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College football: Fiesta Bowl

Eye of the Hurricanes

UM seems too powerful - to all but Buckeyes.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Forty days have passed since Ohio State completed an undefeated season and qualified for the Fiesta Bowl, and you need every minute of that time to devise a scenario in which the second-ranked Buckeyes can defeat Miami in tonight's national championship game.

Outside of those who bleed scarlet and gray, virtually no one gives Ohio State a chance at Sun Devil Stadium.

And that might be the best thing the Buckeyes have going for them.

Being told you can't do something is strong motivation for a team that has yet to be denied, but yet can't seem to be taken seriously in the context of the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes (12-0), who are going for consecutive national championships. The Buckeyes won all 13 of their games but are 111/2-point underdogs.

"That probably puts a little bit more of a scare into us than anything -- having people downplay Ohio State," Miami center Brett Romberg said. "They're setting a trap, building us up. But we watch film. We know what's going on. We know it's going to be as hard of a game as we've played this year."

The Buckeyes are a bit tired of all the talk. Miami has a 34-game winning streak that dates to early in the 2000 season. Since that loss to Washington, every Division I-A team has lost at least four games. OSU is 27-9 during that stretch.

But teams don't go 13-0 by accident, even if the Buckeyes won six by a touchdown or less, including their last three, one of which was in overtime. This isn't the Nebraska team that came into last year's Rose Bowl against Miami with a lopsided loss and a suspect defense. And the Big Ten's 4-1 bowl record gives the schedule some credibility. That Michigan team that just put 38 points on Florida in the Outback Bowl? It managed just three field goals against the Buckeyes.

Ohio State has emerged as a team that never panics and finds a way to win. A stingy defense, a solid kicking game and an offense led by freshman tailback Maurice Clarett have put the Buckeyes in a title-game situation for the first time since the 1979 season, with a chance to win the school's first national championship since 1968.

It fact, the Buckeyes remind many of a couple of other teams that supposedly had no chance against the Hurricanes: Penn State (1986) and Alabama (1992), which won national championships by defeating UM.

"Everybody wants a championship team to win by 30 or 40 points," OSU senior linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "We're a team that survived a lot of close calls. But I think it speaks to the type of team we are. We are resilient. We find a way to win. No matter what adversity we face throughout the game, we overcome it."

Compared with the Hurricanes, the Buckeyes appear ordinary. Their quarterback is a fourth-year junior who is headed to medical school, a molecular genetics major who studies defenses as intently as he does science. He doesn't dazzle, but he does produce, even if it's an average of just two touchdowns over the past six games.

During that span, Clarett was slowed by a nagging shoulder injury that should be healed after a six-week layoff. He rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries against Michigan and is expected to carry the load against a defense that allows more than 170 rushing yards per game. In essence, OSU's strength is UM's weakness.

"With him in the game, you know there is always the threat of him breaking one for a touchdown," Miami linebacker Jonathan Vilma said.

"He is a guy who, if he can run the ball on us and make first downs, they will be in position to score touchdowns or score with their great field-goal kicker (Mike Nugent)," UM coach Larry Coker said. "So stopping Ohio State running the ball successfully is going to be a key for us.

"They have been able to control the clock, grind it out. With their style of play, field position is very key."

The Hurricanes had trouble against strong running teams such as Florida State and West Virginia. And the toughest opponents on their schedule -- Florida, FSU and Tennessee -- had disappointing seasons that ended with bowl losses.

The Hurricanes trailed Rutgers in the fourth quarter before pulling away and had difficulty putting away Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech with the final goal in sight.

None of those teams played a consistently strong defense such as Ohio State, which allows 12.4 points and is fourth nationally against the run, allowing 78.7 yards.

"They're impressive, but like any other team, they can be stopped," OSU defensive end Darrion Scott said. "That's why you have game plans. You make game plans to stop a team. You put in different defenses or blitzes to prevent the quarterback and not give him time to pick you apart. They're a great team and have great weapons. We also have a great defense."

That defense has made it clear that it will attempt to stop Miami tailback Willis McGahee and force quarterback Ken Dorsey to beat OSU.

It is a strategy that has failed to work for others.

Like a lot of aspects to this game, the Buckeyes are tired of hearing it.

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