Clutch, leader, dependable, fantastic, money, steady, extraordinary, unflappable … Mike Nugent's performance over the last two seasons has been all of these and more. Saturday, two more descriptions could be added. Out of this world – and even absurd.
Just when it looked like the seven-turnover deficit the Buckeyes have built for themselves over the first two games would come back to haunt them, Justin Zwick, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Nugent came to the rescue.
Taking over at their own 45 with only 30 seconds on the clock, the offense knew they had no choice but to move within field goal range. They needed to get the ball to at least the 30-35 yard line and preferably closer. 25 yards in half a minute with no timeouts might not be such a huge task for some, but with a young quarterback that had thrown two consecutive interceptions – coach Jim Tressel was taking a serious risk. Hitting Santonio Holmes on two consecutive plays, Zwick and the Buckeyes had the football close to Nugent's range.
With only 17 seconds remaining, they simply needed one more pass like the previous two. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman told reporters, "We were out there talking about that and Tress talked to Justin about that and said we can get it over the middle if that's what shows for you – because you get out there and you don't know what's going to be open…"
Zwick connected with Ryan Hamby across the middle. The problem however was that Hamby could not reach the first down, falling to the ground at the 33-yard line. Time seemed to stand still for the Scarlet and Gray for a moment, and then it accelerated.
Tick… The Marshall players laid on Hamby.
Tick…He fought manfully to get back to his feet.
Tick…The fans screamed for him to rise and for Justin Zwick to spike the ball.
Tick…Hamby arose and ran toward the line of scrimmage.
"They were well schooled, trying to hold us down and keep us from getting to the line of scrimmage," commented Tressel. "Was I concerned? Yeah, I watched that clock just like you did."
Finally, just when it looked like the game clock would expire and send the two teams to overtime, Hamby clawed his way to his feet and ran across the line of scrimmage. Zwick snapped the football and spiked it with just 2 seconds remaining. The only problem was Hamby was still moving. The yellow hankies flew into the air and the fans groaned. More French was uttered on the sidelines and in homes across Ohio than in Paris. The entire play was wiped out as the Buckeyes were moved back to where they had started on the final offensive snap.
Zwick was philosophical in retrospect. "I guess (in) that same situation I would have done the same thing," he said in reference to the delay tactics of the Thundering Herd. "We were lucky to get that ball off. I would rather have a 5-yard penalty and 2 seconds to go than no time left and not get anything off."
Bollman and the Ohio State coaches understood as well. They were not so much yelling at the officials as hoping Hamby could get up.
"It's part of the game," he said. "You can yell all you want, but those guys are trying to do their job. They don't want to…call a penalty on Marshall for keeping us down and move us closer, and they don't want to have it with us penalized for 5 yards because we're not quite set. It was tight – one of those moments, and we're thankful it turned out the way it did."
Out trotted field goal kicker Mike Nugent to attempt a 55-yard boot. A goat just three short years ago when he went 7 of 14 in his freshman season, Nugent has since become arguably the finest kicker in college football and certainly the finest in the long, proud history of Ohio State. With a personal best of 58-59 yards in previous scrimmages, this kick would be dangerously close to the limits of even his prodigious leg.
Add the pressure of a possible game winning field goal, and it was far from certain the Buckeyes could avoid overtime.
Nugent tried to focus: "Before the play, I was sitting telling myself I've done this a couple of times in the kicking scrimmage, and there's no reason I can't do it now. All it is – it's a snap, a hold, and a kick. Physically it's no different. Obviously mentally it's a lot different because the game's on the line … I couldn't have told you it was 55. I just go on the field. I don't sit there and look at it and say, ‘This is 55 and I have to make sure I put something into it.' I look at how much I have to go and then hit it normal. After every field goal I am asking how long was that."
The Ohio State special teams have been carefully prepared for moments like this. According to Nugent, almost "every single practice we have Coach Tressel will run out the clock. We have a clock during practice, so he will put a certain amount of time on it and give us that experience. We have to sprint out onto the field and do things like that. We also have a kicking scrimmage during spring ball and fall camp."
The coaches believed in their kicker's abilities. "I was confident," Tressel reflected. "We've put him in that position many times in kick scrimmages. It's the last play of the game and here's what we've got to do. He's a great kicker. There's not a better one in college football and I think he proved that today."
The Thundering Herd and the Buckeyes lined up for the final snap of regulation. Both teams were out of timeouts. There would be no stoppage of play, no icing of the kicker, no disrupting of Mike Nugent's approach.
Suddenly, whistles blew. Marshall coach Bob Pruett had been given a gift as the referees stepped in to halt the play right before the snap. They explained that the clock stopped in spite of the penalty on Hamby because Zwick did, in fact, spike the ball.
Meanwhile, Nugent tried to maintain his focus: "I was thinking let's get on the field and get this over with and go do it."
"Right when I hit it, before I picked my head up it was kind of like that 53-yarder I missed last week," said Nugent. "Before I picked my head up and felt amazing about it, but this one…felt good. But I missed the last one I thought I felt good on – so I looked up and it was going back and forth…It just snuck in right at the end." He elaborated, "I hit it real solid. Every time I hit a solid ball it goes back and forth a little bit. It kind of scared me at first. First it was going dead center and then it started going back in. I was just telling it to go in and that last second it made it by about two inches...It went out and faded back in, and I don't know if it was at that last second, I don't know if it was because I told it to, I don't know, but I was screaming at it and it just went in that last second."
Meanwhile, his teammates didn't know whether to watch or simply close their eyes and pray.
"I watched it up to the snap," said Nick Mangold. "As soon as they snapped it, I kind of closed my eyes. Then probably about halfway through opened (them) up again and watched it go through. It was an amazing kick."
Bobby Carpenter might be fine when forced to make a tackle to save the game, but the kick was too much to bear. He commented, "I can't watch that stuff. I turn around and listen for the crowd. I had a lot of confidence in Nuge and knew he was going to make it, but I couldn't watch it. It's too much for me. Everybody in the stadium knew he was going to make it, even the Marshall people.
"The crowd roared; I knew it was over," Carpenter said.
On the other hand, Santonio Holmes watched it every step of the way; "I had to. I knew he would make it. When he made his great approach, he followed through…Coach Tressel always tells him to hit in between the uprights and the flagpole every time he kicks it. That's what he did. He kicked right through the uprights."
Simon Fraser remembered the ball going into the air after making his block to protect Nugent: "It went in slow motion. It was waving a bit. It went out, and I was like – ‘No, no, no, no!' It came back in – a big sigh of relief. For him to make that is huge for him and this team."
The officials signaled the kick good, and the stadium erupted.
Mike Nugent and the Buckeyes began their celebration, but for his part – Nugent was not about to make a public display. "That's one thing I can't stand seeing. Guys will hit a game winning field goal, and they'll start running all over the field so all eyes are on them. The first thing I was thinking is where are my teammates? I was just jumping and looking for them. The second thing I was thinking is where's my snapper and holder? Those guys – they do such an unbelievable job. They really get no recognition. Kyle gets no recognition for having a perfect snap every time, and the other Kyle gets no recognition for having a great hold."
Nugent shouldn't have worried. His teammates found him rather quickly and buried him under a mass of humanity, screaming in jubilation. Somewhere at the bottom of the pile, he was simply concerned about not hurting the person on whose leg he was laying.
After the game, Nugent showed just why his teammates respect him enough to vote him captain. When asked how it felt to win the game with his leg, he objected, "When you say emotion when "I" won the game, I don't think "I" won the game at all. I just kind of did my job when I was called upon, just a few extra points and one field goal." Unlike many kickers, he apparently does not live for moments such as that one and later added, "If I'm kicking extra points the rest of the season, that's fine with me."
The pile having peeled off of Nugent with apparently no injuries, he recalled, "Justin Zwick came up to me and gave me a big hug after the kick, and I told him thanks. He didn't know what I was talking about. At first he just looked at me – like why would he thank me? I told him you got the ball down the field; you gave us that opportunity to kick it like that."
Zwick remembered. "I thanked that man. He put that ball through the uprights in clutch time…He did a great job. He knows what he has to do, and he did it today."
Walking off the field to fans screaming his name, Nugent said, "Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked over and it was my mom. I just gave her the biggest hug…she's the one that always – if I'm sitting at home with my parents and family she will say, ‘Can you believe after your freshman year what things have been like lately?' "
Hard to believe is an understatement.
The stands having emptied and most of the fans already on their way home, Coach Bollman came out and spoke for a few minutes. Like most coaches who have been in the game a long while, he was philosophical about the evening.
"A win is a win – 10 years from now people will just see that Ohio State beat Marshall. They won't know how or why. It's a win."
Yes, but that will be then and this is now…
After the game, the feeling in the locker room was one of thankfulness to escape a close call. Aside from the turnovers, the general feeling according to Simon Fraser was, "Thank goodness for Nuuuuge."
Maybe it's just one game. Maybe Ohio State does have a long way to go to become a good football team in 2004. But then again, maybe the game against Marshall encapsulates a career for a young man who has given Buckeye fans as much reason to cheer as any over the last 25 years.
As for Mike Nugent?
At end of night, at 9 p.m. when all others were gone, there he was – standing at the iron gates in front of the stadium. Instead of heading back with the rest of the team, he had remained to sign autographs for all the fans and children.
He wasn't out being the toast of the town. He wasn't out celebrating with his buddies. No. He was making sure the Ohio State fans who had cheered so long and loud for him went home even happier (if that's possible).
It might be just another day at the office for him, but he made a lot of dreams come true – and not just during the game.