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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / 1996

Buckeyes Give Irish Black Eyes

College football: No. 4 Ohio State tramples No. 5 Notre Dame's hopes of national championship, 29-16.

September 29, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ohio State, which last set cleat on these hallowed grounds in 1936, took a quick whiff of nostalgia Saturday and then ran off left tackle on Notre Dame tradition until the Irish cried "Knute."

The Buckeyes didn't get to town until Friday night, did not work out at Notre Dame Stadium, did not ask for a guided tour through campus, did not swallow the elixir.

What No. 4 Ohio State did was hand No. 5 Notre Dame the most thorough home defeat of the Lou Holtz era, a 29-16 victory before a crowd of 59,075.

What the Buckeyes did was run the opening kickoff back 85 yards to set an early tempo, send eight-man dive-bomb missions at quarterback Ron Powlus (sacking him four times), introduce fleet-footed quarterback Stanley Jackson to corporate America and run tailback Pepe Pearson behind mammoth left tackle Orlando "Pancake" Pace to the tune of 173 yards in 29 carries.

"You know, Ohio State football," Jackson said. "Three yards and a cloud of dust."

Three yards?

The Buckeyes averaged 6.2 yards per play against the Irish while holding Notre Dame, a team built on ground control, to 126 yards rushing.

The Irish had not been so taken at South Bend since 1992, when Stanford used smoke and mirrors in a 33-16 victory on Bill Walsh's Genius Reunion Tour.

Saturday, Holtz pecked away at the "what ifs" and the "could haves" and believed in his heart his team would find a way to win.

Yes, there was that chance, with 3:35 remaining, when Autry Denson returned a punt 90 yards for an apparent touchdown that might have cut the Ohio State lead to six points. But when the play was called back for holding after an official caught Notre Dame's Ty Goode grabbing Antoine Winfield's jersey, Holtz could only form a logical conclusion.

"The better football team won the game, make no mistake about it," he said.

In fact, if not for two Ohio State mistakes, both of which led to Irish touchdowns, they'd still be taking names outside the stadium.

Holtz entered with a 10-3-1 home record against top 10 opponents, while Ohio State Coach John Cooper's record in big games--he's 1-6-1 against Michigan--spoke for itself.

The Buckeyes were 10-0 last season before a Michigan loss wrecked their national title hopes, but have returned with a chip on their shoulders bigger than Pace, their 6-foot-6, 330-pound left tackle/combine.

"Ever since Coach Cooper began here, they said he couldn't win the big one," said junior quarterback Jackson, who completed nine of 15 passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns. "I think we showed something today."

Last year's Michigan loss has become Ohio State's hair shirt, a constant, itchy reminder of what might have been.

"It definitely motivated us," Jackson said. "We've learned from it."

Others are paying for it.

Ohio State (3-0) has outscored three opponents, 171-23. Saturday, the Buckeyes gained 391 total yards on what many considered a stellar Notre Dame defense.

"It doesn't get any better than this," said Cooper, who was presented with a game ball for his 150th coaching victory. "Not many teams come here, in this environment, and beat a good Notre Dame team."

Sure, the Buckeyes could use some fine-tuning.

After Dimitrious Stanley's 85-yard opening kickoff return set up a three-yard Pearson touchdown, Ohio State flubbed the extra point after a high center snap.

Another Ohio State mistake--Kinnon Tatum's first-quarter interception of a tipped Jackson pass at the Buckeyes' 15--allowed Notre Dame to take its only lead of the game at 7-6 after Powlus tossed a two-yard scoring pass to fullback Marc Edwards.

The Buckeyes answered with the game's most definitive drive, averaging 11.4 yards per play on an 80-yard march that ended with Jackson's two-yard pass to Matt Calhoun.

This time, Ohio State botched a two-point conversion attempt when Jackson was stopped short of goal.

"I'm not perfect," said Jackson, who took over for Bobby Hoying this season. "This is my first big game. I'm human. I'm not a great quarterback." Good enough for now.

Pearson scored his second touchdown on a one-yard run with 54 seconds left in the half to put the Buckeyes up, 22-7.

"We embarrassed ourselves out there today in the first half," the Irish's Edwards said.

Notre Dame cut the lead to 22-10 on Jim Sanson's 26-yard field goal on its opening drive of the second half, but field goals weren't going to cut it.

After linebacker Greg Bellisari sacked Powlus for a nine-yard loss at his own 14 on third down, Ohio State took over after a punt on the Notre Dame 34. Six plays later, Jackson hit tight end D.J. Jones for a score with 1:44 left in the third quarter.

Notre Dame converted Pearson's fourth-quarter fumble into its final score, a nine-yard run by Edwards with 7:01 left to make it 29-16, but Holtz then blundered by not going for two. The extra point was blocked, and the decision could have been huge if Denson's punt return had not been called back.

"It would have been the logical thing to do," Holtz said of going for two.

It was all moot. Jackson, Pearson, and Pace had rendered it so.

This was not a loss Irish fans could pin on Powlus--13 for 30, 154 yards--who played a respectable game in defeat.

This was about swarming defense and Pearson, a 205-pound junior who is making the loss of Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George much easier to take, finding Pace and following him.

"He's the best tackle in the country," Jackson said of last year's Lombardi Award winner. "Why not run the ball at him?"

Pace doesn't mind clearing the path.

"We wanted to show the world we could beat a good football team," Pace said. "We did that. We didn't get caught up in the [Notre Dame] mystique. We just came out and executed."

For the Irish (3-1), a clear-cut path to a record 12th national championship was all but closed.

"In this day and age, probably," Edwards said. "We need to regroup, go 11-1, win a major bowl game and see what happens."

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