Sunday, November 25, 2001

Michigan worth wait for Tressel

Win perfect finish to first season

        Jan.18, the Buckeyes' new head football coach announced there were exactly 310 days before his first crack at Michigan.

        For 10 months, he tracked the number on a daily basis, writing it down in case anyone asked. The countdown ended Saturday. So did the curse.

        Tressel succeeded where John Cooper always failed, beating the Wolverines in Michigan Stadium 26-20. Cooper needed seven tries before he beat Michigan, and he never did it on the road. Tressel finishes his first regular sea son at OSU with an unremarkable record of 7-4, but he has won the game that counts above all others.

        He has exorcised some of the demons that plagued his predecessor and solidified his own status as a candidate for canonization in Columbus.

        “Beating Michigan in his first year — that's a great mark on his record,” Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. “It's huge.”

        On this afternoon, Michigan was no longer the bully kicking sand in Buckeyes snouts, but a relative equal, a comparable power. A rival. Nothing could have been higher on Tressel's to-do list than restoring parity to this particular series.

        The Michigan game is almost a season in itself at Ohio State. In recent years, it has come to mean a winter of discontent.

        “They've been disrespecting us,” said Ohio State running back Jonathan Wells. “They said we're not the rivalry team they play (as com pared to Michigan State).

        “If it wasn't a rivalry, it is now.”

        Ohio State beat Michigan Saturday with an emergency quarterback, Craig Krenzel, and despite achieving only one first down in the second half. Wells, who scored three first-half touchdowns, carried only twice after intermission because of cramps. Regular quarterback Steve Bellisari, who has been reinstated to the team following a drunken driving arrest, has not been fully forgiven. He did not take a single snap.

        “We had some guys banged up and lacked some experience in some cases,” Tressel said. “But other guys stepped up and got things done ... We've got a lot of guys that have hung together and hung tough. As I told them many times, transition isn't easy. I think they handled it well.”

        Tressel never promised that he would beat Michigan. He vowed, instead, that his team would make people proud. When Saturday's first half ended with Ohio State leading 23-0, Buckeye pride was bursting from Ashtabula to Zanesville.

        With Wells largely unavailable in the second half and Tressel unwilling to place additional pressure on Krenzel, Ohio State had little choice but conservatism. The Buckeyes' inability to move the ball in button-down mode gave Michigan room to rally. That rally might have succeeded, too, had Marquise Walker held a potential touchdown pass near the close of the third quarter.

        “When you put yourself in that position, you can't make any mistakes,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “There's a small margin for error when you're down 23-0 at the half.”

        Michigan would move to within six points with 2:26 to play but used all of its timeouts in the process. When the Wolverines got the ball back for the last time, they had nine seconds left and 80 yards to go. Freshman safety Dustin Fox ended the game with an interception.

        Standing at midfield as time expired, Matt Wilhelm dropped to one knee and slammed his fist into the turf.

        “That was just aggression,” the junior linebacker said. “I was 0-2 against Michigan. To win here — of all places ... I didn't know what to do — point to the heavens or hit the ground.”

        Jim Tressel's reaction was more muted. He spoke after the game as if Michigan were an opponent and not an obsession, as if the victory were just a win and not a watershed.

        “We did the things that you have to do to win,” he said. “It just happened to be against Michigan.”

        Tressel is not the type to punch the ground. In beating Michigan, however, he has hit the ground running.

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