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Unloved but Undefeated, Buckeyes Are in the Chips

Ohio State is 13-0 and will play for national title in Fiesta Bowl after latest escape, 14-9 over Michigan.

November 24, 2002|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a cloth-coat, labor-intensive, throwback game that would have pleased Woody but not Bo, Ohio State beat Michigan on Saturday, 14-9, clinched a share of the Big Ten title, a 13-0 regular-season record and a berth in the Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl.

You don't like it?

Tough tortilla chips.

To those who say they'd rather watch paint dry than Ohio State play, that there are half a dozen one-loss teams out there right now that could beat the Buckeyes, the Buckeyes say this:

"We don't care," linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "The people who are talking have already lost a game, or rooting for people who lost a game. They're not 13-0."

Saturday's win before a record crowd of 105,539 at Ohio Stadium unleashed a floodgate of emotion for a football-crazed school that hasn't won a national title since 1968 and a lot of those years could blame Michigan for it.

It's been so long between titles, and postgame dances after all-important games against Michigan, fans could even tolerate the pepper spray that kept them from tearing down the goal posts.

The collective exhale that swept across the field after Will Allen intercepted a last-second Michigan pass near the Ohio State end zone could have launched a hundred hot-air balloons.

A season in which "take it to the wire" could be the Buckeyes' theme ended in typical fashion with Ohio State clinging to victory, same as it did against Cincinnati, Illinois and Purdue.

Decisions, decisions.

"Do you want to cry, do you want to scream?" Wilhelm said of his joy. "You don't know what to do."

The Buckeyes did a little of both.

It was an afternoon of retrenchment and retribution, Ohio State settling a score with Michigan and clearing up one half of the until-now convoluted national title picture.

After the game, the No. 2 Buckeyes were officially extended an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl, site of this year's bowl championship series national title game.

"We accept!" Buckeye Coach Jim Tressel said.

The other title-game spot is Miami's to lose. If the Hurricanes defeat Syracuse next week and Virginia Tech on Dec. 7, they will face the Buckeyes in a matchup of the nation's only undefeated schools.

If Miami loses, the second spot will be a BCS standings fight among several one-loss teams.

Nothing has been easy for Ohio State this year and Saturday was no different.

"They did what they had to do to win," Michigan quarterback John Navarre said of the victors.

Same old Buckeye story.

After spinning their wheels for more than three quarters and losing the field-possession chess game, the Buckeyes scored the game-winning touchdown on Maurice Hall's three-yard sweep around right end with 4:55 left.

It capped one of the most angst-filled drives in Ohio State football history, highlighted by Craig Krenzel's quarterback sneak on fourth and one at the Michigan 33.

Twice before, Tressel ordered a punt on fourth and short in Michigan territory. The second call backfired when Andy Groom's kick went only 13 yards to the 23.

"I was catching static from a lot of people, 105,000," Tressel said later.

But the third time, Tressel said he had no choice,

"Krenzel would have killed me if we had not let him continue that drive," Tressel said.

Krenzel went left for the first down to the 32, then set up the winning touchdown with a 26-yard pass to tailback Maurice Clarett.

Hall's scoring run came on an option pitch from Krenzel, the first time Ohio State has run that play this year.

Of course, there was still plenty of time left on the clock, and Michigan had a history of playing demolition derby with Ohio State's splendid seasons of 1969, '93, '95 and '96.

Michigan, which dropped to 9-3, quickly moved the ball down the field and had first and 10 at the Ohio State 30 when defensive end Darrion Scott poked the ball loose from Navarre, Buckeye end Will Smith recovering the fumble with 2:02 left.

Time to storm the field?

Not so fast.

Michigan used its last two timeouts, held Ohio State on downs and got the ball back at its 20 with 58 seconds left.

In the final minutes, the freshman Clarett turned to Tressel on the sidelines and said, "How come the clock goes so slow when you're winning?"

Not, as it turned out, because it was on Michigan time -- although the gods were certainly going to make Ohio State sweat.

The Wolverines had two shots at the end zone with seven seconds left.

Tressel, who runs the Buckeye offense, could only hold his breath and watch.

"I took my headsets off with seven seconds left and said, 'Come on, D,' " he said.

Incredibly, after Navarre's second-down incompletion, there remained one tick left on the home-town clock.

With only one heave left, though, Navarre underthrew Braylon Edwards short of the goal line and Allen stepped in for the interception.

Finally, forever, it was done.

"When Will made the interception, I just started crying," Ohio State strong safety Mike Doss said.

He wasn't alone. The whole stadium was flush-faced and wet-streaked in crimson -- a satisfying byproduct of the elation and the pepper spray.

At last, a transcendent moment involving a game against Michigan.

Years from now, if Ohio State goes on to win the national title, Buckeye fans will talk about the game that got them there, the game in which Clarett shook off a painful left shoulder injury and shouldered the load, finishing with 119 yards in 20 carries.

"He knew what this game meant to his teammates, he knew what it meant to Ohio State," Tressel said. "He was going to play no matter how he felt."

It was a new dawning in Columbus. Tressel, in two seasons, scored his second win against Michigan. It took former coach John Cooper 13 tries to beat Michigan twice.

"The only thing we do with history is try to learn from it," Tressel said.

Lesson learned, 14-9.

"I think Columbus is ours tonight," tight end Ben Hartsock said.

Tonight, tomorrow and, who knows, after Jan. 3, maybe forever.

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