OSU isn't No. 1 for nothing

Sunday, September 20, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLUMBUS -- They cannot all be blowouts. Ohio State will stumble now and then. The Buckeyes may get bored. They might grow lazy. College football is too imprecise for perfection, too chaotic for choreography.

The best teams generally win, but they don't always dominate. Sometimes, they must scramble. Sometimes, they sweat.

And sometimes, when a team is unusually gifted, a deficit is merely a delay. Ohio State trailed Missouri Saturday afternoon deep into the third quarter, and yet there was serenity among the scarlet and gray. Even when behind, the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes can sense the kill.

Even on a bad day, they are too good to fret their fate.

"We knew we were going to win," said Tyson Walter, the left tackle, after Saturday's 35-14 conquest of the Tigers, ranked 19th nationally in the coaches poll. "It was only a matter of time before we blew it open. We knew we could handle their defensive line. But sometimes you have to show what you're made of."

Missouri held a 14-13 lead as late as the game's 39th minute, but the overwhelming sense was of a team hanging on by its fingertips. The Tigers scored one touchdown by returning a fumble and another by capitalizing on the fortuitous field position a fumble provided.

Inevitable ending

But the nation's No. 1 rushing team never mounted a drive of more than 45 yards against Ohio State, while the Buckeyes had eight drives of 46 yards or more. The Buckeyes finished with 531 net yards and only one punt. What appeared on the scoreboard to be a struggle was actually an exercise in inevitability. A stealth blowout, if you will.

"We pushed 'em around pretty good out there," said Rob Murphy, the left guard from Moeller High School. "Our conditioning was far superior to Missouri. At the end of the third quarter, they were just huffing. You could tell they were giving up. It felt real good."

It looked, for the most part, like a tank against a tent. Missouri's cornerbacks couldn't have played any softer coverage had they worn pillows instead of shoulder pads. Yet this strategic concession was made without a related commitment to stop the run.

A good quarterback will take what the defense gives him. Joe Germaine's difficulty Saturday was deciding which of his presents to open first. The OSU quarterback completed 19-of-25 passes (76 percent) against Missouri's porous secondary, and yet throwing was no more attractive an option than handing the football to the wondrous Michael Wiley (24 carries, 209 yards).

The talent is there

Penalties and turnovers kept this game tight for three quarters, and they should not be dismissed simply because of the final score. Ohio State has now fumbled 11 times in three games, and has been fortunate to have lost only three of them. Yet John Cooper may finally have enough talent to overcome whatever obstacles are placed in his path. If the Buckeyes do not fulfill their expectations this season, they had better come up with a pretty good reason.

"Sometimes you get a little arrogant or cocky," said Walter, the latest in a long OSU line of distinguished left tackles. "You say, "We're the best and no one can challenge us.' We can't lose our focus and start looking to Penn State or Michigan. We've got to take it week by week.

"But we showed that we were worthy of our No. 1 ranking. We've played the No. 11 and the No. 19 teams (West Virginia and Missouri) and we've showed 'em up pretty well . . . I want to be No. 1 with all the votes."

Saturday's score may not serve to sway the pollsters, who lack the time to carefully scrutinize every team, but the videotape would be pretty persuasive. The Buckeyes shoved around a ranked team virtually at will, knocking the Tigers off the ball like so many tenpins. If not for fumbles, this one easily might have ended 49-0.

"I can't wait to get into the Big 10 schedule," Rob Murphy said. "And start pushing the bigger guys around."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.