It was the best of games, it was
the worst of games a game that could have been better. It was once an introduction to the wisdom of small-time Jim Tressel in the desert, and it was Urban Meyer losing his first BCS Bowl as a head coach in the proximity of South Beach, thus completing the epilogue to the foolishness of the man who wore a sweater vest in Columbus. Everything in between was a chapter in that book, everything that happens from here on out is a new book.
That January 3rd was a Friday, too. It was 11 years ago, but I remember it quite well. This time around, Ohio State was just a part of my night. Back then, it was my entire night, my entire January, and my entire 2003; in fact, it came close to being the defining moment of the “aughts” decade for me.
The moments from that year remain fresh on my mind. The expectations are never rock-bottom for Ohio State, but they were coming off another Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, despite Jim Tressel making good on his plan to make the student body proud of what they’d do in Ann Arbor 310 days after taking the job. Only, this time around, the what-Miami or “The U” became the where-the location in South Florida. I honestly don’t remember what was anticipated of them, but a date with Miami in Tempe on a Friday night in January was far from everyone’s mind, I’m sure. This season, the sky was the limit, and also the only acceptable destination. They were looking at a schedule that lacked a significant challenge; no eventual Pac-12 Champion, no Big XII opponent, and no in-state road game.
What both seasons offered was a running back, one surrounded by controversy at one point or another, that put the team on his back and just refused to lose. In 2002, you remember where you were when for the moments; at The Vine on Apache and Rural when Will Allen saved the day with a game-ending pick in Cincinnati, at the local bar watching the corner TV when Chris Gamble scored the only Ohio State touchdown of the day on a pick-six against Penn State at The Shoe, taking in “Holy Buckeye” from my couch after a late Friday night showing of 8 Mile, and the nervousness of overtime in Champaign with the Phoenix chapter of the Ohio State Alumni Club with Dave and my Pops. A week later, Dave and I were back at that same dive on Camelback and 7th Street, but my father had returned to Ohio, so I’m not sure if I’ve ever witnessed an Ohio State win over Michigan in his company.
When I first moved to the Valley of the Sun, I didn’t have much going on, but I always had Dave. He was from Ohio, I was from Ohio, and we both liked Ohio State football, so that was enough. Every Monday, we spoke of the weekend’s game, and he’d pass along his Buckeye Sports Bulletin whenever possible. This wasn’t the most joyous practice in 2001, conversations about Booker Stanley and a quarterback controversy that involved the names Krenzel and McMullen come to mind. Flash forward to the following year, as one second was all that stood between that Ohio State team and a 13-0 season that would earn them a trip to the desert, and only John “The Statue” Navarre could tempt fate. It might have been a few too many Bud Lights, but I couldn’t figure out the math, was Dave old enough to remember 1968? He was 38, and he’d be able to enjoy a title this time around, much more than when he was 3.
I still watch the games, but they aren’t appointment viewing for me, by any means, these days. Dave and I still chat and exchange emails about the game ahead and what we took away from the previous Saturday’s game, but there’s no mystery to it; in most weeks, they’re going to win, everyone expects it, and no one respects it. After the 2002 win, Craig Krenzel had beaten rival Michigan in consecutive seasons. No Ohio State quarterback had ever done that in my lifetime, but Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor have both done it since, provided you aren’t going to be a jerk about the vacated 2010 season. Winning that game at the end of the year just doesn’t mean that much, either because Ohio State has graduated on to bigger goals or because Michigan isn’t up to the task anymore. In 2002, beating Michigan was almost enough for the fans, but by 2013, it was barely enough and perhaps inadequate, standing on its own.
There was no obstacle between Michigan and the bowl game, just Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Michigan State proved to be a difficult road block for Urban Meyer this time around. Jim Tressel didn’t even have to see Michigan State in a 14 game season, or Iowa, who finished undefeated in Big Ten play that year. The Pac-10 was too much for the other Big 10 rep in a BCS Bowl that year, as Ohio State fans felt conflicted watching the Trojans handle the Hawkeyes in Miami on January 2nd, the night before their Friday night date with juggernaut. Clemson didn’t quite earn themselves a juggernaut label this year, but Ohio State fans have resorted to openly rooting for their Big Ten rivals, as if they’re obligated to do so in the present tense. The conference allegiance held strong on New Years Day in Pasadena, where Michigan State handled Stanford in the 100th Granddaddy of Them All. Michigan State’s Head Coach was calling the game of his life, as Tressel’s defensive coordinator, in Tempe, 11 years ago this day.
There was orange to be seen on January 3rd, then and now, and I’m not just talking about the trophy, the color of the seats, or the Discover Card sponsored logo. Miami wore green jerseys, but orange was arguably still their primary color. Clemson wore white on Friday night, and there’s little debate that they’re the orange team. The Buckeyes were a well-documented 13-point underdog, in the days and weeks leading up to that game designated as a championship. In this crazy new world we live in, a few weeks without a game sent Ohio State from the favorites column to the underdog one, an 8-point swing from what I saw. A few fans were willing to admit that beating Miami that night would be a tall order, but there was no consensus going into this one. In the interest of full disclosure, my predictions were a loss for the Scarlet and Gray both times. I remember discussing it with the designated driver on the eve of the game in 2003, while everyone else was liquored up enough to prognosticate with their hearts instead of their heads, and good for them for enjoying life.
Despite what I believed to be a morose inevitability for that night to be all about The U, you couldn’t accuse me of not enjoying life in my first 72 hours of 2003. We rode down Mill Avenue in an RV, singing “Hang On Sloopy” at the top of our lungs, and when we crossed Rio Salado, we took the bridge over Tempe Town Lake, went around the block to University and Mill, started the track over, and did the same thing over and over. We found older adults to assume the role of parents to our underage friends, so they could enter a 21 & over bar, exploiting the loophole that allowed minors to enter with “guardian”. There were stories of paid entertainers doing inappropriate things with Buckeye necklaces in lieu of beads, but to elaborate would put this network’s PG-13 status in jeopardy.
In contrast, on this eve of the Orange Bowl, my wife and I rented a movie, then watched the 4th quarter of the Sugar Bowl. On gameday, I worked a full day, like a normal human being, then met my parents for dinner. We couldn’t even get a table in the bar/lounge area, and were stuck on the family side of the joint, which fortunately had TVs.
On the day of the Championship, and granted, it was in town that year, I attempted to work. Around lunch time, my boss granted me parole, and the tailgating began just a short walk from Sun Devil Stadium. By the way, I didn’t get a ticket for the game, because I was waiting for a connection that fell through. I even turned down a friend of a friend, who was seeking $300 for a single. In comparison, $2000 wasn’t enough for two tickets to a BCS Championship game across town 4 years later.
Then and now, there were concerns about the defense being able to stop their opponent’s explosive offense, but that turned out not to be a legitimate fear in 2003. In 2014, it was a very real combination of inept defense meeting explosive offense, but that great Miami team didn’t have anyone dominate quite the way Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins did on Friday night. Willis McGahee might have, but his night was cut short by injury. Injury to a star offensive player may have influenced the outcome again, on the same day, 11 years later.
“Whoa Nelly” had been replaced with “Buckaroo”, and it was Braxton Miller being too beat up to carry Ohio State across the finish line in a 40-35 loss. Back then, it was Miami’s Ken Dorsey, who had been knocked silly and unable to extend the game. We witnessed that again on Friday, on Braxton Miller’s final interception of the night, a pass that might have given the Buckeyes a 41-40 lead with the appropriate amount of touch.
A lot of people felt the Big XII officials gave them a reprieve in 2003, when Miami’s Glen Sharpe was called for pass interference on what would have been the game’s final play on a would-be failed 4th down play, but the truth is that Ohio State should have never been in that situation. While I don’t expect an overwhelming amount of talk to linger about it, a case could be made against full possession of that final interception, but it should have never come to overtime for Ohio State and Miami and Clemson should not have needed another stop.
Miami sent the 2003 game to OT on a Todd Sievers field goal that was set up by a long punt return, on the third down play that was allegedly not converted and preceded the punt, a case could be made for a bad no-call or a bad ruling of an incomplete pass. A victory in either case meant Miami never saw the ball and never forced the extension of the game. An inexplixable throw from Clemson’s Tajh Boyd to Ohio State’s CJ Barnett could have drawn comparisons to Brian Sipe’s wounded duck in the 1980 playoffs, commonly known by Cleveland Browns fans as Red Right 88. His defensive teammates bailed him out on Miller’s errant throw.
I thought back to Ohio State’s last BCS bowl, whether it was vacated or not, where the Buckeyes caught a major break in the end. Solomon Thomas, one of the lesser known names in the Tattoo scandal, intercepted Ryan Mallett to ice the game for Jim Tressel in his last game as a head coach, to temporarily get in the win column against the Southeastern Conference with a win over Arkansas. On Friday, they played a team that they hadn’t seen since Woody Hayes last game as Ohio State’s head coach in 1978. There were quite a few parallels to be drawn between the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and 2014 Orange Bowl, even if the former was much more crisp. I’d compare the biggest play of that game, Maurice Clarett’s strip of Sean Taylor after an interception to the biggest Ohio State defensive play against Clemson, which was Vonn Bell’s miraculous effort to keep Clemson from going up 21-9 in the second quarter with an interception of Boyd’s attempt to get six with the flick of a wrist. Actually, it didn’t matter; the Bucks stalled on offense, and the Tigers scored on their next possesion, making it 20-9. In defeat, I got in the car and conversed with my wife on the way home. In victory, I showed up at a neighbors house, with no voice, whispering at the top of my lungs, that they did it, and also that I hadn’t been to bed yet; it was 1:00 on Saturday afternoon.
On the surface, it was a disappointing loss for Ohio State and a signature win for Clemson. This is the high point for Dabo Swinney’s team, but another disappointment for Urban Meyer and a major disappointment for his fans, who want to celebrate more often than once a decade. Things worked out well when Miami had to come to them, but when forced to visit Miami in a “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad then Muhammad must go to the mountain” situation, a team from a Valley called Death made things less well in the end.
What a difference 11 years can make.