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Party first, Fiesta later

OHIO ST. 14, MICHIGAN 9: The Buckeyes beat their rivals to earn a spot in the title game.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2002

OHIO ST. 14, MICHIGAN 9: The Buckeyes beat their rivals to earn a spot in the title game.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Along with the great expectations typically comes a deep dread. Every Ohio State fan knows the history, feels it like the cold Columbus air in November, senses doom.

It was playing out before their eyes again Saturday afternoon near the south end zone of Ohio Stadium. An undefeated regular season was at stake, a Big Ten title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in peril.

The hated Michigan Wolverines looked as if they were about to stick it to the Buckeyes again.

This time, however, Ohio State's fortunes changed. This time, free safety Will Allen stepped in front of a last-second pass, picking it off at the goal line as time expired to preserve a 14-9 victory.

This time, in the 99th renewal of one of college football's best rivalries, the Buckeyes prevailed, putting them in position to win their first national title since 1968, when Woody Hayes prowled the sideline here.

"When Will made that pick, I just started crying, ran to the middle of the field and started praying," senior strong safety Mike Doss said. "It was over."

Tears might have flowed regardless, as police used pepper spray to subdue thousands of fans from the record 105,539 who stormed the field in celebration.

For the sixth time this season, the second-ranked Buckeyes won by a touchdown or less. They are 13-0 for the first time and assured of a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, where they will play for the national championship Jan. 3.

True to form, it wasn't easy. Two weeks ago, Ohio State needed a late touchdown pass to defeat Purdue 10-6. Last week, the Buckeyes needed overtime for a 23-16 victory at Illinois.

Against No. 12 Michigan (9-3), the Buckeyes got just enough offense to survive, putting together two touchdown drives that accounted for nearly half (133) of their total yardage (264). And after allowing three first-half field goals, the Buckeyes clamped down in the second half, allowing no points and just 157 yards.

"I'm very proud of our guys," said second-year Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who is 2-0 against the Wolverines. OSU has won consecutive games against Michigan for the first time since 1981-82. "Not just the fact that they won, but the way they've won I think has been great for college football."

Just not for Buckeye fans. After a season of close calls and a past with Michigan they'd just as soon forget, having the game come down to the final play was almost too much. Michigan ruined undefeated OSU seasons in 1995 and 1996. Tressel's predecessor, John Cooper, was 2-10-1 against UM. "Obviously, everyone knows about what's happened in the past," said OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel, who completed 10 of 14 passes for 124 yards. "But we weren't thinking about that."

The Buckeyes got a big boost from freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, who returned despite a nagging shoulder injury to become the all-time OSU freshman rushing leader. He had 119 yards on 20 carries, including 47 yards on a first-quarter scoring drive he capped with a 2-yard touchdown for a 7-3 lead.

Michigan scored on each of its three first-half possessions and led 9-7 at halftime, though the Wolverines missed an excellent opportunity near the end of the second quarter. They had first and goal at the 8 but settled for a field goal.

"I thought we were the most balanced team that they have faced all year," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "When you look at the game from a statistical standpoint, third-down conversions, time of possession, total offense ... we outplayed them. But we knew as a team that we were going to need a touchdown to win the game."

OSU's winning drive started with just more than eight minutes left. "Everybody was smiling, talking about getting the job done," Clarett said. "We were encouraging each other. Craig led the huddle real well. Told us we just needed to get a couple of first downs and keep the offense running."

It was Clarett who talked Tressel into calling a play the Buckeyes had not used all season, a pass to him in the flat, that helped set up the winning touchdown. Krenzel completed a 26-yarder to an open Clarett that gave the Buckeyes first and goal at the 6.

Two plays later, on an option play OSU had not used all season, Krenzel pitched to Maurice Hall, who scored from 2 yards for a 14-9 lead with 4:55 remaining.

Michigan had plenty of time and drove to the OSU 30, where on first and 10 quarterback John Navarre fumbled. But the Buckeyes were unable to run out the clock, giving the Wolverines a last chance with 58 seconds left. Somehow, with no timeouts, Navarre drove Michigan to the OSU 24, one tick left on the clock.

This time, it was not a tick too many for relieved Buckeyes fans.

"We're one step away from the national championship," Doss said. "We had one goal and we accomplished it. We're one step away from the national championship."

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