Dantonio's defense, perhaps the strong point of the team in its 25-2 run over the last two seasons, came up with one more command performance in a hard fought 35-28 win over Kansas State.
Afterwards, Dantonio -- who will lead Cincinnati against OSU's in next season's Sept. 4 season opener -- discussed his decision to finish off the season with the Buckeyes.
"I felt like that my family and I owed that to Ohio State University," Dantonio said. "We owed that to our players. There is so much stuff coming at you. We just had to say, `Forget that stuff and concentrate on what's important.' The most important thing was to be successful in this game. I wanted to do that for our players. We've had great players, and I'm not talking about players. I'm talking about individuals with character and things like that. You grow to love them. I've said it over and over coaching is about relationships and we've got some great young men."
Prior to the game, members of the OSU defense said they wanted to send Dantonio to UC as a winner.
"I'm humbled by them saying that," he said. "But I'm just happy by the way they played. We have always asked them to play with great effort and great toughness. We've got a great group of coaches and a great group of players who execute our defense. They play like that."
The game was also the swan song for five OSU senior starters on defense and junior cornerback Chris Gamble, who announced his intention to leave school for the NFL after the game.
"Before we went on the field, we said we were going to go out there and celebrate after every play and have a good time because it was the last time these 26 seniors got to go out on that field together," senior linebacker Robert Reynolds said. "Me being a fourth-year senior, I played on a couple great teams and a couple down teams. It's kind of nice to be able to go out on top like this."
Much was made about Kansas State's ground-oriented attack before the game. Tailback Darren Sproles was closing in on a 2,000-yard season, while quarterback Ell Roberson was also close to a 1,000-yard campaign. Dantonio knew the OSU defense needed to change some things up -- especially after falling short in the season finale at Michigan -- to get a win over the Wildcats.
"They've got a great tailback," he said. "The quarterback is like another tailback in the backfield. We felt it started there. We had to come up with something new that they hadn't seen, much like we did last year against Miami. We needed to stop the run to make them one dimensional. I thought for the most part we did that."
Sure enough, Ohio State made Kansas State all but abandon the run. K-State entered the game averaging 238.9 yards per game rushing, ranking sixth nationally. But OSU's top-ranked run defense did the job, limiting K-State to 84 yards rushing on 32 attempts. The Wildcats, who averaged 23 pass attempts per game this season, fell behind 21-0 and needed to go to the air. Roberson ended up throwing 51 passes, completing just 20 for 294 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Sproles needed 52 yards to reach the coveted 2,000-yard mark, but netted just 38 on 13 attempts. Roberson needed 57 yards to get to 1,000 for the year, but had just 32 on 16 attempts.
Of course, the firestorm of controversy surrounding Roberson -- he was accused of sexual assault by a woman he admits he had consensual sex with at the team hotel two nights before the game -- may have factored in K-State's demise. He was just 5 of 20 passing for 60 yards and a devastating pick by Gamble that set up an OSU touchdown in the first half.
"I think his head wasn't in the game in the first half," said OSU defensive end Will Smith, who was credited with just two tackles but harassed Roberson all night. "I think they underestimated our speed on defense. Then, they made some good adjustments in the second half."
Defensive tackle Tim Anderson says OSU amended its usual attacking style.
"I think we took them by surprise because normally we come off the ball hard and fast," he said. "We try to get pressure. Tonight, we came in knowing we had to stop the run. We really didn't come off the ball that hard. We were just kind of trying to stay on the line of scrimmage and play the run. I think that took a lot of their running game away."
Reynolds added, "We just tried to stop that two-headed monster the best we could."
Going against shifty runners like Roberson and Sproles, the Buckeyes knew they had to put a premium on hitting and wrapping up the ball carriers.
"We watched the tape of their game with Oklahoma," Smith said. "They missed a lot of tackles. We knew the key to the game would be tackling Sproles and Roberson. They can make you miss. The first couple days we were here, that's all we were doing, tackling."
Anderson added, "Oklahoma tried to get the big hit on Sproles, but he would make them miss. We knew we couldn't try and get the big hit. You have to wrap him up and try to take him down. We worked a lot of drills on wrapping up. Definitely what happened at Michigan was in the back of our minds. We didn't want that to happen again tonight."
Hawk Gets Hardware
The media voted sophomore linebacker A.J. Hawk as the defensive MVP for the Fiesta Bowl. Hawk tied Reynolds for the team-high in tackles with 10. They each had 1-½ tackles for loss as well.
"It is a great honor to get something like that," Hawk said. "That is award that could go to every single guy on the defense tonight. Everyone just played so hard.
"We had a great game plan that Coach Dantonio set up. A lot of times, we knew what was coming. We picked up on some of their checks. The biggest thing was us, our pursuit and speed to the ball."
Hawk said the poor showing against Michigan factored in OSU's effort.
"I think it did," he said. "We had a bad taste in our mouths since that last game at Michigan. We did have something to prove. We had to be ready to play hard."
Hawk, a first-team All-Big Ten pick, ended the year as OSU's leading tackler with 106 tackles, 23 more than second place Will Allen (83). He was asked if he views himself as the leader of the defense heading into 2004.
"I don't know if there is one specific leader of this defense," he said. "But I think as you get older and play more, you try to become more of a leader by example and also by being vocal. I am looking for it."
Quashing The Comeback
After falling behind 21-0, Kansas State twice rallied to cut the deficit to seven. The second time came when Roberson scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 35-28 with 2:47 left.
The Wildcats then forced an OSU punt and drove from its own 10-yard line to the OSU 47 before Roberson's Hail Mary pass on the final play was broken up shy of the end zone.
"It got a little bit crazy," Dantonio said. "We're trying to hit the guy back there and we're just telling them to keep playing and keep making plays. They've got players who can make some plays."
In the fourth quarter alone, Roberson completed 11 of 22 passes for 181 yards. Five of those fourth-quarter completions were for 20 yards or longer.
"We knew those guys were coming back," Smith said. "When there were six seconds left, we knew we had to make a play. It was going to be up to the D-line to get some pressure and for the safeties and corners to break the ball up."
Anderson added, "We knew we were in for a 60-minute fight. We knew they weren't going to quit. Despite how many points they were down, they were going to come back. It wasn't unexpected. We kept playing and did what we had to do."
Cornerback Dustin Fox added, "They are a great team. You saw how they played against Oklahoma. They don't have any quit in them. We were nervous, but we just kept fighting."
* Ohio State opened the game by forcing Kansas State to three plays and out on its first five possessions. The Wildcats did not get a first down until the 14:07 mark of the second quarter, eliciting sarcastic applause from the estimated 40,000 K-State fans in attendance.
* With Fred Pagac Jr. nursing a slight injury, Reynolds opened at middle linebacker and Bobby Carpenter started at outside linebacker. Carpenter also enjoyed a big game with five tackles, including two sacks, as well as a pass break-up.
* Gamble, who came to OSU as a wide receiver, will leave school without a single touchdown reception. But his interception in this game was his third of the season and seventh of his career.