Part I: #10-#6Here is Part II of my look back at the ten greatest Ohio State wins of my lifetime as a fan. Let's just say you probably won't be surprised at the game that tops the list.
5.) January 1, 1987 (Cotton Bowl): Ohio State 28, Texas A&M 12- It was two great football states colliding on New Year's Day '87, and the first (and last) time a Big Ten team would play in the Cotton Bowl. This was long before the Cotton Bowl had been consigned second-tier status by the BCS- in those days, it was a prestigious event, and its host, the Southwest Conference, was one of the premier leagues in the nation. Fresh off a heartbreaking loss to Michigan that cost them the Big Ten title, the Buckeyes were heavy underdogs against oily Jackie Sherrill and his Aggies, who returned the bulk of a team that had destroyed Bo Jackson and Auburn at the Texas State Fairgrounds the previous year.
But Earle Bruce had a surprise in store for the Aggies, as well as for Ohio State fans and the national television audience. His team roared out of the tunnel clad in bright scarlet shoes, and Earle himself, usually the least dapper of coaches, was accoutered in a fantastic ensemble- black suit, scarlet flower in the lapel, and a black fedora. Watching the game from our living room in Kent, my dad remarked that Earle resembled an undertaker. Which was appropriate given what Ohio State's defense proceeded to do to Texas A&M.
Led by Chris Spielman, the Buckeyes simply destroyed the Aggie offense. Early in the second half, with Ohio State clinging to a 7-6 lead, Spielman intercepted quarterback Kevin Murray and raced 24 yards for a touchdown, and the rout was on. The Buckeyes would intercept Murray five times, all in the second half, and climax the scoring with another pick-six, a 49-yard jaunt by Spielman's fellow linebacker Michael Kee. Whether it was the shoes, the suit, or the defense, the Buckeyes had gone deep into the heart of Texas- and come out on top. Score one for Ohio football.
4.) November 18, 2006: Ohio State 42, Michigan 39- Some of the luster of this game was taken off by the pratfalls of both teams in their respective bowl games- especially the Disaster in the Desert- but at the time it was played, Ohio State-Michigan 2006 was the highest of high drama. Both teams were undefeated and ranked 1-2 in the land. Wolverine patriarch Bo Schembechler had passed away the day before, lending deep poignancy to the proceedings. The Game is almost always the biggest of the day on which it's played, but that day, more than any other, the nation's sports consciousness belonged to the Scarlet and Grey and the Maize and Blue.
And it turned out to be a hell of a game, the awkward three-o-clock start notwithstanding. (I prefer my Ohio State-Michigan battle to be fought at high noon.) For more than three hours, both teams shook off their conservative reputations and filled the slate-colored November sky with fireworks. The teams combined for 900 yards of offense, neither really stopping the other, but after falling behind 7-0 early, the Buckeyes took command and stayed in command for the duration, if tenuously. In his last go-around against the Wolverines, Troy Smith was, once again, spectacular. He riddled Michigan's defense for 316 yards and four touchdowns. Both Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells busted loose for long touchdown runs against the vaunted Michigan ground defense. When the explosions had subsided, Ohio State was still undefeated, still ranked number-one, and on its way to the BCS Championship Game.
Buckeye dreams of a perfect season would die hard in Glendale, Arizona. But that fiasco couldn't take all of the shine off the day in November when the greatest rivalry in all of sports reached its zenith. As did Northeast Ohio football- every touchdown for Ohio State was scored by a player from this area- Anthony Gonzales (Cleveland St. Ignatius), Ted Ginn (Cleveland Glenville), Brian Robiskie (Chagrin Falls), Roy Hall (Lyndhurst Brush), Antonio Pittman (Akron Buchtel) and Chris Wells (Akron Garfield.) And of course, Troy Smith hailed from Glenville, and Jim Tressell was a graduate of Berea High School. On November 18, 2006, our team- and our region- were Number One. It's just a shame the season couldn't end right there.
3.) January 1, 1997 (Rose Bowl): Ohio State 20, Arizona State 17- Ohio State's National Championship dreams had gone up in smoke, courtesy of Michigan, but the 10-1 Buckeyes still had a chance to play spoiler in Pasadena. Undefeated Arizona State, the Cinderella of the 1996 season, led by quarterback Jake "the Snake" Plummer and linebacker Pat Tillman, could take the National Championship with a victory in the Rose Bowl over the Buckeyes, who were a ramshackle 1-6 in bowl games during ex-Sun Devils coach John Cooper's tenure.
On a rare rainy day in southern California, the Buckeyes and Sun Devils put together a thriller. The lead changed hands five times during the course of this tight, hard-hitting game, with neither team able to gain control. Ohio State took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter on Joe Germaine's 72-yard touchdown strike to Dimitrious Stanley and held it most of the way. But with time waning in the fourth quarter, Jake the Snake manufactured a gut-check drive, and with 1:40 remaining, the Arizona State quarterback escaped from a heavy rush and dove into the end zone to put the Sun Devils on top 17-14.
It looked like another Ohio State bowl-game heartbreaker. But Joe Germaine had other ideas. The heretofore unknown sophomore led the Buckeyes on a last-minute march, completing three third-down passes and hitting David Boston for the winning touchdown with 19 seconds remaining. In the span of less than a minute, a Buckeye legend was born- and finally, after years of choking with the chips down, a John Cooper football team had made the clutch plays.
2.) November 23, 2002: Ohio State 14, Michigan 9- Tense. Unbearable, unshakably tense. That's the best way to describe the Michigan game of 2002. After having three undefeated seasons spoiled by the Wolverines in the ‘90s, the Buckeyes had another chance to finish a spotless regular season... and Michigan had another chance to ruin it. Win and it was off to the Fiesta Bowl to play for the National Championship. Lose, and it was Capital One Bowl, baby, because Iowa had the Big Ten title and the pollsters, deeply skeptical of Ohio State all season, would have almost surely jumped Michigan ahead of the Cardiac Bucks for the conference's second BCS slot. This game meant... everything.
And if the lead-up was nerve-wracking, the game itself was enough to induce heart palpitations. Ohio State took an early 7-3 lead when the injured Maurice Clarett made a dramatic entrance, ripped off a 29-yard run, and finished the drive with a touchdown scamper around right end. But for the most part, Michigan dominated the first half. At the end of thirty minutes, the Wolverines held a two-to-one edge in total yardage and time-of-possession, had converted eight of eleven third downs, and had put together drives of twelve, sixteen, and nineteen plays. But they couldn't get the ball into the end zone. They had to settle for three Adam Finley field goals and led 9-7 at intermission.
In the second half Ohio State's sturdy, stingy defense finally began to shut down the Michigan attack. But the Buckeyes couldn't move the ball either. With 8:30 to play in the fourth, Ohio State got the ball in good field position at their 43. Three minutes, thirty-four seconds and eight plays later- including a fourth-down conversion and a 26-yard pass completion to Clarett- the Buckeyes were in the end zone, on a four-yard option pitch to Maurice Hall. 4:56 to play, Ohio State 14, Michigan 9.
But it wasn't over yet. Oh, no. It couldn't be that prosaic. They couldn't let us off that easy. Quarterback John Navarre got the Michigan offense on the move twice more as the clock ticked away. But the Ohio State defense wouldn't break. The first Wolverine gasp ended with 2:02 left, when Darrien Scott strip-sacked Navarre and Will Smith recovered the ball at the Ohio State 36. But the Buckeye offense couldn't kill the clock. Andy Groom whaled a 43-yard punt, and with 58 seconds to play, Michigan had to go eighty yards to win the game.
They almost pulled it off. Firing strikes to Ronald Bellamy and Braylon Edwards, Navarre took his team to the Ohio State 24-yard line where, with one second left, the Wolverines had one more shot for the end zone. And it was at this point, after all of this drama, all of the agony- that I began to relax. The Buckeye defense had done it all year, made stops, forced turnovers every time it absolutely had to. I knew they would do it one more time. There was no way Michigan got it into the end zone here. Wasn't going to happen. Not this time, and not against this team.
And they didn't. On the final play Navarre faded back, fired for Braylon down the middle of the field- and nickel back Will Allen, who always seemed to be on the spot for the big play, made the biggest, stepping in front, intercepting, and falling to the ground. Ballgame. The crowd stormed the field and lifted Craig Krenzel on its collective shoulders. Tostitos flew. Couches burned. Pandemonium reigned. The Buckeyes had done it.
1.) January 3, 2003 (Fiesta Bowl): Ohio State 31, Miami 24, 2 OT- It was the perfect game to end a perfect season. The setting couldn't have been better: Friday night, a night of revelry. The storyline couldn't have been more compelling: two undefeated teams, one the defending National Champion and owner of a 34-game winning streak, the other a classic program back in the elite, a hard-scrabble, hard-fighting underdog with thirteen straight wins- and no chance to make it fourteen, if you believed the pundits. Not many prognosticators gave Ohio State a shot at beating Miami, and to tell you the truth, I wasn't so sure myself. But after fortifying myself with two pre-game shots (in honor of #2, Michael Doss) I was down for whatever.
By the end of the first half, I felt a whole lot better. Had a nice buzz on, and was enjoying the company of a nice young lady who was treating me very well. Oh, and the game was going great too. Miami took an early 7-0 lead when Ken Dorsey found Roscoe Parrish for a touchdown, but in the second quarter, Ohio State's defense settled in and began to dominate. They forced three Dorsey turnovers in the period- two interceptions and a fumble- the latter two of which led to touchdowns. At halftime, the Buckeyes led the stunned Hurricanes, 14-7. This wasn't going to be another version of the previous year's Rose Bowl, when Miami tore apart an overmatched Nebraska team. The guys in scarlet and grey were really, really good- and the Cocky ‘Canes were in a fight for their lives.
I was sure Ohio State was going to win at halftime. Positive. I just had that feeling. Actually, I thought the Buckeyes would win going away- 24-7, 24-14, something like that. Everything was going their way. All year Ohio State had trailed at halftime- to Cincinnati, to Wisconsin, to Penn State, to Illinois, to Michigan- and had found a way to come back and win. Now they were leading, and by a whole touchdown at that. I just loved the situation. And I let everyone at the party know it. "Bucks got this one! They're going to win this game! It's done!" I got several different flavors of "STFU, you'll jinx them!" in reaction. But at that point, maybe it was the whiskey, maybe it was the woman, the night, whatever- I just had total belief in this football team. They were going to get it done.
And they did. But it got awfully interesting en route. The second half was simply marvelous. Maurice Clarett stripping Sean Taylor, saving the possession, and Mike Nugent nailing a field goal to make it 17-7. Miami, its outmatched offensive line holding on every play, driving frantically to cut it to 17-14. Willis McGahee's knee exploding on a helmet-to-limb shot by Will Allen. Chris Gamble's third down catch, which would have clinched the game, wrongly ruled out of bounds by the officials (the call they never talk about.) Roscoe Parrish springing free for a long punt return inside the Buckeye 30. Larry Coker, thankfully, choosing to run out the clock and settle for the tie. Todd Sievers barely hooking it through (I thought it was no good off the foot) to make it 17-17.
Overtime. The great Kellen Jr. nabbing a touchdown to put Miami in the lead. Ohio State's desperate attempt to tie. Krenzel to Jenkins, that wonderful duo, hooking up for seventeen yards on 4th-and-14. (My memory is a little hazy at that point; every time I've watched the game since, in sobriety, I go into a cold sweat when that play arrives. 4th-and-14! Oh my goodness!) The defensive holding call on Glenn Sharpe to keep the Buckeyes alive. Krenzel, smart as a whip and tough as a two-dollar steak, plunging into the end zone to re-tie it.
Double overtime. Ohio State with the ball first, and now Miami's defense is physically and psychologically toasted. They offer little resistance as the Buckeyes drive to the go-ahead score, Mo Clarett slicing in from seven yards out. One last gasp for the Hurricanes. Matt Wilhelm knocks Ken Dorsey into next week, but the Miami quarterback hits Kellen Jr. on fourth down to keep the drive alive. The Hurricanes arrive at first-and-goal on the two. Jarrett Payton plunges into the line and goes nowhere. Dorsey, out on his feet, airmails a wide-open Eric Winston at the goal line. Quadtrine Hill tries a fullback smash and gets stood up for no gain. Fourth down at the one. Miami knows it can't run it in. They try a pass play. But Cie Grant comes free off the edge- Tight Will Tulsa- spins Dorsey like a top and his dying quail is knocked to the turf by Donnie Nickey. That's it. Ohio State has done it. The upstairs bar of our house is transformed into a mosh pit of yelling, drunken fools. I am picked up bodily and carried around the room, arms waving, legs kicking.
Man, what a moment. All of the big wins and exasperating losses, the ennui of the Earle Bruce years, the heartbreak of the Cooper years, the great players, the not-so-great players... it all led up to that night, January 3, 2003, when everyone in Buckeye Country was redeemed. The story has been told, and will be re-told- but it'll never get old. And it can't be topped. But here's to the Ohio State Buckeyes trying to top it, creating more memories, and more wins, for the memory banks.
I hope you've enjoyed this look back as much as I enjoyed writing it. O-H!