Thursday, December 12, 2002

Buckeyes not for faint of heart

Unbeaten Ohio State barely escaped UC, other upsets

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Mike Doss never let the tension get to him. "My stomach wasn't churning. I kept believing - as a player you're always thinking the best," Ohio State's senior free safety said. "But as far as the fans, every week they were saying: 'I'm going to have a heart attack!' Then the next week it was, 'I'm going to have a stroke!"'

OSU 23, UC 19
Ohio State escaped when UC receivers dropped two passes in the end zone in the final minute.
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In a season of twists, turns and high drama, No. 2 Ohio State escaped unscathed from a series of tight spots to earn a berth opposite top-ranked Miami in the national championship game Jan. 3 at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

A 13-0 record already marks the most wins in a season - the longest season, for that matter - in the Ohio State program's 113 years.

But almost as much as the wins is how the Buckeyes have won.

Should they get by Miami, maybe they should break from tradition and dump liquid antacid on coach Jim Tressel.

Six times Ohio State played a game that was decided by a touchdown or less. All six times the Buckeyes slipped away with a victory.

Ohio State squeaked out wins against Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois, Cincinnati and Michigan. They won with luck and talent, but mostly they won with pluck.

Wisconsin took a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter at home, but the game started slipping away when Ohio State wide receiver Michael Jenkins won a jump ball on a 45-yard pass on third and 6 from the Buckeyes' 16. That set up Craig Krenzel's 3-yard TD pass to tight end Ben Hartsock.

"I was catching that with every part of my body," Hartsock said. "It was like there was a baby in there."

The defense starred against Penn State. After the Nittany Lions took an early 7-0 lead, they ran nine plays in Ohio State territory. Heisman Trophy contender Larry Johnson - who would become only the ninth I-A player to top 2,000 yards rushing in a season - totaled nine yards on four carries, David Royer punted twice and Zack Mills threw three incompletions.

Ohio State's offense stumbled all day, but the Buckeyes prevailed behind Chris Gamble's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown early in the second half and a pair of 37-yard field goals by Mike Nugent.

Freshman tailback Maurice Clarett remembers almost hyperventilating because of the tension at Purdue.

"It was crazy. Crazy!" Ohio State's freshman tailback said.

On fourth and 1 at the 37 and trailing 6-3 with less than 2 minutes left, Krenzel stepped up in a collapsing pocket and looped a touchdown pass to Jenkins.

Jenkins didn't even feel the pressure on his deciding catch.

"It wasn't really that tense," he said. "We were on the field and there was no huddle. We didn't really think about it too much."

Over on the sideline, punter Andy Groom said it seemed as though the football hung in the crisp air forever.

"When the pass left Krenzel's hand - that was definitely the scariest moment," he said.

A week later, Ohio State went to overtime for the first time ever when Illinois' John Gockman kicked a 48-yard field goal on the last play of regulation.

"You wonder, gosh, here we go again," Hartsock said.

The Buckeyes held on, 23-16, on Maurice Hall's short touchdown run - and a defensive stand that weathered incompletions into the end zone from the Illinois 9 on the final three plays.

In Ohio State's fourth game and first road trip of the season, Cincinnati receivers dropped touchdown passes twice in the final minute as the Buckeyes slipped out of town with a 23-19 win.

"Our season could have ended with an early loss," Doss said.

Each brush with defeat, however, seemed to strengthen the Buckeyes and give them faith they could pull out another miracle. Time and time and time again, they did.

The drumbeat of victories continued on the final play of the Cincinnati game when second-team defensive back Will Allen intercepted a deflected pass.

It was Allen who also starred on the final play of the perfect season.

Ohio State trailed 9-7 until Hall scored on a 3-yard run with 4:55 remaining before a raucous crowd of more than 105,000 in the annual season-ending rivalry game with Michigan.

On the ensuing possession, the Wolverines drove to a first down at the Ohio State 30 with just over 2 minutes remaining. Then quarterback John Navarre was blindsided by defensive end Darrion Scott and teammate Will Smith fell on the ball.

After a punt, Michigan covered 56 yards in 57 seconds and had the ball at the Ohio State 24 with a second left on the clock. Allen stepped in front of Navarre's slant pass near the goal line and intercepted it as thousands streamed onto the field to celebrate.

Allen was mobbed by teammates and fans but was able to avoid the crush and run to where his parents were seated to give them the ball.

Talking about his run through the police, pepper gas and exuberant fans, he said, "It was a little struggle."

Just like the season.

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