Sunday, October 10, 1999

Blocked kick turns boos to cheers for Buckeyes




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — Brent Johnson's right forearm bore a bright red bruise. His face was a portrait of dumb luck.

        The Ohio State lineman could not account for his good fortune Saturday evening. He could not fully appreciate it. He stood there with a silly grin and a ripped T-shirt, blades of grass still clinging to his legs, recounting what little he remembered of the blocked field goal that may have saved the Buckeyes' season.

        “I just got my hand on it,” Johnson said. “I can't tell you how it happened. I've got to look at the films, too. I was looking to make a play for my team and a gap opened up.”

        College football is like that sometimes — chaotic and confused — but not normally for the Buckeyes. Ohio State is usually more orderly and more overwhelming, and less dependent on last-minute heroics.

        But John Cooper's talent pool is a relative puddle this fall, meaning more games must be decided by a single play. Saturday, Johnson's field-goal block with 53 seconds remaining spared the Buckeyes a perilous overtime period and sealed a soggy 25-22 victory over Purdue. It may still take a miracle to beat Penn State next Sat urday, but losing to Purdue would have left the Buckeyes scrambling for a fringe bowl. It would have made Cooper's new contract extension seem as inappropriate as a bride in a bowling shirt.

        “They're going to make an old man out of me,” Cooper said. “I'd like to dominate from the get-go, but we are not the mature, polished team that we have been in the past.”

        Not even close. Sophomore Steve Bellisari may eventually develop into a quality quarterback, and he is already a commendable runner, but he was intercepted twice and sacked five times Saturday against only 10 pass completions. Were it not for a fumble recovery on the opening kickoff and the ability to fall on two of their own fumbles during the winning touch down drive, the Buckeyes are a .500 team on the fritz.

        Ohio State has never lost home games to Wisconsin and Purdue in the same season, and coming this close would once have constituted a firing offense in Columbus. Now, it underscores a shift in priorities. Cooper's new deal includes a maximum of $175,000 in annual academic-based incentives — some of it, surely, in reaction to the abuses committed in keeping Andy Katzenmoyer eligible — but it marks the first time an OSU coach could make more money generating 3.0 grade point averages than three yards and a cloud of dust.

        If nothing else, the Buckeyes have learned humility this season. They have come to understand that the difference between success and failure is sometimes slender, and often unpredictable. Brent Johnson, a junior, had never blocked a field goal at Ohio State until Saturday afternoon. Darnell Sanders, a freshman, had never caught a college football pass until he scored the go-ahead touchdown.

        “If we can put it together,” Cooper said, “we can be a very good team. We can win out.”

        “This is a huge confidence-builder,” said Tyson Walter, the left tackle. “Some guys around the team were starting to listen to the whispers around the program. Today showed that we are legitimate.”

        It showed, at least, that Cooper has the ingredients of a good team. The Buckeyes are probably still a year away from contending for New Year's bowls, but the picture looks a lot brighter at 4-2 than 3-3.

        “We don't want to give up anything else in our backyard,” said Ahmed Plummer, the cornerback from Wyoming High School. “We feel like the Horseshoe is sacred ground. What I saw today really helps me as a senior and a captain. I saw heart. People played with heart.”

        One of the virtues of victory is the opportunity to attach heroic qualities to happenstance. The Buckeyes lived dangerously Saturday, but they lived to spin the story.

        “There are players and there are play-makers,” Brent Johnson said. “I think everyone on the defense made it into the playmaker zone today.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE