Friday, January 3, 2003
Updated: January 4, 4:21 AM ET
Last play is the biggest play for Buckeyes
By Ivan Maisel
TEMPE, Ariz. -- From the beginning of the season, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel talked to his team about the last play. Not the play that they just finished, but the final play. "On the first day of two-a-days," defensive end Simon Fraser shouted above the national championship din that surrounded him at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, "Coach asked us, 'What is going to happen on the last play?' We always talked about the last play of the season; the last play of the game."
Tressel used the ploy to spur his players to get into proper physical condition. Little did he know. Little did anyone know that the Buckeyes would stop two streaks at 34: Miami's consecutive victories, and Ohio State's seasons since it last finished No. 1. The Buckeyes did it by beating Miami on three "last plays."
Twice in the first overtime, trailing 24-17, Ohio State converted fourth downs. The first, fourth-and-14, didn't prove nearly as difficult as the second. Facing fourth-and-three at the 5, Krenzel's pass to Chris Gamble fell incomplete because Miami corner Glenn Sharpe draped Gamble like a green-and-white skirt.
|Mike Doss and the Ohio State defense never gave the 'Canes any room to move.|
Fireworks erupted behind the east stands. Miami players rushed the field. So did photographers. Then, after what seemed like a scarlet-and-gray eternity, field judge Terry Porter called Sharpe for pass interference.
"The latest flag in the history of college football," said Ohio State grad Jim Furyk, one of the many Buckeye pro athletes on the sidelines.
When it dropped, however, the stands erupted. On what was supposed to be a neutral site, it sounded as if all 310,000 living alumni of Ohio State had crowded into Sun Devil Stadium.
In the second overtime, the defense won what would truly be the last play. On fourth-and-goal at the 1, linebacker Cie Grant blitzed, hurrying Ken Dorsey into throwing a ball that Matt Wilhelm batted down. Dorsey sank to his knees at the 17 yard-line.
"We played spectacularly," said tackle Kenny Peterson, who had two of the Buckeyes' four sacks. "We shut down (Willis) McGahee. We shut down Dorsey. Now what?"
And louder. "Now what?"
After 60 minutes, two overtimes and three tackles for loss, Peterson seemed about to hyperventilate.
"It's the greatest feeling in my life," he said. "I'll never, never feel like this again. To all the people who doubted us, we came out and did what we said we could do."
The Buckeyes came out and held McGahee to 67 yards on 20 carries before the tailback suffered a knee injury early in the fourth quarter. For nearly three quarters, McGahee couldn't take two steps without being hit by the sure-tackling Buckeyes. The Ohio State defensive front spent a lot of time in the Miami backfield.
"Against their man-to-man protection, we thought we could get up and under them," Fraser said.
Just as McGahee began to get his rhythm --29 of his yards came on his final four carries -- his game and his season came to a frightening close. Safety Will Allen, in tackling McGahee, delivered a forearm blow to the Heisman finalist's left knee. He had to be helped off the field. The Associated Press reported that several Miami players said McGahee had suffered ligament damage.
"That was crucial," Allen said. "We needed to take him out. We needed to eliminate that part of their offense. I came in with a big shot. When I saw him down, holding his knee, I got hyped. Then I thought about it, and I prayed to God. I prayed for him. He'll be all right."
The Miami offense wouldn't be the same. Backup Jarrett Payton rushed for 17 yards on eight attempts. Though Dorsey threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns, he also committed three turnovers in the second quarter alone. This from a team that had committed a total of three turnovers in its previous four games.
"We just beat a team that's 34-1," Allen said. "They're supposed to be some kind of dynasty. You saw it. Have they seen anything like our defense? Evidently not."
It's a tribute to Miami that the Hurricanes gave the ball away five times, yet still took the game to two overtime periods. Dorsey began to rely almost exclusively on tight end Kellen Winslow, whose 11 receptions (for 122 yards) nearly doubled his previous career high of six.
The Hurricanes also made two big plays in the kicking game, which figured to be Ohio State's greatest advantage. Early in the second quarter, on fourth-and-1 at the Miami 17, safety Maurice Sikes stuffed punter Andy Groom's feeble attempt at a fake field goal.
Groom, the holder, attempted to run the option with kicker Mike Nugent as his trailing back. Sikes wrapped up Groom before he could even think about pitching the ball.
In the fourth quarter, with Miami trailing 17-14, Roscoe Parrish's 50-yard punt return down the right sideline to the Ohio State 32 gave Todd Sievers the chance to tie the game on the final play of regulation.
That put off what has come to be inevitable for Miami. Four times it has played in the Fiesta Bowl. Four times it has lost, twice with the national championship at stake. The Valley of the Sun may just be unlucky. Ohio State has a way of making the unlucky work in its favor. Just ask Allen.
"We go 13-0 (in the regular season)," Allen said. "We've got 13 seniors. (Friday) is one-three oh three. That's another 13. Clarett wears 13. It ain't unlucky for us. Jesus had 12 disciples. With Jesus, that's 13. That's not unlucky. We won't be denied."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.