Saturday, January 2, 1999

Title-less Buckeyes can be proud




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[rudzinski]
Linebacker Jerry Rudzinski is congratulated by his dad.
(AP photo)

| ZOOM |
        NEW ORLEANS — The window of opportunity is still cracked open. The back door of destiny remains unlatched. Ohio State's slender claim to a national championship was solidified Friday night with an authoritative romp in the Sugar Bowl.

        The Buckeyes battered Texas A&M, 24-14, before 76,503 witnesses at the Louisiana Superdome, thereby completing an 11-1 season and preserving the remote possibility of a split vote in the final polls.

        The nation's football coaches, voting as a bloc because ABC bought their independence, have already committed their first-place votes to the winner of Monday's Fiesta Bowl. Yet an unimpressive upset by Florida State of unbeaten Tennessee — a bunch of turnovers, a paucity of points — could cause some sustained soul searching by the Associated Press panel of soulless media types.

Not much to cling to
        This remote possibility may not seem like much to cling to at this advanced state of affairs — after all, Ohio State failed to cover a 12-point spread Friday night — but hey, did the Americans give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? (Sorry, Animal House was on again).

        “I'm not one to take handouts,” said OSU tight end John Lumpkin. “But why not us as the champions?”

        Why not? Mainly there is the little matter of Michigan State, the Nov. 7 defeat that detoured the Buckeyes' title quest from the inside track to the comeback trail. No.1 nationally for nine weeks, OSU squandered a 24-9 lead in a devastating 28-24 loss at home. The Buckeyes' ground game ground to a halt that afternoon in Columbus, and their big-play ability abandoned them at the finish.

        Friday's victory could not erase that painful memory, and it may not have matched the majesty of stomping Michigan, but it was as brutally convincing in its way as was Rodney King's videotape.

        This was Ohio State football the way Woody Hayes would have wanted it — with tailbacks Michael Wiley and Joe Montgomery scampering for big gains behind suffocating blocks; with fiesty safeties like Damon Moore and Gary Berry rattling the bones of enemy ballcarriers; with Derek Ross' superior speed on the corner turning an A&M punt into an OSU touchdown; with David Boston, twisted ankle and all, breaking a Buckeye bowl record with 11 receptions. (OK, Woody would not have thrown that much, but he would have loved Boston's grit).

        The Aggies scored first, on their opening possession, but for most of the night A&M might as well have meant Anguish & Misery. Ohio State took a 24-7 lead to its dressing room at halftime, and might have put a bigger number on the scoreboard if some of quarterback Joe Germaine's deep passes had not hung so long in the air.

        OSU's failure to score in the second half — its inability to turn a comfortable margin into a mauling — will probably hurt its case with the pollsters. While coaches insist their primary interest is in victory, college football's unstructured system requires them to seek style points. A 10-point victory over an eighth-ranked team may not mean as much Monday as a one-point upset of No.1.

        But only the most bloodthirsty of Buckeye fans — and you know who you are — could quibble much with the quality of this effort, or of this season. Pending Monday's proceedings in Arizona, John Cooper has yet to deliver a national championship, but he has averaged 10 victories a year for the past seven seasons. Ohio State is clearly a notch better than it was during the Earle Bruce era, and finished this season only five points short of perfection.

        “I still think we are the best team,” said Dee Miller, the wide receiver, during the buildup to the Sugar Bowl. “We aren't playing for the national championship, but we can't control that. We are just here playing for pride.”

        Looked at a certain way, there is no higher purpose.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

GAME STORY and SIX PHOTOS

Complete bowl coverage from Associated Press:
More on Sugar Bowl
Tonight: Orange Bowl
Monday: Fiesta Bowl
Rose: Wisconsin 38, UCLA 31
Other bowls

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE