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"The Best Damn Team..." Wins The Big One Underdog Ohio State stunned mighty Miami in a two-overtime thriller to win its first national championship since 1968

Jan. 13, 2003
Jan. 13, 2003

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Jan. 13, 2003

"The Best Damn Team..." Wins The Big One Underdog Ohio State stunned mighty Miami in a two-overtime thriller to win its first national championship since 1968

If you listened closely, you could hear it calling out: Pop my
cork--you've earned it! Someone had left a bottle of Moet in the
ice bucket in Room 6414 of the Princess Resort in Scottsdale,
Ariz. Even as the hundreds of Ohio State fans at the hotel--and
the rest of the red-clad horde that had descended by the tens of
thousands on the Valley of the Sun for the Fiesta Bowl--swung
into full party mode, neither Will Smith nor Darrion Scott
seemed much interested in champagne.

This is an article from the Jan. 13, 2003 issue Original Layout

"It hurts to move," Smith said. Like Scott, he is a starting
defensive end for the Buckeyes. Like Scott, he was too banged-up
and exhausted, physically and emotionally, to celebrate Ohio
State's 31-24 victory over heavily favored Miami in the most
dramatic title game in the five-year history of the Bowl
Championship Series. So the two teammates remained in attitudes
of abject fatigue--Smith sprawled on the sofa, Scott curled up
on his bed, watching a comedian named Cocoa Brown on
BET--casting their minds back several hours to the goal line
stand that had ended one of college football's greatest games.

Six feet stood between the Hurricanes and a chance to extend the
game to a third overtime, their winning streak to 35 games and
their reign as national champions to two years. It was
first-and-goal at the two, and Miami must have liked its chances.
In Ken Dorsey the Hurricanes had a senior quarterback with a
38-1 record. In Andre Johnson and Roscoe Parrish they had two
wideouts ticketed for the NFL. In Kellen Winslow they had a tight
end who had outplayed everyone else on the field. On top of all
that, they had an offensive line touted as among the finest in
the land. But the Hurricanes also had this small problem. "Their
offensive line was overrated," said Ohio State linebacker Matt
Wilhelm.

"They couldn't move the ball on the ground against us," said
Scott after the game. "We knew it, and they knew we knew it."

The Buckeyes' defense disrupts by sending players at unexpected
angles. They slant, they cross-blitz and they zone-blitz, running
defensive backs and linebackers at the quarterback while dropping
linemen into coverage. "A lot of teams do that," said Hurricanes
center Brett Romberg before the game, "but not as much as Ohio
State."

At a meeting of the Hurricanes' linemen and receivers four days
before the Fiesta Bowl, they seemed acutely aware of the dangers
they faced. "The key is on the back side," said offensive
coordinator Rob Chudzinski as the players watched video of
themselves working against their scout team, which was running
the Buckeyes' schemes. The Christmas tree standing next to the
screen somehow failed to lend the room a festive atmosphere.
"Somewhere along the line we've got to seal off the back side."

"If that guy slants," said offensive line coach Art Kehoe,
pointing at a defensive end, "that's who you get, right, 'Los?"
Starting left tackle Carlos Joseph nodded uncertainly. The
session went on in that vein for half an hour.

"If we can get a body on a body, the ball will get through the
line," said Romberg after the meeting, "but if people are
tentative and second-guess, those guys will wipe right over the
top of us."

And so it came to pass. It wasn't as if the Hurricanes didn't
know what was coming. They were simply powerless to stop it.
Smith sacked Dorsey on Miami's first play from scrimmage. The
Buckeyes got him three more times and knocked him down on 10
other occasions. (Dorsey, who left the field for one play during
the final overtime after a hard hit from Wilhelm, vomited on the
Hurricanes' bus after the game and was hospitalized for several
hours with dehydration and a possible concussion.) By the middle
of the second quarter Miami had abandoned its man-blocking
schemes on passing downs and resorted to slide-protection. This
was a stunning concession to a defensive line that it could not
handle.

Nor could the Hurricanes get anything going on the ground. Before
he left the game in the fourth quarter with torn ligaments in his
left knee, Miami tailback Willis McGahee--who rushed for 1,686
yards and averaged 6.4 per attempt during the season--had carried
20 times for just 67 yards. Now, on first-and-goal in the second
overtime, his replacement, Jarrett Payton (son of the late Walter
Payton), scratched out a yard. On second down Dorsey had tight
end Eric Winston open in the end zone, but, feeling pressure from
his left, rushed the throw. Incomplete. On third down the
Hurricanes ran fullback Quadtrine Hill into the line. No
imagination, no gain.

In the Ohio State huddle safety Mike Doss sought calm. "Everyone,
get your composure," said the senior All-America, who had toyed
with the idea of entering the draft after last season but foresaw
great things for this Buckeyes squad and stuck around. (So
focused was Doss on getting to the title game that every Monday
night for a year he made himself a taco salad, one of whose
ingredients was always Tostitos, a superstitious nod to the
sponsor of the bowl in which he hoped to finish his career.)
"This is our season right here."

From the sideline came the signal for a blitz called Tight Will
Tulsa. "That means I'm coming off the edge," explained outside
linebacker Cie Grant. "I'm bringing the juice."

Grant, a converted cornerback with serious closing speed, caught
Dorsey with one arm, grabbed him by the collar and spun him
around as he released a desperation throw. When that homely pass
fluttered to the turf, it brought down the curtain on a nascent
Hurricanes dynasty. The Miami quarterback sank to his knees while
the celebration erupted around him.

Hadn't we just seen this movie? The first overtime had ended, or
so it had seemed, with a failed throw from Ohio State quarterback
Craig Krenzel. His fourth-down pass to flanker Chris Gamble had
fallen incomplete and been followed by a spectacular display of
Fiesta Bowl--sponsored pyrotechnics, a tidal wave of Hurricanes
players and supporters flowing onto the field, and a yellow flag
thrown by back judge Terry Porter, who waited four Mississippis
before reaching for his back pocket because, he later explained,
he wanted to go over the play in his mind (page 86). Three plays
after the pass-interference penalty, Krenzel sneaked the ball in
for the tying touchdown.

"They let us play all day," said an incredulous Mark Stoops,
Miami's secondary coach, "then he makes a touch call. Who are
these guys?"

Divine agents, some Buckeyes would argue. "That was just God
giving us another chance," said Scott of the late flag. It was
now 2:30 in the morning, and the lineman was sitting up in bed,
fully awake, periodically rubbing his ailing left shoulder. Scott
suspected he had a torn labrum--he'd torn his right labrum in
2001, and this felt the same. Faced with a 6 a.m. flight, he'd
given up on the idea of getting some sleep, and when Smith, who
had taken a helmet to his right quadriceps, limped across the
room to hand him a glass of the now-opened bubbly, Scott did not
refuse it.

Like Scott and Smith, both of whom, it bears mentioning, are of
legal drinking age, let us raise a glass, this time to the
coaches--to Miami's Larry Coker, who endured his first loss in
two seasons at the helm with class and candor, and to Jim
Tressel, who in his second season at Ohio State awakened a
sleeping giant and delivered to the Buckeyes their first national
championship since 1968. Tressel's style is quaint and retro:
Players must memorize one another's names and the words to the
school fight song Carmen Ohio, which they are required to sing
while standing before the band following each game. (In the
joyous anarchy on the field after the Fiesta Bowl, there was
Buckeyes offensive tackle Shane Olivea, herding his teammates
toward the end zone: "Coach says we can't do anything before we
sing.")

Tressel's philosophy is simple. He insists on superior special
teams, relentless defense and mistake-free offense. It is also
effective. It worked for his father, Lee Tressel, at
Baldwin-Wallace, where he won the Division III crown in 1978. It
worked for Jim at Youngstown State, where he led the Penguins to
four Division I-AA national titles between 1991 and '97. Last
Friday night it worked on college football's biggest stage, in "a
game for the history books," as Ohio State free safety Will Allen
described the contest to his teammates before the first overtime.

But this 15-round heavyweight bout left some Buckeyes too drained
for euphoria. "It just doesn't feel that big," tailback Maurice
Clarett said on the field after the game, as teammates showered
each other with corn chips. "It feels like winning another game.
Know what I mean? I'm ready to go. Ready to go home." Then, to a
teammate: "This s---be too long."

It was indeed a long week for the freshman who had been the
Buckeyes' most potent weapon during the season. Fifteen minutes
into a routine press conference on Dec. 30, Clarett dropped one
of the bombshells for which he is quickly becoming known. "I'm
kinda messed up now," he said. "My friend had a funeral today at
11 o'clock, and they didn't put me on a plane to go back. So I'm
kind of salty." For the next two days he and the school sparred
in the press over whether Clarett had filled out the proper forms
for the travel assistance the NCAA makes available to players in
family emergencies.

Clarett's coaches and teammates offered condolences for his loss,
sympathy for his frustration at missing the funeral and bemused
shrugs at his decision to air them so publicly. "There's no
question he's a team player," said Krenzel. "His heart's in the
right place."

Clarett himself has a knack for being in the right place. Despite
being bottled up much of the time by the Hurricanes' defense,
which held him to 47 yards on 23 carries (he had rushed for 1,190
yards and averaged 6.0 per carry this season), Clarett found ways
to leave his mark on the game. Every bit as important as his two
rushing touchdowns was the defensive play he made in the third
quarter. After Miami safety Sean Taylor had picked off Krenzel in
the Hurricanes' end zone, Clarett stripped Taylor of the ball on
the return, leading to a Buckeyes field goal.

That outrageous sequence was the signature play of a game in
which emotions, and momentum, whipsawed. Whenever the tension
seemingly could not be ratcheted any higher, it was. After
enduring two Ohio State timeouts with :03 left in regulation,
Miami kicker Todd Sievers drilled a 40-yard field goal to send
the game into overtime. Winslow, who would finish with 11
receptions for 122 yards, capped the Hurricanes' first OT
possession with a circus catch, contorting his body in midair and
reaching around a defender's head to snare a seven-yard touchdown
pass. Miami had momentum.

But back it swung to the Buckeyes with the flight of side judge
Porter's flag, the signal to the Hurricanes that their
celebrations were premature. Obscured by that bizarre turn of
events was the gutsy play four snaps earlier that had made it
possible. On fourth-and-14 from the 29, with the season on the
line--and with his mother, Debbie, in the stands saying, "Time to
throw it to Mikey"--Krenzel took a three-step drop and hummed a
17-yard strike to wideout Michael Jenkins at the right sideline.

Putting Krenzel in pressure spots is like throwing Brer Rabbit
into the brier patch. The junior from Sterling Heights, Mich.,
led Ohio State to five fourth-quarter comebacks this season,
leaving him with a somewhat cavalier attitude toward do-or-die
situations. "It's sort of like, 'Yeah, our season's on the line
again,'" he says. "So let's do something about it."

Krenzel's rise was one of the many unexpected twists in a
surprising Buckeyes season. When he won the starting job last
fall, it was widely assumed he would merely be keeping the spot
warm for redshirt junior Scott McMullen or highly touted freshman
Justin Zwick. But Krenzel has a nice arm and is a good runner, as
Miami discovered. The 6'4" 215-pounder rushed for a game-high 81
yards, taking advantage of the Hurricanes' man-to-man coverage to
pull the ball down and scramble for solid gains. Mostly, though,
Krenzel is smart--a molecular genetics major who pulled straight
B-pluses in his three fall courses: Molecular Genetics 608,
Molecular Genetics 701 and Microbiology. "Those are
graduate-level courses," says his brother, Brian, a medical
student at Louisville who played strong safety at Duke. Brian is
fiercely proud of his little brother but saves his praise for
when Craig is out of earshot.

Last Saturday afternoon, long after many other Buckeyes had left
for home, the Krenzel brothers and their uncle Stan played a
round of golf at a public course in Phoenix. Stan is a lifelong
Michigan fan who pulls for his nephew during the football season
but makes him pay when it's over.

"Watch Stan. He'll spend the whole round talking during Craig's
backswing, trying to screw him up," said Brian, himself not above
attempting to sabotage his brother's game. Both uncle and brother
had parred the first hole when Craig bent over a five-foot par
putt.

"This is where his game falls apart," said Stan.

"Awful quiet, isn't it Craig?" said Brian.

"Don't look now, but it's fourth-and-one," said Stan, who was
silenced by the clattering of his nephew's ball dropping into the
cup.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER [COVER] "Best Damn Team In the Land ..." OHIO STATE Shocks Miami To Win the National Title PLUS: The Top 10 Teams Next Season Quarterback Craig Krenzel leads the Buckeyes to their first championship in 34 yearsCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO PAYDIRT Krenzel, the game's leading rusher, got the Buckeyes rolling with this quarterback sneak in the second quarter.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER GLASS ACT Tressel's keep-it-simple style was trophy-worthy.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (TOP) CANE BUSTERS Big plays such as a57-yard catch by Gamble (7) and Clarett's stripping of Taylor (left) stunned Miami.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES INCONSOLABLE Though Tim Anderson was gracious in victory, Dorsey's dream of a second straight title died hard.