We're pleased to announce that long-time regular Joe Fox has agreed to accept our bags of cold hard cash and come on board as a writer. Though Joe rarely thinks the Buckeyes are much better than a 9-3 team, we'll be leveraging the fact that he was actually in the 'Shoe when Harley was torching the field to therefore bring a little bit of historical aspect to our coverage. He also professes a love for stat work and that's music to our ears. His first post looks back at the 2002 Penn State game.
There are some interesting parallels between this year’s Ohio State/Penn State game, and the 2002 edition: Both teams were dripping with NFL-caliber talent; the game featured an aging Joe Paterno, beset with calls for his resignation; an oft-injured but talented Ohio State tailback; a game under the lights in the ‘Shoe, in a frosty October, and a road to a possible national title on the line.
Paterno’s Nittany Lions entered the game against Ohio State with a 5-2 record (2-2 in the Big Ten) and ranked #17 in the country. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Zack Mills, who had scorched Ohio State for over 400 all-purpose yards in the 2001 meeting, directed the Penn State attack. But the bread-and-butter of the Penn State offense was running back Larry Johnson. Playing behind five returning offensive linemen, Johnson was coming off a Northwestern game in which he had 257 yards on just 23 carries – all that, despite sitting the final 28 minutes of the game.
Penn State’s defense was solid, if unspectacular. The Nittany Lions returned six starters on defense, led by tackle Jimmy Kennedy, who had returned to State College in lieu of entering the NFL draft.
Despite their abysmal 0-5 record in Columbus since joining the Big Ten in 1993, the Lions had some emotion on their side. Former Penn State player Adam Taliaferro, who suffered a serious neck injury in a game against Ohio State two years previously, made an appearance in the pregame ceremonies.
Jim Tressel, in his second year at Ohio State, had his Buckeyes at #4 in the polls and atop the Big Ten standings with a surprising 8-0 record (3-0 in the conference). Ohio State was coming off a huge 19-14 win over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.
With the ball, the Buckeyes were conservative, steady and grinding. Quarterback Craig Krenzel, possessed of an adequate arm, deceptive feet and heady play, led an opportunistic offense that worked best with favorable field position. The Buckeyes had good players available, like wideout Michael Jenkins and tight end Ben Hartsock, but the real key to Ohio State’s attack was Maurice Clarett. Clarett, a true freshman, was the most highly-regarded running back in the nation coming out of high school, but was often injured. When available, Clarett was usually the best player on any field, and a potent offensive weapon.
Without the ball, the Buckeyes were daring, resilient and aggressive. An experienced linebacker corps played behind a splendid, athletic defensive line. Will Smith and Darrion Scott provided the impetus behind a pass rush that often allowed the Buckeyes to send only four rushers, leaving the linebackers to roam free and make plays. It was in the secondary, however, that Ohio State really shined. Ohio State had four future NFL players in its defensive backfield, including standout two-way star cornerback Chris Gamble. Mike Doss provided key run support at safety. At one point in the season, Ohio State’s defense went thirteen consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown.
Special teams, too, was a strength for Ohio State. The Buckeyes had all-Big Ten selections at punter (Andy Groom) and placekicker (Mike Nugent). Chris Gamble provided Ohio State with a scoring threat on both kickoff and punt returns.
Maurice Clarett injured his shoulder just six plays into the game, and was replaced by Lydell Ross. Krenzel moved the Buckeyes deep into Penn State territory, but uncharacteristically fumbled the ball as he approached the goal line on a scramble. Penn State’s Anwar Harris scooped up the ball and raced 58 yards down the field before being caught and tackled from behind by Chris Gamble. Zack Mills attempted to move the Lions, but had a pass intercepted by A.J. Hawk.
Following an OSU punt and touchback, Penn State marched 80 yards down the field, and Larry Johnson gave the Lions a 7-0 lead with a 5-yard run. Ohio State was again unable to move the ball and was forced to punt, but Will Smith deflected a pass from Mills, and set up a 37-yard field goal by Mike Nugent. A turnover-plagued half ended with Penn State clinging to a 7-3 lead.
Early in the third quarter, Penn State faced a third-and-long on the Lions’ side of the field. Zack Mills rolled out to his left and threw a wobbly ball that was intercepted by Chris Gamble. Gamble, the first two-way starter at Ohio State since Paul Warfield in 1963, bobbed, weaved and juked his way to a thrilling 40-yard return for a touchdown.
Gamble recounted the interception after the game: “I was in the cover-three and had played the half of the field. I saw Zack Mills rolling to the left, the one dude running the post and the other dude running the wheel. I saw him throw it to the wheel, and I just attacked it.”
“The interception for a touchdown was just a terrible pass,” Mills said. “I wasn’t trying to force anything there.”
The resulting PAT by Nugent gave Ohio State a 10-7 lead, and completely changed the momentum of the game. Penn State punted on its next four possessions following Gamble’s pick six. Ohio State tacked on another 37-yard field goal by Nugent with 1:05 remaining in the third quarter, and relied on its stifling defense to win the game.
Penn State’s final drive of the game began at its own 15-yard line with 3:02 left in the fourth quarter. Mills completed a 7-yard pass to Johnson, but was then sacked by Kenny Peterson for a 10-yard loss. On what would prove to be Penn State’s final play, Mills’ pass in the flat to Tony Johnson was incomplete. Paterno cried foul, pleading with officials that Johnson had been interfered with by Chris Gamble, but officials disagreed. Ohio State took possession of the ball and ran out the clock for a 13-7 victory.
Penn State went on to a 9-4 record and a loss to Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. The Lions ended the season ranked #16 in the AP poll, and #15 in the coaches’ poll; it was the 25th time in Joe Paterno’s tenure that the Lions had ended a season in the top 15. Six Penn State players were taken in the NFL draft. Larry Johnson finished the season with the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards, and a third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Ohio State had a few close calls, but ended the season unbeaten. The Buckeyes went on to beat Miami of Florida 31-24 in a thrilling, double-overtime game in the Fiesta Bowl. Five Buckeyes were selected in the 2003 NFL draft, and Ohio State had its first undisputed national championship since 1968.