Sunday, September 17, 2000

Buckeyes can't expect easy wins anymore

        COLUMBUS — Ohio State should pick on someone its own size. There's nothing to be gained from trouncing Miami, and there's a whole lot to be lost if the game turns out to be tight.

        It's bad for the power rankings. It's bad for the pride. It's bad for the digestion and the blood pressure and the post-game party scene. It's a no-win proposition, even if you avoid losing. The Buckeyes beat the RedHawks Saturday 27-16, but it was too close for comfort and almost close enough for claustrophobia.

        “I was very surprised that they were hanging in the way they did,” Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm said of the visitors. “We couldn't pound that (last) nail in the coffin. It makes you a little angry, a little disappointed. You're upset that you're in a situation where you know you shouldn't be. In the back of your mind, when any Big Ten team lines up against a MAC team, it should be a Big Ten win.”

        It doesn't always work that way. Not anymore. Toledo stunned Penn State in (heretofore) Happy Valley two weeks ago. Last week, Western Michigan won at Iowa. And for a few intoxicating moments Saturday afternoon, Miami stood within two yards of a third-quarter lead at Ohio Stadium.

        It was no accident. It was no fluke. It was still up for grabs at 20-16 with seven minutes to play when a roughing-the-kicker penalty against Miami's Milt Bowden sustained Ohio State's clinching touchdown drive.

        Once upon a time, an 11-point loss at Columbus might be considered a moral victory in unassuming Oxford. Saturday, however, it was a source of regret rather than rejoicing.

        “We let this game get away from us,” Miami coach Terry Hoeppner said. “Re gardless of who our opponent was.”

Change brewing

               Something fundamental has changed in college football. The big-time programs aren't quite so big anymore and the smaller-scale schools can compete more consistently. Scholarship limitations, underclassmen turning pro, high-profile hubris and uneven effort have narrowed a gap once deemed gargantuan.

        Because of its tradition, its resources and its recruiting base, Ohio State should always be the dominant football program in the state. But it can no longer count on annually outclassing its in-state competition. College football's traditional powers have never been more vulnerable and its presumed mismatches have never been so compelling. When a school such as Miami lands a quarterback as resourceful as Mike Bath, every big road payday becomes a potential ambush.

Buckeyes lucky

               “I don't know if I've seen a more courageous performance,” Ohio State coach John Cooper said of Bath, who threw for 236 yards and ran for 105. “He is a big, strong, physical quarterback. Hopefully, we will not play against anybody that strong again.”

        Now there's a switch. Usually, when Ohio State plays a team from the Mid-American Conference, the size differential is a decisive advantage. Though the Buckeyes did run the ball au thoritatively Saturday, they were unable to shove the RedHawks aside like some bothersome kid brother.

        “I'd like to play it again,” said Brent Johnson, Ohio State's senior defensive end. “We played hard. We played with intensity. But I don't think we played to our level. It makes you mad. There goes by one more Saturday where just went out and played. You didn't sell yourself out.

        “We didn't want to squeak by. We wanted to hammer them.”

        Maybe the Buckeyes might have expended more effort. Maybe they were lucky just to get away with a win.



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