With the 2002 regular season completed, it is time to begin ruminating on this edition of the Buckeyes. Where do you start? There are more highlights and high points than the Himalayas for the Scarlet and Grey.
· Preseason Turmoil and adversity down the stretch. Take yourself back to the days immediately preceding the Texas Tech game. Kingsbury and his merry band of Texas boys were talking smack about how Ohio State did not have nearly the talent that they had had in seasons past. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes looked to be doing their best self-destruct sequence with arrests, suspensions, and players having to leave the team. Pitcock, expected to play early and often, was suspended for an underage possession of alcohol arrest (and ended up redshirting). Brandon Joe was suspended following his arrest. Jesse Kline was forced to quit football after gutting it out for his entire career. Marco Cooper, expected to start this year, had already been booted off the team and out of the university. The offensive line depth was awful with Clarke both overweight and injured, Olds suffering an injury that would keep him from playing the entire season, and Cook and Kuhnhein not developing as anticipated (or at least hoped) by the coaching staff. Stafford (who turned out to be our most athletic lineman) was viewed as a desperation move at the time. We had serious flaws at the corner position because for all his heart, Richard McNutt was basically playing on one leg. Some of the Bucks were even picking us to lose the first game, and in no way could it have been imagined that Ohio State would go 13-0 that last two weeks of August.
· Kudos to both Richard McNutt and Jesse Kline. Lest anyone think the remarks above are shots aimed at these guys, I believe that all fans everywhere should appreciate them for their contributions. Football is a brutal sport. Surgeries are as common for some of these players as the common cold for us couch potatoes. McNutt's injury seems to date back to his high school days in Illinois. What does that mean? It means that every time Richard ran out onto the field, every day after practice, every single day he spent in a Buckeye uniform, he was never once able to be his best. He was likely in pain, but he gave it his all anyway. The same can be said for Jesse. Often injured, he came back from being hurt as often as a yo-yo climbs its string. Finally, both of these young men could take no more. Thank you for sticking it out as long as you did. You showed courage, heart, and a real desire to be a Buckeye.
· Lots of folks are saying that Maurice Clarett was the key to the victory on Saturday. He was incredibly instrumental, but my team MVP for the game is Craig Krenzel. He is my MVP for the season as well. Craig saved this team more times than a born again preacher. Every game that came down to the wire, the mantle of leadership rested on his shoulders, and he delivered. He delivered at Cincinnati to dash the hopes of the Bearcat players who wanted revenge because Ohio State never offered them a scholarship. He delivered at Wisconsin to leave Bucky Badger toothless. He delivered on 4th and 1 at Purdue, scalding the Boilermakers. He delivered against the Illini, shooting an arrow through the heart of their season by denying them a shot at a bowl. Finally, he delivered against Michigan, sending the Maize and Blue home as yellow losers with blue fans. Yes, Maurice is not chopped liver, but this is not his team. This team belongs to Craig on the offense.
· How about the breathtaking, awe-inspiring runs by Maurice Clarett in 2002? I believe that he has the best vision of any tailback I have watched this season. His ability to see a developing crease and squeeze through it is just phenomenal. It is reminiscent of the county fairs where everyone tries to catch a greased piglet, but ends up only grasping air. Even when stopped, Clarett normally manages to gain a nice chunk of yards. It is simply mind-boggling to think that this guy is only a freshman. Hopefully he will have a full recuperation from his assorted injuries this offseason and enter 2003 ready to help the Buckeyes to another Big Ten championship.
· Leadership from the Seniors. Ohio State has had talented teams over the past decade on the gridiron. However, none of those teams exhibited the kind of senior leadership necessary to gain victories every time out. This one did. Do not overlook the contributions of guys like Cie Grant, Donnie Nickey, Mike Stafford, Kenny Peterson, etc. Mike Doss deserves a special notation for returning to school this season. When OSU was facing a 9-7 deficit to open the second half against Michigan, it was Doss who gathered the defense and exhorted them to lay everything on the line.
· The offensive line. It is as pretty as Sylvester Stallone in drag. At times, it is as effective as using a BB gun against an elephant. However, the line did get the job done when its back was against the wall. 4th and 1 with the game on the line. The Buckeyes faced this situation against Michigan and Purdue and both times, they delivered. The blocks were there to get the first down and score or continue the winning drive. I would love to see a couple of the linemen drop 10 pounds before the bowl (15 in the case of Clarke), but too much loss too quickly will hurt their strength and endurance. Improvements are needed here for 2003, but again – this group of guys did deliver when they were backed into the corner. That should count for something.
· The Blitzkrieged Boilermakers. I cannot help but wonder how many Ohio State fans were on their knees begging for a near miracle. Craig unleashed a devastating aerial assault that effectively ended Purdue's hopes of an upset. Then, on defense, Chris Gamble defused the Boilermakers bombing run by ambushing their forces with a well-timed leap for an interception. I found myself slumped on the floor after both plays. Incredible finish.
· Whining opponents. How many times over the year have opponents gone home with a loss only to whine to their local press? If I had a quarter for every time some defeated quarterback cried about Ohio State being a mediocre team that got lucky, I too could go to the Fiesta Bowl. Gesser was the most egregious of the offenders with his endless comments about being able to defeat Ohio State even after the Buckeyes absolutely handed the Cougar offense and defense their collective jocks. 25-7 in a controlled blowout and "You could beat Ohio State if you played them again?" Huh? Note to defeated quarterbacks… You look like whiners and crybabies when you have a shot at a team and then blow it. If Ohio State was so easy to defeat, then what does that say about your team that you failed to emerge with a win? That's what I thought.
· 12 weeks without a bye. What a brutal stretch of games. This team played 12 straight weeks (more than even the NFL teams) without a chance to rest. There were more wounded and injured players for the Bucks by the time the Michigan game rolled around than what you find in a field hospital. Each week it seemed that someone else went down. Will Smith, Tim Anderson, and Darrion Scott all missed time on the defensive line. Cie Grant hurt his ankle, and it appeared to me that Matt Wilhelm was all taped up for the contest against that team up North. Defensive backs Will Allen, Dustin Fox, and Richard McNutt all played nicked up at different times and special teams gunner Bobby Britton sat for Michigan following a concussion. On the offensive line, Olivea had an appendicitis, Clarke started the season with a bad back and is still not in playing shape, and Stafford (our best weapon on the line because of his pulling ability) missed a good part of the season with injuries. Clarett went down with his injury following the Wisconsin game and barely carried the football until Michigan, and Ross had a sprained toe (an incredibly painful injury for a running back). Ohio State scored 2 game winning touchdowns in two weeks with Maurice Hall, the third string tailback. About the only positions not beset by injuries this year were the Tight Ends, Quarterbacks, and Wide Receivers. This team will be much more efficient if it can heal up before the bowl and come out with guns ‘a blazin.
· Tressel and the Media. This guy is a master. He not only outwits most reporters, but he is even a better wordsmith. His answer to every question is measured and craftily crafted to leave a certain impression or create a specific image. Can you imagine being assigned to get some scoop or big story from this coach? I would think it easier to recover the lost city of Atlantis…
· Tressel for Emperor. Forget governor. Forget President. I think the state of Ohio would happily secede from the Union and declare itself a monarchy if Jim only gave his approval. Before the season started, the Tressel doubters and Tressel haters were fairly easy to find. Now they appear to have gone into exile in some small, South American country. 13-0? Are you kidding me? Beware though… If Ohio State loses in the Fiesta (and they will be a heavy underdog), then these critics will do their very best to infiltrate the Buckeye ranks and assassinate Jim Tressel.
· Ohio State Assistant Coaches. This season does not happen without them. Over the past two years, I have witnessed a vast improvement in every aspect of this team. I am hopeful that Andy Geiger will take it into his own hands here to give them some nice bonuses and raises. The money this athletic department will make from the Fiesta Bowl and increased donations from alumni will more than cover any extra stocking stuffers for the coaching staff.
· 8-0. That is the record of Ohio State at home. Successful teams win all of their games at home. In previous seasons where Ohio State made a run at a national title, the Buckeyes did not force someone to beat them elsewhere. How important is this to a championship run? John Cooper coached teams managed this feat in 1989, 1993, 1995, and 1997. However, each of these teams sustained a loss to Michigan – something this team avoided. Perhaps the two most talented Ohio State teams in the last 30 years (1996 and 1998) both lost at home to teams from that dreaded state up North. Bruce could at least beat Michigan on a regular basis, but he only had three teams (1979, 1983, and 1984) successfully defend their home turf for the entire season. Even Woody struggled with this cornerstone of national championship runs in his closing years with the ‘76, '77, and '78 teams all dropping games at home.
· Michael Jenkins. There are players who are tremendously talented. There are players who are as reliable as the tide. Few players possess both qualities. Jenkins has them both in spades. A pass thrown too high or just plain up for grabs? No Problem. Michael dons his cape and soars high in the air to grab the football. A difficult over the shoulder catch required? No Problem. Jenkins stretches out his mitts and comes up with a play that would make Willie Mays jealous. Michael Jenkins simply improves the players around him and forces the defense to play honest against the Buckeyes. If Ohio State can find a consistent route runner with size and speed to play opposite Jenkins for next season, look out.
· Chris Gamble. Once the heir apparent to the shoes left by Boston, Glenn, Galloway, Carter, etc., Chris has suddenly become a hot commodity on the defensive side of the football. Where do you play this guy? I for one would stick him on defense. This still will leave Ohio State with a desperate need for cornerbacks, but it (hopefully) will allow Will Allen and Dustin Fox to team up to create a tough safety duo. No matter where Gamble ends up, his contributions to the team have been stellar. He gutted it out down the stretch, playing upwards of 100 snaps in multiple contests.
· A Pair and a Spare. How many times did you hear this saying during the season? I heard it so often that it made me want to be violently ill every time some reporter glibly mentioned that Woody used to use this phrase all the time. Ahhh… The Wisdom of Woody. How many running backs saw extensive playing time this season? You guessed it. A pair and a spare. The "pair" would likely be identified as Ross and Clarett. Yet it was the "spare" who may have been the difference between 11-2 and 13-0. I doff my hat to a Maurice Hall who many (including myself at times) wondered if he should transfer so that he could see some playing time. Note to self: Maurice Hall not only saw playing time, but he came up with game winning touchdowns in both of the final two regular season games. Thanks Maurice. He does need to go anywhere – except of course for those trips to the end zone occasionally.
· State Secrets. It used to be that injuries and information on them was about as secret as the United States' plans for Saddam Hussein. Leaks among the staff in the WHAC and the players themselves would ensure public knowledge if someone so much as stubbed their toes. Under Tressel, that free-flowing exchange has ceased. It is likely a positive for the Buckeyes, but it sure does leave the fans (and the opposition too) wondering who will play from week to week. At some point in the future I am fully expecting to hear that Stafford actually was recovering from a full Lobotomy, and that is why he did not play as expected late in the season.
· Two. This is the number of touchdowns Ohio State allowed in its final 5 football games this year. Penn State's Larry Johnson rushed for one while the Illini hung the other on the Buckeyes. Name me another defense on a top 10 team playing at the level of the Buckeye's at the close of the season. Frankly, there are none. Only Kansas State comes close with 3 touchdowns allowed in their final 5 games, but they did not play a single ranked opponent in that stretch while Ohio State played 2.
A couple of random thoughts about being 13-0
· First, an admission – I WUZ WRONG. I never believed that this team could pull off a 13-0 regular season. To do that and be a member of a major conference is simply beyond incredible. How large of a feat is that? Try this on for size: No team in the modern era has ever had a 13-0 regular season. This Buckeye team has literally gone where no team has gone before. Allow me to add that I have never been happier to be wrong in my entire life.
· Press Clippings. You would have thought that being 13-0 would garner purely positive press for Ohio State. I guess not. The national media took more pot shots at OSU than you see in an NHL fight. I used to enjoy watching the College football shows on television where they previewed each team and reviewed each game. By the middle of October, I had stopped watching and was encouraging others to do the same. My philosophy is, "They created remote controls for just this reason." Instead of praising the Buckeyes for having heart and courage and perhaps a little luck, many (though certainly not all) media talking heads heaped scorn on them. Some of it was frankly borderline personal compared to the supposed lack of bias they are supposed to express. I was disappointed in their absence of professionalism but thought it only too hilarious that the Buckeyes forced them to eat every single acerbic comment over Thanksgiving dinner. Chow down gentlemen. Tell me, does that humble pie taste like chicken?
· The State of being a Dog. Expect the Buckeyes to enter the game underdogs no matter who they play. The only way this does not occur is if they end up facing Notre Dame (which is a tremendous long shot). Georgia, Iowa, and Miami would all be ten point favorites over Ohio State. OU would have been as well were it not for a rapidly improving Oklahoma State team that just hung 38 points on them.
· 2003. For the last 2 years, I have pointed to 2003 as the season where Ohio State would make a championship run. My prediction was based upon returning offensive starters, depth on the offensive line, returning defensive linemen, etc. However, I am not so sure that 2003 will not have a better team overall but fall short. OU suffered this fate in 2001. Ohio State suffered this fate too many times to count. Next year's schedule looks positively brutal with matchups @PSU, @Wisconsin, @ UM, Washington, NC State, etc. Any one of these could end up with an upset against the good guys in Scarlet and Gray. The point? Enjoy this season Buckeye fans. Savor every moment. Bowl win or not, this was a season for the ages.