Ohio State Football Year 2 Overview: 2002
Coach: Jim Tressel
Previous season record (finish): 7-5, 5-3 Big Ten (3rd)
Ohio State returned only a dozen starters from Tressel's mediocre first Buckeye team, but that group consisted of stalwarts Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey at safety, linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant (a converted defensive back), defensive linemen Will Smith, Darrion Scott and Tim Anderson, offensive linemen Shane Olivea, Adrien Clarke and Bryce Bishop and receivers Michael Jenkins and Chris Vance.
Doss and Nickey were permanent captains with the role on offense shifting from game to game.
Tressel also welcomed a highly decorated 25-man recruiting class that featured 18 Ohioans, including freshmen contributors tailback Maurice Clarett, linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter and offensive linemen Nick Mangold and Rob Sims.
Notable games: Where to begin?
Ohio State stamped itself as a national contender with a 25-7 win over 10th-ranked Washington State in the third game of the season. With the ESPN Game Day crew in attendance, the defense held the high-powered Cougar offense in check and Clarett carried the offense. The freshman tailback ran 31 times for 230 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
A week later, the Buckeyes traveled to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats at Paul Brown Stadium and nearly saw their magical season go up in smoke before the start of Big Ten play. With Clarett sidelined as a result of arthroscopic knee surgery, the Ohio State offense struggled to find traction. The Buckeyes trailed 19-14 in the fourth quarter when Scott rocked UC quarterback Gino Guidugli to force a fumble that set up OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel's twisting, contorting 6-yard touchdown run that put Ohio State on top 21-19. Guidugli drove the the Bearcats to the Ohio State 15 but had a pair of potential touchdown passes dropped before Wilhelm tipped his last attempt to OSU safety Will Allen for a game-clinching interception with 26 seconds left.
Ohio State also faced close calls in October at Wisconsin and at home against Penn State before a harrowing November that featured three wins by a touchdown or less. In Madison, Krenzel again rallied the Buckeyes, this time with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Hartsock that gave Ohio State a 19-14 lead in the fourth quarter, and wide receiver/cornerback Chris Gamble intercepted a Jim Sorgi pass after the Badgers drove to the OSU 29. One week later, Gamble scored the game-winning touchdown on an electrifying 40-yard interception return against Penn State that had Ohio Stadium practically shaking early in the third quarter.
Other developments (strategy, injuries, etc.):
In their second year under the direction of Tressel, the Buckeyes showed flexibility on both sides of the ball.
With Clarett in and out of the lineup because of various injuries, the offense had to be creative at times, most notably in the Michigan game and the national championship game against Miami (Fla.). On Ohio State's game-winning drive against the Wolverines, Clarett notched a crucial long gain when he caught a wheel-route pass from Krenzel, then the Buckeyes went ahead when Krenzel pitched to tailback Maurice Hall on the only option play Tressel called all season and Hall scampered into the end zone.
Against the Hurricanes, Tressel surprised everyone with a game plan that frequently involved Krenzel as a runner, and the junior signal caller responded by picking up 81 yards on 19 carries. He finished as the game's leading rusher.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio supplemented his usual punishing 4-3 defense with an effective nickel package that turned Doss into a heat-seeking missile, and the coach unveiled a three-man line that included Smith as a rush linebacker who sometimes dropped into coverage.
How'd it end up?
The close calls against UC, Wisconsin and Penn State were just a prelude to November when the Buckeyes performed a great escape at Purdue, downed defending Big Ten co-champion Illinois in overtime then edged Michigan in the season finale.
Krenzel was the hero in West Lafayette as he heaved a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins on fourth-and-1 with 1:36 left in the game. Gamble sealed the win with a leaping interception of a deep pass by Kyle Orton on the ensuing Purdue possession.
At Illinois, the Buckeyes took the lead in overtime on an 8-yard run by Hall, who shared tailback duties with Lydell Ross with Clarett sidelined by a shoulder injury. After Walter Young was unable to hall in a potential game-tying pass in the end zone for Illinois, Anderson knocked down the fourth-down attempt to end the game.
That pushed all the chips to the center for a Nov. 23 showdown with No. 12 Michigan, and Ohio State prevailed despite being outgained 368-264 and allowing 26 first downs. Clarett stirred the Ohio Stadium crowd with a go-ahead touchdown in the first quarter then Allen made Hall's fourth-quarter score hold up by picking off a Jon Navarre pass at the goal line with no time left on the clock.
The season culminated with a thrilling 31-24 double-overtime win over the heavily favored defending champion Hurricanesx in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes took control of the game with touchdowns scored less than two minutes apart in the second quarter but had to go to overtime thanks to a last-second field goal. After allowing a touchdown to start the overtime, Ohio State looked dead in the water until a pass interference penalty gave them new life on their first offensive possession. Krenzel capped that drive with a 1-yard touchdown, then Clarett slashed his way for a 5-yard score in the second overtime to put Ohio State on top. The Buckeye defense followed by stopping Miami four times from the 1-yard line to clinch the first national championship for Ohio State in more than 30 years.
Doss, Wilhelm, punter Andy Groom and kicker Mike Nugent were all named first-team All-Americans, the third such honor for Doss. Doss, Groom, Nugent, Scott, Wilhelm, Clarett and Gamble all made the All-Big Ten first team while Gamble and Krenzel shared team MVP honors.
The Buckeyes finished 14-0 and consensus national champions while sharing the Big Ten title with Iowa as the Hawkeyes had matched their 8-0 conference record.
Look for a more expansive look at the second seasons of Ohio State's head coaches of the past eight decades in the next print edition of Buckeye Sports Bulletin.