Let's Play! After a tumultuous off-season, college football finally kicked off--and no team was happier to hit the field than the besieged Buckeyes of Ohio State

September 07, 2003

This is how the painful college football off-season ended and the
healing began: with Ohio State's sprawling campus delightfully
clogged by knots of humanity awaiting kickoff last Saturday
evening; with a massive horseshoe-shaped stadium, awash in
scarlet and gray, rumbling at the sight of the defending national
champion Buckeyes emerging from the tunnel at the south end of
the field; with erstwhile Heisman Trophy front-runner Maurice
Clarett on one sideline in his sweats, serving a suspension, and
across the field a Washington team that lost coach Rick Neuheisel
in a midsummer scandal--bookend totems of controversy that no
longer seemed quite so important, because at last there were
games to play. Before the evening was finished, Ohio State
would announce itself as a credible candidate to win
back-to-back national titles with a 28-9 victory over the No.
17 Huskies, a win made more impressive by Clarett's absence. It
was not the only message of the night, as the Buckeyes' victory
was but one of many played out in packed stadiums on the
season's first full weekend, initiating the wild ride that will
not end until Jan. 4 at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Again,
the sport rejuvenates itself in places large and small.

University of Miami president Donna Shalala speaks for those who
unabashedly embrace the game's renewal. "College football is a
ritual that bonds us in a way that's unlike anything else in
society, other than going to church or synagogue," she says. "I
refuse to be cynical."

Others are more sanguine. "The passion for college sports is an
amazing phenomenon," says Indiana professor Murray Sperber, a
vocal critic of excess in big-time collegiate athletics. "I've
talked to professors who have very rational plans for reform, but
I tell them, 'You're not dealing with a rational topic.' There
are too many people out there whose first memory is sitting on
the rec room couch while Mom and Dad rooted for the Buckeyes or
the Hoosiers. Love for the home team is rooted so deep in the
culture that scandals or controversy will never change it. It
will always come back. Always."

Venerable Penn State coach Joe Paterno put it more simply last
Friday. "Now," he said, "it's about the kids on the field."

And not a moment too soon. The 2002 season ended memorably, with
Ohio State beating Miami 31-24 in the Fiesta Bowl, the first
overtime championship game, a classic that was enervating and
controversial and immediately took its place alongside the most
compelling games ever played. But the exhilaration was not
allowed to last. Over the off-season, scandal piled upon scandal
into a mountainous heap of embarrassment. "It was not a good
summer," says Shalala. "People saw college sports getting hit
from all sides."

The problems knew no boundaries. At Alabama, where the Bear
Bryant era grows more distant every autumn, coach Dennis
Franchione--who seemed to have pointed the Tide toward a
turnaround--abruptly left for Texas A&M. His replacement, former
Washington State coach Mike Price, was fired before he coached a
single game, amid controversy over his behavior during a golf
junket. At Washington onetime boy wonder Neuheisel lost his job
for participating in high-stakes NCAA basketball tournament pools
and lying about it to the NCAA.

Legends were not exempt from the pounding. Paterno, the
winningest active coach in the game (last Saturday's 23-10
victory over Temple ran his total to 337), was indirectly
criticized by his own university president for having allowed
defensive back Anwar Phillips to play in the Capital One Bowl
though Phillips had been expelled for the spring semester after a
female student accused him of sexual assault. (Phillips was
acquitted of criminal charges last week and is back at Penn
State.) Florida State coach Bobby Bowden (333 wins) found himself
testifying in the gambling trial of former Seminoles quarterback
Adrian McPherson.

The Big East was gutted when Miami and Virginia Tech accepted
invitations to join the ACC after a courtship that even Shalala
called "unseemly." The loss of its two flagship football programs
left the Big East in danger of being left behind. "This
off-season has represented the worst six months I've ever endured
in this business," says Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, a
Bowl Championship Series pioneer who has done much in the last
decade to shape college football, "and I believe that's true for
a lot of other people in college sports. We are in a very
tumultuous period right now."

No school tumbled more deeply into controversy than Ohio State.
Clarett did not play on Saturday night (and will miss at least
two more games) as the result of an investigation into his filing
of a police report that exaggerated the value of items stolen
from a car he had borrowed from a Columbus auto dealership. That
probe came on the heels of a New York Times story in which a
former Ohio State teaching assistant claimed Clarett had received
special assistance to pass a course last autumn, preserving his
eligibility for the Fiesta Bowl. The Times also alleged that
other Buckeyes players had gotten similar assistance. If that
weren't enough, the eligibility of several Ohio State players was
briefly in question after they were paid for their
appearance--and for signing autographs--at a summer function.

The mood swing in Columbus was breathtaking. Early in the summer
coach Jim Tressel was blocking out time just to affix his name to
the piles of posters, footballs and other souvenirs in a back
office at the Schottenstein Center. Now he was playing a daily
game of damage control. "Taking on one problem at a time," as
Ohio State president Karen Holbrook describes it. Though Holbrook
says her faith in the school's athletic department has not been
shaken, the overall effect was to tarnish, just a bit, Tressel's
squeaky-clean reputation and, inevitably, to dull January's

With 18 starters back, the Buckeyes were loaded to take a run at
repeating, but the task was weighed down by daily inquisitions.
"Unless you lock yourself in a room and never come out, you
cannot avoid hearing about all the controversies," Ohio State
senior offensive tackle Shane Olivea said in the week leading up
to the Washington game.

Throughout training camp in August, the Buckeyes found their
focus in the form of speeches given by the seniors to their
teammates at the close of each day. Ever in control, Tressel
helped the players shape their thoughts, but the sentiments were
from the heart. Two themes emerged: the legacy of the class and
the significance of repeating as national champions. That feat
hasn't been achieved since Nebraska won titles in 1994 and '95,
and before that not since Alabama in '78 and '79. "It's never
been done at Ohio State, and that's what matters," said Olivea.
"That's the legacy our senior class wants. The guys who left last
year won the first national title since '68. We want to be the
first to repeat."

The Buckeyes beat the Huskies with familiar tools: punishing
defense and sound offense. Five starters were gone from the
national championship D, but on Saturday night Washington's star
quarterback, Cody Pickett, needed 49 attempts to throw for 255
yards and was sacked three times. The Huskies netted only seven
yards on the ground, which suggests that Ohio State's defense was
amply prepared for Washington tailback Rich Alexis after seeing
Clarett wearing a white-and-purple number 24 scout team jersey
during the week. "He was giving us a pretty good look," joked
Buckeyes wideout-cornerback Chris Gamble. "I don't think we'll
see anybody better."

There's no doubt, however, that Ohio State's ground game is far
less explosive with juniors Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross than
with Clarett. On Saturday night Hall, the starter, rushed for a
steady 58 yards on 15 carries. Ross picked up 43 yards on 12
attempts and ran right through a solid hit by Huskies safety
Jimmy Newell to score the Buckeyes' final touchdown. "Last year I
would try to make that guy miss instead of running through him,"
said Ross, who put on 16 pounds in the off-season. (He's 210 to
Newell's 190.) On the sideline Clarett stood on a bench and
laughed. "He was happy for Lydell and Maurice," says Gamble. "He
wanted to see them do well."

As in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State's most effective runner was
Craig Krenzel. The 6'4", 225-pound quarterback rushed for two
touchdowns and threw for 203 yards, with his customary no
interceptions. Krenzel had expressed hope that the Huskies would
move their safeties up close to stifle Tressel's beloved run
game, leaving more opportunities to throw. "That's what I'm
expecting every week," Krenzel said. He got it and was allowed to
throw 27 times (he completed 15), more than in all but one game
in 2002. His second touchdown run, an 11-yard scramble with 11
seconds left in the first half, gave the Buckeyes a 21-0 lead and
effectively finished Washington.

Minutes after that score the Ohio Stadium turf was quilted with
not one but four marching bands, two made up of Ohio State alumni
and two from a halving of the current band. In unison they
marched to the traditional Le Regiment and formed four script
ohios on the lush grass. At precisely 9:51 p.m., four sousaphone
players simultaneously dotted four i's and produced a shivering
roar from the crowd. It sounded just a little bit like a sigh of

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER GOOD BET Gamble (7) was a sure thing whether carrying the ball or covering the Washington wideouts. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (2) NO MO? NO SWEAT While Clarettt watched from the sideline, Hall (28) and Ross proved to be capable tailback fill-ins. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS LIKE OLD TIMES As he did in the Fiesta Bowl, Krenzel took command on the ground, rushing for two touchdowns.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER LASSOED Despite losing five starters from last year, the Buckeyes' D had no problem corralling Pickett, the Huskies' cowboy QB.

"He was giving us a good look," Gamble joked of Clarett's
scout-team work. "I doubt we'll see ANYBODY BETTER."

For more college football coverage, including Tim Layden's
Insider and a photo gallery from the week, go to si.com/football/ncaa.