Next Stop: Fiesta Bowl Ohio State topped archrival Michigan in a nail-biter to complete an unbeaten regular season and earn a berth in the national title game

December 02, 2002

Question often posed by Ohio State fans around this time of year:
How do you get to Michigan? Answer: Drive west until you smell s,
then head north. Jim Tressel would disapprove of that joke, and
not just because it is only marginally clever. It contains
profanity, upon which the clean-cut Buckeyes coach frowns. This
is part of his appeal to Ohio State fans, who also love him for
his Ohio roots, for the trim figure he cuts in those Vneck
sweater vests that fill his closet and for the fact that he has
taken his team, their team, now 13--0, to the cusp of a national championship, which the Buckeyes last won in 1968. More than
anything else, they love him because he beats Michigan.

Let's face it: The only reason Tressel has a job in Columbus is
that his predecessor, John Cooper, won all of two games against
the Wolverines in 13 tries. With Ohio State's 14--9 victory over
Big Blue at the Horseshoe last Saturday, Tressel upped his record
against the school's most despised rival to 2--0. What is this
guy doing right?

Cooper was criticized early in his Buckeyes tenure for
soft-pedaling this rivalry as "just another game." As his losses
to Michigan mounted, Cooper's desperation seemed to infect his
charges, who played tight and found ways to lose. Tressel has
struck just the right balance by acknowledging the rivalry for
what it is--a game that can make or break a season--and keeping
his guys loose enough to play well in it.

"He talked to us this week about playing within ourselves," said
Matt Wilhelm, a senior linebacker who had 15 tackles in his final
game at Ohio Stadium. "You can't be so overexcited that you try
to do too much and blow a play." Even as Michigan quarterback
John Navarre dinked and dunked his way to the Buckeyes' 24yard
line in the game's closing minute, Wilhelm and company kept their
composure, yielding yardage in modest chunks. Navarre's
last-second pass toward the end zone was picked off by free
safety Will Allen, sealing Ohio State's Fiesta Bowl berth and
triggering a chaotic celebration that was dampened, slightly, by
the sight of cops pepper-spraying students trying to tear down
the south goalposts.

You'd think the athletic department could eat the cost of new
uprights. By qualifying for the Fiesta Bowl, which will determine
the national champion, the football team will add $13.5 million
to a Big Ten bowl kitty that could reach $32 million, with equal
shares going to all 11 conference members. Are the Buckeyes,
who've won six games this season by a touchdown or less, worthy
of playing for the national title? Hell, yes. Their likeliest
opponent, Miami, seemed to regress in its 28--21 victory over
Pittsburgh last week. "They're beatable," says Wilhelm of the
Hurricanes. With each close call, meanwhile, Ohio State has added
to its aura as a team that never panics, that finds ways to win.
The defense and kicking game are outstanding. What about the
offense, led by brainiac quarterback Craig Krenzel? The
fourth-year junior, a molecular genetics major destined for med
school, has engineered an average of two touchdowns per game over
the last six games. Let's just say the offense picks its spots.

Thankfully for the Buckeyes, tailback Maurice Clarett will now
have until Jan. 3 to heal his bruised left shoulder. Even with
the joint dinged up, Clarett was the difference against Michigan.
As he jogged onto the field on the Buckeyes' second series, a
roar arose from the crowd of 105,539. Clarett energized the
offense, gaining 45 yards on four plays before reinjuring the
shoulder. As he gingerly left the field, the electricity ebbed
from the stadium.

Power was restored three plays later. Clarett came off the
bench--"It's Michigan," he said after the game, explaining why he
didn't stay on the sideline--took a handoff and outraced
Wolverines free safety Cato June to the right corner of the end
zone for a two-yard touchdown. In his first significant action in
nearly a month, Clarett rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries. No
back on Rivalry Weekend showed more grit than the 19-year-old
freshman from Youngstown. Said Ohio State cornerback Dustin Fox,
"He was a warrior today."

The Mighty Mo Show doesn't stop when he steps off the field. When
Clarett isn't helicoptering a towel to exhort the crowd, he's
pumping up his teammates. (Who's that guy in the middle of the
huddled-up kickoff team? Why, it's Maurice!) More often, he can
be found shadowing Tressel, pacing behind the coach on the
sideline, filling his ear with pleas and suggestions, such as the
one he made in the first half on Saturday. Referring to a
play-action pass that the Buckeyes had drawn up especially for
Michigan, Clarett said, "You better call that play, 'cause they
can't check me."

That play was Gun Switch Right Dart 59 X Skinny Wheel, and
Tressel pulled the trigger on it midway through the fourth
quarter, his team trailing 9--7. From his tailback spot, Clarett
slid behind Michigan linebacker Joey Sarantos and out to the left
sideline. Krenzel's pass was on the money: Clarett's 26yard
reception gave Ohio State first-and-goal at the six. Two downs
later tailback Maurice Hall scored the game-winning touchdown on
an option play to the right. It was an inspired call--the
Buckeyes seldom run the option--and another one that Clarett said
he'd been lobbying for.

Since when do freshmen have the cheek to appoint themselves
advisers to their coaches? Since Clarett arrived in Columbus,
apparently. While most first-year players keep a low profile as
they learn the lay of the land, Clarett has no interest in such a
modest role. That's O.K. The feeling among the Buckeyes'
upperclassmen is: A guy who backs it up the way Clarett does
should pipe up. Yes, he has ruffled feathers. There was a brief
period of crisis in October when he said in ESPN the Magazine
that he was considering a jump to the NFL after this season. (He
has since discounted that possibility.) Ohio State athletic
officials didn't mind the story as much as one of the pictures,
which showed Clarett throwing away his Buckeyes jersey.

Is Clarett a Me guy? Absolutely not, say those close to him. "He
can be aloof," says Thom McDaniels, his coach at Harding High in
Warren, Ohio. "But he is a team player."

He was a team player by the time McDaniels finished with him, at
any rate. After 16 years as coach at powerhouse McKinley High in
Canton, McDaniels left coaching for a few seasons. In 2000 he
took the job at Harding, where his best player presented his
biggest challenge.

"Here was a kid who'd been a celebrity since he played midget
ball," says McDaniels. "Maurice was like an eight-year-old Jim
Thorpe. I told him straight up: I'm not getting in the long line
of people who tell you how great you are. I'm getting in this
real short line of people who will tell you what you're doing

Clarett was a junior when McDaniels arrived. Early in that first
season the star player missed a pregame meal. The coach sat him
for two games. Clarett didn't like it, but he didn't quit. "I
give him credit," says McDaniels. "He could've rejected the
change, but over time he embraced it."

In Clarett, he says, he inherited a triple threat, "a combination
of speed, elusiveness and the ability to run you over. I
challenged him to be someone who played the game from the
shoulders up. He soaked it up."

Ohio State's bread-and-butter play is called Dave. The fullback
kicks out, either right or left, the backside guard pulls and the
running back tucks in behind those escorts. Under McDaniels,
Harding ran the same play. Clarett wasn't used to so much
structure once he got the ball. "Instead of us just giving him
the ball and saying, 'O.K., Maurice, go be wonderful,' we said,
'Stay between the cheeks'"--by which they meant the inside buns
of the fullback and guard.

It took. After graduating early from high school, Clarett
participated in spring practice with the Buckeyes. He devoured
the offense, mastered pass protections, knew his blitz pickups
cold. By mid-August, Clarett had earned the starting job,
something unheard of for a true freshman running back at Ohio

"We wouldn't have him in there if he wasn't the best guy," says
Tressel. "He's not just a great player, he's a great listener."

Clarett had no choice but to listen last Saturday at the postgame
press conference, which his coach seemed intent on transforming
into An Evening at the Improv. A sampler of Tressel's Ohio wit:

To the reporter who observed that Clarett doesn't like to talk
about himself: "You've never met him."

To Buckeyes beat writer Tim May, who asked him to recount his
thoughts on the game's final play: "I was thinking, I wonder what
Tim's first question will be?"

To the scribe who tried to lend bathos to the proceedings by
asking the coach what his father, the late Lee Tressel, who
coached for 23 years at Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio, would
say to him if only he could: "Better start scoring a little more.
For starters."

Tressel said it with the smile of a man not overly worried.
Clarett is back up and running, and Buckeyes fans have a new
question: How do you get to Tempe?

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS [COVER] UNSTOPPABLE OHIO STATE Maurice Clarett and the Buckeyes (13-0) Roll Toward the Fiesta Bowl COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BERGMAN TOP OF THE WORLD Krenzel (16), the QB who's destined for med school, rode a wave of adulation after the win. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER PLUCKY 13 An ailing shoulder didn't slow Clarett, who carried 20 times for a gutsy 119 yards and energized Ohio Stadium. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN HOLE-HEARTED The Buckeyes' line kept the decisive drive alive on fourth-and-one by creating space for a Krenzel QB sneak. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER SURPRISE CALL After Clarett's catch put Ohio State into position, Hall took an option pitch for the winning touchdown.

Are the Buckeyes, who've won six games by a touchdown or less,
worthy of playing for the national title? Hell, yes.

Said Clarett, alluding to a pass drawn up just for Michigan, "You
better call that play, 'cause they can't check me."