Friday, January 3, 2003

Kickoff's here, and Buckeyes unafraid

Miami's victory machine awaits OSU in title game

By Richard Rosenblatt
The Associated Press

Buckeye fan and graduate Chris English poses on his couch with his 5 year old son Alex in the "Buckeye Basement" of their Mason home. He is travelling to Arizona for the game.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
TEMPE, Ariz. - Miami is well aware of the expectations: Beat Ohio State easily for the national title, then go for a third straight championship and college football's longest winning streak next season.

Not so fast, Miami center Brett Romberg says.

"We could easily get knocked off," he warned. "People are downplaying the whole deal of Ohio State not rising to the occasion, but we know, we watch film.

"It's going to be as hard a game as we've had this year, probably the hardest we've ever played."

Top-ranked Miami (12-0) is trying to win its sixth national title, all since 1983, and become just the second team since '79 to take back-to-back championships. The 'Canes are favored by 13 points in the Fiesta Bowl on Friday night.

A victory would extend their winning streak to 35 games, 12 shy of Oklahoma's 47-game streak from 1953-57. The Hurricanes could then tie the record in the 2003 regular-season finale.

No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) is far from awed, though. The Buckeyes have three national titles of their own, but none since 1968. Nine times since, they had chances and failed, mostly because of losses to rival Michigan at the end of a season.

The last time the Buckeyes needed a bowl win to clinch the title, they lost to Southern California 17-16 in the Rose Bowl following the 1979 season.

This time, Ohio State players believe it's title time - even if hardly anyone else agrees.

"We're very comfortable, and we're going to come out and surprise some people," linebacker Matt Wilhelm said.

Both coaches said their players are anxious for action. Ohio State hasn't played for 41 days, Miami 27 days.

"The players are tired of practicing," said Miami coach Larry Coker, 24-0 since he replaced Butch Davis before last season. "It's time to play the game, and we're happy to be on this stage."

So is Ohio State's second-year coach Jim Tressel, who won four I-AA national titles at Youngstown State.

"You just can't beat it. This is exactly what you prepare for," Tressel said Thursday. "We can't wait to get out there."

Unlike last season, when the computer-driven Bowl Championship Series standings made once-beaten Nebraska the much-debated choice to play Miami in the Rose Bowl, this year's title matchup fell perfectly into place. The 'Canes and Buckeyes were the only unbeaten teams among 117 I-A schools.

Ohio State won the most games in its 113-year history, surviving close calls no fewer than six times. The final three games were all tight: 10-6 over Purdue, 23-16 over Illinois in overtime, and 14-9 over Michigan.

Miami was much more convincing, blowing out Syracuse 49-7 and then dominating Virginia Tech in a 56-45 win that saw tailback Willis McGahee run for 205 yards and a school-record six touchdowns.

Which brings us back to the title game, where tailbacks could determine the winner.

Simply, Ohio State needs a big game from Maurice Clarett to have a chance. The freshman ran for 1,190 yards and scored 16 touchdowns despite missing three games with injuries.

Clarett created a stir this week by accusing his school of lying about the reasons he wasn't allowed to fly home to attend a friend's funeral. He says it won't affect his play, it's just another bump in the road.

"Clarett is a playmaker," Hurricanes linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "With him in the game, there is always the threat of him breaking one for a touchdown. He's their go-to guy."

McGahee, who ran for 1,686 yards and 27 touchdowns, is only one of Miami's go-to guys. While the Hurricanes are counting on their tailback's power and speed for a few big gainers, their versatile offense can score quickly in other ways. With Ken Dorsey - 38-1 as a starter - at the controls, the 'Canes averaged 41.9 points and 473.9 yards.

The senior from Orinda, Calif., threw for 3,073 yards and 26 touchdowns, while wide receiver Andre Johnson caught 48 passes for 1,038 yards and nine scores. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. had 46 catches for 604 yards and seven TDs.

"They're impressive, but like any other team they can be stopped," Buckeyes defensive end Darrion Scott said. "They're a great team and have great weapons. We also have a great defense."

Maybe the best in the nation. Led by hard-hitting strong safety Michael Doss and Wilhelm, the Buckeyes allowed just 12.2 points and 78.7 yards rushing.

"This is the best defense I've seen since I've been here," Miami guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli said. "You can tell when you watch film that they always have four, five, six guys at the point of attack. They swarm to the ball. It will be very difficult to get something going against them."

This will be the 34th meeting between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the AP media poll. The No. 1 team leads, 20-11-2.

The last 1-2 matchup was top-ranked Florida State's 46-29 win over Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, which gave the Seminoles the national title.

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