Buckeye Nation had seen it all before. In their second year under Jim Tressel, the Bucks were 10-0, and although they were third in both major polls, they sat at #2 in the all-important BCS rankings. Two sub-.500 teams stood between them and Michigan in the ‘Shoe. Win all three and a possible January 3rd date in Tempe dangled like a carrot.

Yep, we’d all seen this before. The “Super Sophs’” only two losses cost them national crowns. Archie Griffin has stated he would’ve gladly traded his Heismans for a national championship ring. Earle Bruce fell one point short of all the marbles in his first year, then spent the rest of his tenure changing the Columbus area code to 9-3-0. The John Cooper Novembers had burned a sense of doubt deep into the Buckeye soul. What would happen this time? Would TBGUN pull the rug out from under OSU yet again? Or would the balloon crash sooner, such as it did in ’98 against Michigan State?

The movie always ended badly for Ohio State. If it was “Die Hard”, John McClane wouldn’t have gotten the watch undone, and he, Holly and Hans Gruber all would have fallen out of the building. If it was “Major League”, Jake would’ve popped the bunt up, and the catcher would’ve made the grab and doubled Willie Mays Hayes off of second. If it was “Top Gun”, Maverick would’ve turned around to get back in the dogfight but then ran out of gas and dropped into the ocean. Fate always turned undefeated OSU seasons into “Seven”, with the Buckeyes finding their collective heads in a box by the side of the road. “Old Yeller” had been downright heartwarming compared to how recent Scarlet and Gray dreams had ended.

But there was a new sheriff in town named Jim Tressel, and maybe, just maybe, November 2002 was gonna be different. After struggling offensively while beating Wisconsin and Penn State, the Bucks had thumped a 7-1, but overrated, Minnesota team 34-3 and it seemed the “O” had its’ oars back in the water. The defense was outstanding, and both kickers were having All-American seasons. And while some had pooh-poohed the hiring of Tressel from Division 1-AA, the man had won four national championships and played for two others in a division that settled things the right way- on the field. And to get to those title games you had to win playoff games. And to position yourself for the playoffs you had to win key regular season games. If any coach had been born to lead during the proverbial “stretch run”, it was James Patrick Tressel.

Now on this November 9th of 2002, the Buckeyes were set to face Purdue. The football gods had smiled on OSU so far in this season, although no one could have imagined what was in store. Meanwhile, the Boilers had to feel like they were co-starring in “Snakes On A Plane”. Their agonizing 4-5 season could have easily been on par with 10-0 Ohio State:

  • September 7- Lost 24-17 to Notre Dame as the Irish scored three defensive touchdowns, one on an interception runback and two on fumble returns
  • September 21- Lost 24-21 to Wake Forest as the Boilers missed two field goals and committed five turnovers
  • October 5- Lost 31-28 to Iowa after leading 14-3. Iowa scored touchdowns on a blocked field goal return and a blocked punt return, but even so Purdue led 28-24 until Iowa cashed in with a 4th-and-goal TD pass with 1:07 to play
  • October 12- Lost 38-31 in overtime to Illinois. The Illini tied it up on Antoineo Harris’ 1-yard run on 4th-and-goal with 3 seconds left. With time for one play in regulation, Purdue’s John Standeford catches a Hail Mary pass but is ruled out of bounds at the Illinois 1. The Boilers fail to score on their overtime possession
  • October 19- Lost 23-21 to Michigan as kicker Berin Lacevic misses 2 more field goals, giving him 7 kicks gone awry in his last 8 attempts

So while Purdue’s season had made like Biff’s car in “Back To The Future” and plowed into the manure truck over and over, Ohio State had not only appeared to have primed themselves for the stretch run with the thumping of Minnesota, but they had received a cosmic amount of help. Entering the Gopher matchup ranked sixth, the Bucks had won handily while # 3 Virginia Tech, #4 Notre Dame and #5 Georgia had all been dealt losses. OSU had slid into the runner-up slot in the BCS poll behind Oklahoma, but the computer wizards had figured that if the Sooners, Buckeyes and Miami Hurricanes all won out, that Ohio State would be on the outside looking in. The Scarlet and Gray needed to take care of business and hope one of the two teams that the salivating media wanted to see in the championship game, Miami or Oklahoma, stubbed their toe.

Receiver Chris Vance wouldn’t play at Purdue because of his brother’s funeral, but tailback Maurice Clarett, who hadn’t played since the first quarter of the Penn State game two weeks previous, had been cleared to go. Clarett had initially balked at wearing a protective collar in his shoulder pad to guard against further damage to his stinger-susceptible shoulder, but he decided to give it a shot. The Buckeye defense was playing lights out, having given up only 10 points in their last 10 quarters of play. With everything that was on the table, there was the added incentive of avenging the nightmare 31-27 loss to Purdue from 2000, when OSU’s Big Ten title hopes evaporated in West Lafayette on that fateful Drew Brees-to-Seth Morales touchdown pass with 1:55 left in the game. That would be especially sweet in the presence of ABC’s color commentator Gary Danielson, the former Purdue quarterback who had practically cried on the air when Brees’ pass beat OSU two years earlier.

Purdue drove to OSU’s 15 on their opening drive, but Kyle Orton’s pass into the end zone was picked off by Dustin Fox with a nice balancing act just inside the end line. Later in the first period Craig Krenzel threw a rare interception which set Purdue up at OSU’s 23. The “D” stiffened and the Boilers took a 3-0 lead on a 21-yard field goal.

Matt_Wilhelm_001In the second quarter, Matt Wilhelm (left) made the first of two huge plays on the day with a diving interception of an Orton pass towards Dana Stubblefield. The Bucks moved the ball to Purdue’s 13, but faced 3rd and 10 with 19 seconds left before the half. Out of the five-wide set, Krenzel tried to surprise Purdue with a run but was stopped short of the first down. Out of time-outs, OSU rushed the field-goal unit on. Kyle Andrews got the snap off with one second left and Mike Nugent drilled his 21st straight field goal to tie it up at the half.

The peaks and valleys continued in a scoreless third quarter. Maurice Clarett went out for the day with an aggravation of his shoulder stinger and the offense sputtered. After a Darrion Scott sack of Purdue’s backup QB Brandon Kirsch, Michael Jenkins blocked the ensuing punt but nothing came of it and the game moved to the fourth quarter. Scott had told the Columbus Dispatch when looking ahead to facing Purdue’s “basketball on grass” offense, “I hate the spread offense. I didn’t come to the Big Ten to play against the spread”. Despite his dislike of Joe Tiller’s attack, Scott was confident in his fellow defenders, but probably had no idea of how prophetically he was speaking when he told the paper, “All we want is for our offense to put up 7 to 10 points”.

On Purdue’s first play of the final period, Dustin Fox and Robert Reynolds bumped into one another in coverage, leaving Ray Williams wide open. Kirsch dialed him up for 58 yards- the longest play against OSU all season. From OSU’s 22, the Boilers moved to 3rd and goal at the 4 where Wilhelm came up with a huge tackle-for-loss on Kirsch back at the 15. Purdue converted the field goal and led 6-3. The points were the first scored in the second half against the Bucks since the Northwestern game five weeks previous.

The next sequence produced one of the unsung fortunate plays of the entire season. After moving the ball to Purdue’s 49, Krenzel was hit on 3rd and 2 and fumbled- right into the hands of Maurice Hall. Although Mo was stopped short of the first down, his recovery allowed Andy Groom to get off a 43-yard punt to pin Purdue at their own 8. Had Purdue recovered the fumble would Ohio State had even gotten another chance?

The “D” rose to the occasion once more, forcing a punt. In another fortuitous turn, Purdue’s punter outkicked his coverage with a 55-yard bomb, but Chris Gamble got 20 of it back on the return and the Bucks set up shop with 3:10 to play at Purdue’s 46. After a sack of Krenzel and an incompletion, OSU faced a 3rd and 14. Ben Hartsock picked up 13 with a catch-and-run, but it was fourth down and the clock was running.

ABC focused in on Jim Tressel as he relayed the play for backup quarterback Scott McMullen to signal in- King Right 64 Y Shallow Swap. If you watch the “Holy Buckeye” video from your videotape or here, you’ll see Ben Hartsock (the tight end or “Y” receiver in football-speak) run a short crossing route from right to left, a “shallow” route. The play was intended to go to Ben to get the first down, but Krenzel had other ideas.

Getting tremendous blocks from Brandon Schnittker and especially Lydell Ross, Craig stepped up amid a ferocious pass rush and threw off his back foot into the wind for Michael Jenkins, who had gotten a step on Purdue’s corner Antwaun Rogers. Jenkins hauled it in over his shoulder to give OSU the lead for the first time all day, touching off pandemonium in Buckeye Nation. An absolutely unbelievable moment that still pumps my blood to this day. Up in the ABC-TV booth, Brent Musburger’s call was a mixture of excitement and disbelief-

“Will it be up to the offensive line? No, Krenzel’s going to throw for it. They gotta get it off. They go for the ballgame. Touchdown! Touchdown! Michael Jenkins on fourth-and-one! Would you believe it? Craig Krenzel strikes with a minute and a half left! Holy Buckeye!”

In the 2003 Iowa game program, Pat Kindig wrote an excellent article about Brent, and in it Musburger said his call of the play “was a spur of the moment thing” which hadn’t been thought out previously. “(“Holy Buckeye”) just came along with all the excitement surrounding the play”.

And you know the most ironic thing? Even as “Holy Buckeye” has taken a place in Ohio State lingo, how many people actually heard Brent’s exclamation? If you were in your car or maybe at work listening to the radio you wouldn’t have heard it. If you were at Ross-Ade Stadium that day you wouldn’t have heard it. And if you gathered at a sports bar or someone’s home, I would bet the resulting uproar probably drowned out the TV.

I watched the game in the crowded family room of our site photographer Gregg Watson, and I can honestly tell you it took until after the commercial break for the bedlam to die down. Brent could’ve announced that I’d won the lottery and I wouldn’t have heard him.

Now I know we could go back and forth for days about Brent. Since he comes from a newspaper background, you won’t watch any event Brent calls without some mention of a “developing storyline”. And he can take melodrama to ridiculous lengths. But his call of the winning pass that day was a classic- not just because of the circumstances but because it came from genuine enthusiasm. For the last four years I’ve done color commentary for high school football on the radio, and no matter how much you prepare sometimes the best calls just come from your honest reaction to dramatic moments. I mean, seriously, did anyone see that pass coming that afternoon in West Lafayette? And as Brent would prophetically put it, “It will live forever in Buckeye lore if this team goes on to an unbeaten season”.

There was still unfinished business. After making interceptions in the end zone at Cincinnati and Wisconsin, and taking a pick to the house against Penn State, Chris Gamble sealed the deal at West Lafayette. Leaving his man, Gamble came across the field to intercept a Kyle Orton bomb. Despite the fourth reference of the day to Brees and Morales just seconds earlier by Danielson, Chris ensured history would not repeat.

So now not only were the Buckeyes 11-0, but the almost unbelievable ending had Buckeye fans wondering if Lady Luck was actually going to stay with them until the dance was over. Was this team going to end the 34-year national championship drought? On the DVD “The Buckeyes 50 Greatest”, punter Andy Groom adequately summed up the feeling that was taking over the legion of Scarlet and Gray fans-

“After the Purdue game I really thought that we were gonna do it all. (That) we were destined to do it”.

That feeling of destiny carried over on that November 9th to the 3:30 matchup between undefeated Oklahoma and Texas A&M, where the Aggies hit their own fourth-quarter bomb to knock off the Sooners. It was a vital piece of the Buckeye championship puzzle, but it wouldn’t be easy putting it together. The next weekend in Champaign, Ohio State went to overtime for the first time in school history to subdue Illinois 23-16. After two weeks of Pepto-Bismol finishes, there was only one thing standing between Jim Tressel’s troops and a trip to Tempe…. (To be continued…)

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