Friday, January 3, 2003

Show time for Canes, Buckeyes

The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

Ohio State safety Michael Doss holds up a "Go" sign to get the crowd to chant "Go Ohio" during a pep rally at Tempe Beach Park.
(Deirdre Hamill, AZ Republic photo)
| ZOOM |
TEMPE, Ariz. - When the University of Miami trots onto the field Friday night, it'll be chasing history. Meanwhile, Ohio State will try to recapture it.

A wild and wacky college football bowl season comes to an end when the Hurricanes and Buckeyes take center stage in the Fiesta Bowl.

With a victory, No. 1 Miami (12-0) can put itself on a list of programs that have repeated as national champions while increasing its winning streak to 35 games. While Nebraska (1994, 1995 and 1970, 1971), Alabama (1978, 1979 and 1965, 1965), Oklahoma (1974, 1975 and 1955, 1956), Notre Dame (1946, 1947), Army (1944, 1945) and Minnesota (1940, 1941) have repeated as national champs going back to 1936, Miami would tie Toledo (1969-71) for the fifth-best winning streak all-time among Division I-A programs.

Meanwhile, No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) is going for its first national title since 1968 and its fifth undisputed national title overall.

Considering the way previous bowl games have gone this season, Ohio State pulling off an upset is quite possible. So far, 12 underdogs have scored upsets. In the four games Big Ten teams were underdogs, they won and in the one game a Big Ten team was favored, Penn State fell to Auburn.

While Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said "We've never used the word 'underdog' unless we're talking about a blitz," Miami coach Larry Coker joked, "Are we still the favorite?" He added, "We really won't address the underdog issue. The thing we've addressed is that it really doesn't matter in this game. When you play a one-game series, we've seen underdogs throughout sport history that have been very, very successful. I think that has very little relevance in Friday's game.

"I really don't want our players to worry about losing a game or be concerned about winning a game. I want us to play as well as we can play."

Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, who has gained 1,190 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, will be facing a Miami defense that has given up 171 yards a game, including 296 against Florida State and 363 against West Virginia. Since then, Miami's run defense has improved.

"Guys are playing smarter," Miami defensive end Jamaal Green said. "They're playing disciplined and handling their responsibilities. Before, some guys got confused and some guys didn't trust other guys. Now, they're coming to their senses and doing what they're supposed to do."

Like Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey, Ohio State's Craig Krenzel has lost one game as a starter. With a 61.8 completion percentage and just five interceptions, he's perfect for Tressel's conservative but effective, mistake-free approach.

Krenzel's top receiver is Michael Jenkins, who has 57 catches for 1,031 yards and six touchdowns.

Miami defensive line coach Greg Mark knows the drill when it comes to what Ohio State wants to do: "Run the ball, use the clock, keep the ball from the offense."

Coker said Miami gets in trouble when it gives up first downs and allows opponents to control the clock.

"We've got to control the line of scrimmage," Coker said.

While it'll be interesting to see how a struggling Ohio State offense will be able to maneuver against a Miami defense that is loaded with pro prospects, the talent matchup is Miami's offense against Ohio State's defense.

The Hurricanes boast a four-pronged attack in Dorsey (3,073 yards, 26 touchdowns), tailback Willis McGahee (1,686 yards rushing, 27 TDs), wide receiver Andre Johnson (48 catches, 1,038 yards, nine TDs) and tight end Kellen Winslow (46 catches, 604 yards, seven TDs).

Ohio State has a defense led by All-Americans Mike Doss, a safety, and Matt Wilhelm, a linebacker.

A Sports Illustrated article quoted a coach as saying the Buckeyes had nine of the best 11 defensive players at their position in the Big Ten. As a result, this is a group, which has given up just 23 points in its last seven games in the second half. It also gives up less than 78 yards on the ground per game.

McGahee and Coker talked about the need to be patient.

"Coaches tell me if I get just 2 or 3 yards to be patient, just keep working and something will open up," McGahee said.

Miami's X-factors could be wide receivers Ethenic Sands, Gason Jeathers and Roscoe Parrish. Many teammates think the Fiesta Bowl is going to be Parrish's coming out party. Besides matching up with Ohio State corner Dustin Fox, a converted safety, Parrish has proved elusive on punt returns.

"Trying to tackle him is like if you put a cat on the field," Miami strong safety Maurice Sikes said.

Ohio State has solid special teams in kicker Mike Nugent - 24-of-26 on field goals - and punter Andy Groom, both All-Americans. The Buckeyes also have blocked four punts. The Hurricanes have had four punts blocked.

Whether it be from special teams or defense, most think Ohio State's offense needs help in putting points on the board. It also needs to get off to a good start, something the Buckeyes haven't done well. In their last six games, they've trailed at one point or another.

Falling behind would not be advised. Not only is Miami 161-2 going back to 1985 when it leads after three quarters, but Nebraska never knew what hit it in last year's national title game after a 7-0 first-quarter deficit turned into 34-0 at halftime.

While Miami's players almost have seemed too relaxed at times this past week, Coker added they're also focused.

"I think that's one advantage we have had, that we have been able to play pretty well every week," Coker said. "We focus on the time when it's time."

Now it's time.

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