Finally, it's the season that is #1 on our chart, and #1 in our hearts. It's 2002, the greatest season of Ohio State football.
One of the oddities of Ohio State football is that all three perfect National Championship seasons have been utterly unexpected beforehand. The 1954 team was picked to finish as low as fifth in the Big Ten. The 1968 team was considered a year away from real contention. And the 2002 team, in Jim Tressel's second season at the helm, coming off a three-year record of 21-15, was ranked a modest 13th in the nation as it began its own magic carpet ride.
The Magnificent Six : #6 - The 1961 Ohio State BuckeyesThe Magnificent Six : #5 - The 1973 Ohio State BuckeyesThe Magnificent Six: #4 - The 1944 Ohio State BuckeyesThe Magnificent Six: #3 - The 1954 Ohio State BuckeyesThe Magnificent Six: #2 - The 1968 Ohio State Buckeyes2002
Record: 14-0 (8-0 Big Ten)
Big Ten Conference Champions
Texas Tech (9-5) W 45-21
Kent State (3-9) W 51-17
Washington State (10-3) W 25-7
@ Cincinnati (7-7) W 23-19
Indiana (3-9) W 45-17
@ Northwestern (3-9) W 27-16
San Jose State (6-7) W 50-7
@ Wisconsin (8-6) W 19-14
Penn State (9-4) W 13-7
Minnesota (8-5) W 34-3
@ Purdue (7-6) W 6-3
@ Illinois (5-7) W 23-16 (OT)
Michigan (10-3) W 14-9
Miami (12-1) W 31-24 (2 OT)
What makes 2002 the greatest season of Ohio State football, greater than 1954 or 1968? Three reasons:
Going into the season, most observers figured that Ohio State would have an outstanding defense. Nearly all of the principal players, including All-American safety Michael Doss, were back from what had been a stalwart unit in 2001. The questions were on offense and in the kicking game. Who would play quarterback? Would sophomore kicker Mike Nugent improve on his dismal 50 percent performance in '01? Would true freshman Maurice Clarett be the bell cow in the running game?
The answers to each question were an emphatic "Yes!" Craig Krenzel stepped in at quarterback and played brainy, mistake-free football, with a flair for using his arm and feet to make plays when they absolutely had to be made. Mike Nugent drilled his first 23 field-goal attempts of the season, made All-American, and became one-half of the best kicking combination in college football, along with fellow All-American punter Andy Groom.
And Clarett? He was simply the most electrifying running back Columbus had seen since Eddie George. In his first game, against Texas Tech, Clarett ran for 175 yards and three touchdowns. Three weeks later, he single-handedly broke open a tight game against eventual Pac-10 champion Washington State with 194 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, part of a 230-yard effort. Despite missing three games with knee and shoulder injuries, Clarett finished the season with 1,190 yards and 14 touchdowns. Perhaps no heralded player in the history of the program had a more disappointing and tragic end to such a promising career. But while he was in Columbus, Maurice Clarett was the ultimate lightning rod, the raging fire at the heart of a great team.
The defense was as advertised- fast and aggressive, with a heaping side of nastiness. At one point the Buckeye D went 13 consecutive quarters without giving up a touchdown. It started with a brilliant front seven: Will Smith and Darrien Scott at the ends, Kenny Peterson and Tim Anderson at the tackles; All-American Matt Wilhelm at middle linebacker, flanked by Robert Reynolds and speed-rushing Cie Grant on the outside. Senior safeties Doss and Donnie Nickey were at the heart of the secondary. The lone weakness of the unit, the lack of a shut-down cornerback, ceased to exist at mid-season when, with his hand forced by an injury to starter Richard McNutt, Coach Tressel installed wide receiver Chris Gamble at corner- and from then on Ohio State's defense had it all.
The formula for victory was simple: control field position with the legs of Groom and Nugent, play airtight, conservative football on offense, and let the defense do its thing. When the home run was needed, it was Krenzel to flanker Michael Jenkins, who piled up 1,031 receiving yards with a lusty 18 yards per catch average and made one money grab after another, all season long. It was Tressel Ball at its finest, and it proved flawless, although there were certainly some... interesting moments along the way:
As it turned out, the Buckeyes did a little more than just compete. They controlled the tempo. The defense forced five turnovers. beat up Ken Dorsey and held Willis McGahee to just 63 yards rushing before he left the game with a knee injury in the fourth quarter. Ohio State took a 14-7 halftime lead, scoring both of its touchdowns as a result of turnovers. The Bucks extended their lead to 17-7 in the third quarter, scoring a field goal after Clarett's famous theft of a Sean Taylor interception. Miami, with Kellen Winslow performing heroically, came back to tie the game and send it into overtime.
The Hurricanes scored first in OT to take a 24-17 lead. The Buckeyes came back. They overcame two fourth-downs, the first a 4th-and-13 picked up on- what else- a Krenzel to Jenkins connection; the second, a 4th-and-goal, picked up on the controversial defensive holding penalty in the end zone. A Krenzel sneak tied the score, and on the opening possession of the second overtime, Clarett barged in from seven yards out to give Ohio State a 31-24 lead. From there it was a matter of keeping Miami out of the end zone, and once again, the defense was up to the challenge, stonewalling the Canes on four tries from the two-yard line. On fourth down, a punch-drunk Dorsey rolled back, was pressured off the edge by Cie Grant, and threw blindly into a crowd. Donnie Nickey knocked the ball to the ground, and that was it- Ohio State 31, Miami 24.
Seven times since 1968, Ohio State had fallen one game short of a perfect season and a National Championship. The eighth time was the charm. The 2002 Buckeyes may not have been the greatest team in the history of Ohio State football. But they had the greatest season- and we feel blessed to have witnessed it.