with a first down at the OSU 18. Navarre overthrew Edwards deep on first down, then Michael Doss tagged Perry for a 1-yard loss. There was no third down magic this time as Navarre’s pass for Jason Avant was deflected, so Adam Finley was sent in for the field goal try. Between three kickers, Michigan was only 8 for 20 on field goals in 2002, but Finley capped off the 12-play march with a 36-yard boot and the Wolverines had drawn first blood at 3-0.
Mo Hall brought the kickoff out to the OSU 24, and junior Lydell Ross came on to play tailback. Krenzel hit Ross with a swing pass out of the backfield for 3 yards, then came the moment everyone had been hoping for. Off of the west sideline, freshman Maurice Clarett entered to a thunderous roar from the crowd. Just before kickoff, Jim Tressel had told ABC’s Jack Arute that Clarett wouldn’t start, but would play. It had been one of the hot topics of conversation all week- would Mo be ready to go?
What a stream of consciousness it had been involving the Youngstown product that year- enrolling early for spring practice…being named the starter for the season opener…publicly questioning his teammates efforts in practice that week…torching Texas Tech for 175 yards and three touchdowns in his first game…punishing Washington State with 230 yards, including 194 in the second half…missing the Cincinnati squeaker due to surgery…the ESPN The Magazine “one and done” article…the shoulder injury on the first series of the Penn State game after going over the 1,000-yard mark…leaving the Purdue game in the third quarter…circling Tressel like a vulture in Champaign, begging to play, but Tress rolling the dice and saving him for Michigan…
t had been anything but boring with Maurice around, and now he was about to turn this game on its’ ear. Bobbling, then catching a short pass from Craig Krenzel on his first play, Clarett dodged Marlin Jackson and picked up OSU’s initial first down at the Buckeye 36. Michael Jenkins hauled in a flanker screen, but Marlin Jackson was able to strip the ball loose. Freshman tight end Ryan Hamby covered it up and the Bucks got an 8-yard gain out of it. Clarett came back on 2nd-and-2 with a 7-yard jaunt, but had to leave after getting poked in the eye. After a false start call, Krenzel fired to Chris Gamble who came up just a yard shy of the marker. Gamble, second only to Clarett in popularity thanks to his all-around efforts, was coming off participating in 128 plays against Illinois. With the ball now on Michigan’s 40, Clarett returned to the lineup and got the handoff on the “Power O”. Breaking up the middle, Mo bounced to his left, then shook off Jeremy Lesueur as he cut back right. Safety Charles Drake finally brought Clarett down after a 29-yard pickup that had the joint jumping. It was first down from the UM 11, and just as quickly as the capacity throng had been energized by the breakaway run, it went silent as Clarett came away from a one-yard gain on the next play in an unfortunately familiar sight- heading to the sideline with his arm dangling. The Wolverine defense continued to lay the wood as Krenzel was racked up by Carl Diggs and Victor Hobson after running for 5 to the Wolves’ 4. It was taking Craig awhile to clear his head and the Bucks drew a delay-of-game flag, pushing them back to the 10, where it was 3rd-and-9. Krenzel threw a slant pass towards Jenkins coming from the left side, but the pass was behind him. Jeremy Lesueur plowed into Jenkins, drawing the laundry for interference, and OSU had new life with a 1st-and-goal at the 2. And just like John Wayne coming through the saloon doors, Maurice Clarett headed back out, much to the relief of the crowd. There wouldn’t be any denying OSU this time, as Clarett swept the right side and pulled away from Cato June to tumble into the endzone. Mike Nugent drilled the PAT and with 2:56 to play in quarter 1, Clarett’s 14th rushing TD of the year had the Buckeyes up 7-3.
Michigan punched out a couple of first downs on the ensuing drive, and as the quarter ended they were set up at their 47. During the commercial break, the TV audience was “treated” to the Suzuki Heisman Memory, featuring the one-millionth showing of Desmond Howard’s punt return in ’91. Enough already! John Navarre was able to convert a pair of 3rd-and-9 situations, but as the Maize and Blue got to the “red zone”, the Buckeye defense stiffened. Matt Wilhelm(photo) pulled Chris Perry down for a loss of 3, then Navarre missed connections twice with Braylon Edwards as the Wolverines continued to go at Dustin Fox. Adam Finley knocked through his second field goal of the afternoon, and with 10:56 to go before halftime, Michigan had cut the lead to 7-6 thanks to a 16-play, 7-minute drive.
Craig Krenzel found Michael Jenkins for a first down on the opening play of Ohio State’s next march, but on 3rd-and-3 from midfield Krenzel was stopped short on a scramble by Carl Diggs, who suffered a broken leg making the tackle. Diggs was carried off, further depleting a Wolverine linebacking corps that had been decimated by injuries all season. Andy Groom got off a 40-yard punt, pinning UM at its’ own 8.
B.J. Askew worked a 3rd-and-9 draw for 11 as Lloyd Carr’s troops continued to wriggle off the hook. Askew got the call again on a 3rd-and-2 a few plays later and just did get the first down despite a shot from Michael Doss. Michigan marched to the Buckeye 20, where Navarre lumbered for 12 on a 3rd-and-4. The Wolverines were now 8 of 10 on third-down conversions, and as they took a timeout with 1:19 to go in the first half, the ball rested on the OSU 8. With the stoppage in play giving the Buckeye defense a chance to regroup, defensive tackle Tim Anderson bulled in to sack Navarre for a loss of six on first down. Following another UM timeout, the crowd made its presence known, shaking the 80-year old stadium and forcing a Michigan false start. Now with 2nd-and-goal from the 19, Navarre went for the endzone to Braylon Edwards, who pushed off on Chris Gamble and gathered the ball in for an apparent score. But in a moment that foreshadowed what would happen in Tempe 40 days later, the official was late getting his flag out of his pocket. The yellow finally flew, and with the score negated and the yardage marked off the Wolves now faced 2nd-and-goal from their own 34! Navarre came right back to Edwards for 10, then drilled tight end Bennie Joppru for 19 down the middle, bringing up 4th-and-goal at the Buckeye 5. Lloyd Carr exhausted his final timeout, then sent in Adam Finley for the field goal try. Finley’s kick was true, and his 3-for-3 day now put UM back up 9-7, concluding a monster 19-play, 87-yard march that burned up 8:22 on the clock. If Ohio State was going to reach the never-before-scaled heights of 13-0, they would need their seventh second-half comeback of 2002.
A gentleman who knew a little something about beating Michigan, former coach Earle Bruce, was recognized at halftime for his impending induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Earle stood to become the fifth Ohio State head coach, and eighth coach overall, to be enshrined. No doubt Earle would have had a few things to say to the team at the break if he had the chance. Michigan had run 44 plays to Ohio State’s 17, held a 211-102 advantage in yardage, and had almost a ten-minute edge in time of possession.
Neither offense could get anything going in the third quarter. Maurice Clarett led off OSU’s second series with a six-yard burst that broke Robert Smith’s freshman rushing record of 1,126 yards set in 1990, but despite some nice gains from #13 and better play from the defense, the Bucks didn’t threaten at all. The game moved into the fourth period with Michigan still holding its precarious 9-7 lead.
Early in the fourth, Craig Krenzel and Michael Jenkins teamed up on a 16-yard pass play on 3rd-and-14- the Buckeyes’ first third-down conversion of the day. If someone had told you at that point that it would be their last as well, how high would your blood pressure have skyrocketed? A holding call aided in short-circuiting the march, and Michigan took over at their allowing a 48-yard rocket from Andy Groom (left). On first down, B.J. Askew caught a short pass from Navarre and fumbled as Michael Doss belted him. Robert Reynolds recovered, but the officials ruled that Askew never had possession. It was starting to look like Michigan games of old where every meaningful break would go the way of the Wolverines. Ronald Bellamy hauled in a 9-yard slant pass on 3rd-and-3 to move the chains, and not only was UM now 11 of 17 on third down, but they had gained exactly half of their total yardage (148 of 296) on third down plays. It was time for the defense to make a play, and defensive tackle Kenny Peterson responded by knocking Chris Perry off balance for a loss of 5. Two incompletions later, Adam Finley punted to Chris Gamble at the Ohio State 32. The Wolverines hit Chris too early, so with the penalty added the Buckeyes would have their best field position of the day at their own 43. 8:30 remained in the game and the Buckeyes were running out of chances.
As Craig Krenzel dropped to throw on first down, he spotted Michael Jenkins coming open and fired his way, but the pass was snagged out of the air…by fullback Brandon Schnittker. The Sandusky native pounded down to the UM 42 with his second reception of the season. Having the benefit of the instant replay, ABC color commentator Gary Danielson had to chuckle as the angle from behind the offense clearly showed Jenkins was the intended receiver. There’s no reason to believe that Jenkins wouldn’t have made the catch, but nevertheless Schnittker had lit the fuse. Krenzel ran a keeper for 4, but then Victor Hobson threw Maurice Clarett for a three-yard loss. Facing third-and-9, the Buckeyes went 5-wide with Krenzel alone in the backfield. Rolling to his left, Craig tucked it away and headed for the Buckeye sideline. He appeared to literally have been brought down on top of the marker, and the officials called time to check it out. During the measurement, ABC rolled the replay of Krenzel’s clutch 14-yard run on 3rd-and-10 during the Illinois overtime. While that had been one of the biggest first downs of the season, this was not- the Buckeyes were just short. With the ball at the 33, it would be a 50-yard field goal attempt for Mike Nugent with the wind at his back, but two thoughts played into Jim Tressel’s
Michigan had seven men on the defensive line of scrimmage as the Bucks lined up for fourth down. But the linebackers were five yards off the ball- pretty clear evidence that the “Holy Buckeye” play was fresh in their minds. Krenzel(right) sneaked between center Alex Stepanovich and left guard Adrien Clarke for the first down at the UM 32. At that moment came another time-honored tradition in “THE GAME”- springing a play that you haven’t run all year. The call came in from the sideline- Gun Switch Right Dart 59 X Skinny Wheel. Maurice Clarett had begged Tressel to run the play, saying, “You better call that play, ‘cause they can’t check me.” “They” certainly didn’t, as Krenzel, in the shotgun flanked by Clarett and Schnittker, faked to Brandon and looked up to find Mo all alone down the left sideline. Gathering in Krenzel’s throw and seeing defenders coming at him, Clarett spun towards the sideline and fell out of bounds at the Michigan 6. The “wheel” route had worked to perfection, and for the first time since quarter one, Ohio Stadium was alive. Clarett powered over the right side for two yards, bringing up 2nd-and-goal at the Michigan 4.
Maurice Hall, who had scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime at Champaign, entered at tailback. After re-directing Schnittker from a straight-I formation to an offset-I left, Krenzel had tight end Ben Hartsock motion left to right, then back left again. With straight-I formation to an offset-I left, Krenzel had tight end Ben Hartsock motion left to right, then back left again. With all that beef leaning left, Cato June cheated that way in the defensive backfield. Time seemed to stop as Krenzel took the snap. Either everyone but center Alex Stepanovich and Krenzel had forgotten the snap count or perhaps the drama had weighed the Buckeye offense down for a split second, but no one seemed to fire out as Craig got the ball. Moving to his right, Krenzel drew in linebacker Dan Rumishek, then optioned out to Hall, who easily circled right end and went over for the score, as Cato June was too late to get back and stop him. Mike Nugent hammered home the point-after, and with 4:55 to go Ohio State had reclaimed the lead at 14-9. Up in the radio booth, Paul Keels advised, “(There’s) still a fair amount of time, just under five minutes to play, so don’t get too cozy just yet.” It had been a month and a half since anyone had been cozy with this team.
The Wolverines were far from done. John Navarre and Co. continued their aerial assault on Dustin Fox as they converted a 3rd-and-7 by drawing an interference call on the sophomore corner. Moments later, UM was down to their final breath with a 4th-and-6 from their own 44, but Navarre and Ronald Bellamy combined on an absolutely clutch 12-yard pass to move into Buckeye territory. Braylon Edwards worked more third-down magic with a nine-yard reception on 3rd-and-5, and the Wolverines had the ball on the Ohio State 30. Navarre dropped to throw, but under pressure he was forced to run. Coming around from the backside, defensive end Darrion Scott poked the football loose. Will Smith, who was already seated on the ground, had the ball roll right to him. It took a few seconds for referee Jim Lapatina to double check, but as he gestured the other way, Ohio Stadium let out an ear-splitting roar that I can still hear to this day. It was Buckeye ball, and the Scarlet and Gray were 2:02 from the impossible. But what fun would it have been to end the story right there?
Two Clarett runs got absolutely nothing, and with Michigan exhausting their final two timeouts, the Bucks had a 3rd-and-10 at their own 36. Clarett carried again but could manage only two. The previous week in Illinois, the Buckeyes had faced almost the exact same set of circumstances – needing one first down to salt the game away. Three unimaginative running plays later, OSU had punted, and the Illini had driven down for the field goal that sent the game to overtime. A field goal would do the Wolverines no good- they had to go the distance. The Horseshoe held its collective breath as Andy Groom got the punt away, and Julius Curry was run out of bounds at his 20. With 58 seconds to go, TBGUN was 80 yards away from not just breaking OSU’s heart, but ripping it out and stomping on it. If there was any reason at all for Buckeye Nation to breathe, at least the game was in the hands of the defense.
Navarre threw incomplete to Joppru, and then Edwards. When Will Allen broke up a pass intended for Jason Avant, it was fourth-and Tempe to go.
Navarre bobbled the shotgun snap, but corralled it and fired towards Edwards. With Matt Wilhelm piggybacking him, Braylon picked up 11 and a first down. Michael Doss broke up a pass for Bellamy, but Navarre went right back to him and Bellamy latched onto it for 15 more and a first down at the UM 46. Navarre spiked the ball to stop the clock, then tossed a second-down throw for Avant. Chris Gamble batted it away, but made contact with Avant, drawing a flag. The Wolverines were now in Ohio State territory at the 41 with 19 seconds left, and if anything had left themselves a chance to at least get a “Hail Mary” to the endzone. Navarre ate up more yardage by slinging a 17-yard laser to his money man Bellamy, and after hustling to the line and spiking the ball, he had Michigan at the Buckeye 24 with seven seconds left.
As Navarre retreated to throw, Will Smith came on a delayed blitz. Navarre had to unload, and his pass for Edwards sailed out of the endzone. Every pair of eyes in the place immediately looked up at the scoreboard, and saw that the clock had stopped- with ONE second left. Ohio State’s entire season was down to one play. Hollywood could have never come up with something like this.
John Navarre faded back as the clock struck zero. Braylon Edwards, heading down the left seam, actually got behind Chris Gamble, and Michael Doss was a step late coming over. Navarre’s throw was on target and Gamble and Doss actually ran into each other. But right at the goalline, Will Allen flashed in front of Edwards and picked it off, tumbling to the ground at the five-yard line.
The fans poured onto the field and there were Tostitos and sombreros everywhere. For the first time since 1998, the Buckeyes were Big Ten champions. For the first time since 1982, OSU had won back-to-back games over their bitter archrivals. And for the first time ever, the Bucks had won 13 games in a season. A short time later, before Jim Tressel’s press conference began, Ohio State was formally invited to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona on January 3rd to play for the national championship, an invitation that Tressel took less than a second to accept