I had planned for many weeks to do this particular game as a flashback, but yesterday the Dispatch and Ken Gordon stole my thunder. But that's always a risk in the blogging world, and since I always think I can tell the story better I'm going to go ahead with it anyway. For those of you who prefer Gordon, well...move along...nothing to see here.
The 1996 season started with a bang for Ohio State. Fresh off the disappointments of the 1995 season, which included a shocking loss to Michigan and a loss on New Years Day to a cheating Tennessee team, OSU coach John Cooper elevated linebackers coach Fred Pagac (whom you might recall making big plays in last week's flashback) to defensive coordinator and the results were smashing. The 1996 defense returned 10 starters from the previous season, and with the addition of blue-chip recruit Andy Katzenmoyer at middle linebacker, they were as scary a group as you would see in college football that season.
The team began the season with two absolutely dominating performances: a 70-7 boiling of Rice and a 72-0 pasting of Pitt. Going to South Bend for a rematch of the previous season's titanic contest with Notre Dame, OSU emerged with a 29-16 win that was not as close as the score. A 38-7 domination of Penn State and a close win over Wisconsin vaulted the team to the #2 spot in the national rankings. They would hold that position until the game against Michigan. Unfortunately, it went no further than that.
Much like the 2009 season, Ohio State clinched the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth the week before playing the wolverines, dispatching a game Indiana squad in Bloomington 27-17. So with the national championship a distinct possibility if they finished undefeated, the Buckeyes promptly fell flat against UM and lost 13-9. Much has been made of "the slip" by Shawn Springs that allowed Tai Streets to turn a short slant pass into a 70+ yard TD. But that play happened in the first minute of the 2nd half and OSU still led 9-7 at the time. To be sure, it changed momentum. But what really doomed Ohio State was the fact that their offense, which had been so potent for much of the season, failed to show up against the boys in the funny helmets. Call it a choke if you like, but it was an alarmingly frequent event during the Cooper era.
So the Buckeyes entered the Rose Bowl game with no momentum and probably with their confidence shaken a bit. But Pagac's defense, led by DE's Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes, was still as tough as nails. Arizona State had been scoring points in bunches throughout the season. Led by All-American QB Jake Plummer, the Sun Devils had scored over 40 points 8 times during their 11-0 regular season, including 3 games over 50 points. OT Juan Roque was adept at opening holes for RB Terry Battle and WR Keith Poole managed to score 11 receiving TD's among his 46 receptions. Still, ASU found the yardage hard to come by in the early going against OSU.
After the Devils punted for the second time, Ohio State began their second drive at their own 18. QB Stanley Jackson, a junior who rotated with sophomore Joe Germaine at the helm, ran and threw efficiently to power the Buckeye offense. He had plenty of weapons, from versatile play-makers like RB Pepe Pearson and WR Demetrius Stanley, to tall receivers David Boston and Dee Miller. Add in 6'9" TE John Lumpkin and powerful OT Orlando Pace, and the Buckeye offense could be intimidating in its own right. But Jackson was the leader, and on this drive he appeared to take the recent struggles personally. As they moved into ASU territory, Jackson rolled out to pass from the Sun Devil 45-yard line. Seeing an open field, he took off running. As an ASU tackler approached near the 30, Jackson leaped into the air and hurdled him as he tumbled to the 26. From there, Jackson hit fullback Matt Keller in stride and he carried the ball down to the 5 yard line. After a couple of negative plays, Jackson scrambled to his right on 3rd down and found Boston in the corner of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Arizona State continued to struggle against the OSU defense in the 1st quarter, but in the 2nd they managed to break through for a touchdown to make the score 7-7 at halftime. In the 3rd quarter, they took a 10-7 lead and things were looking grim for the Buckeyes. But coach John Cooper decided to go with Germaine at QB and it paid off. Starting from the OSU 12, Germaine hit Stanley over the middle for a nice gain to the 28 yard line. From there, Germaine spotted a similar coverage and decided to go to Stanley again. This time the play-action fake to Pearson held the ASU safeties, and Stanley got clear of the CB covering him on a deep post. Germaine hit him in stride and Stanley motored all the way to pay-dirt to give Ohio State a 14-10 lead.
The lead would hold up until deep in the 4th quarter as ASU continued to struggle on offense. Meanwhile, OSU got out of terrible field position when Pearson broke off a huge run from the 3 yard line all the way to the ASU 35. Things were looking good as the Buckeyes moved toward sealing the win. But the drive stalled and Josh Jackson's field goal was blocked. Taking over on their own 42, Plummer moved the Sun Devils down into scoring position, and finished the drive with an 11-yard scramble for a TD. ASU led 17-14 with less than 2 minutes remaining in the game, and announcer Brent Musberger was preparing to herald them as national champions. But the Buckeyes were not finished yet.
Beginning at the OSU 34, Cooper went with Germaine at QB, gambling that the sophomore's superior passing skills would be the better play over the more experienced Jackson. Germaine appeared to twice hit TE D.J. Jones for big plays into ASU territory, but Jones dropped both passes, bringing up a critical 3rd down. But Germaine hit Stanley for a 1st down to the 45 to keep OSU hopes alive at the 1:16 mark. He hit Stanley again to the ASU 41 for another 3rd down conversion, and then hit him again to the 29. Then Germaine threw deep to Stanley down the right side and the Sun Devils were called for pass interference. From the 20, ASU again interfered but got away with it. But on the next play, Germaine threw a deep post intended for Boston and the ASU CB held him for another interference call. On 1st down from the ASU 5, Germaine hit Boston in the right flat and the freshman receiver ran in for the score to put OSU up 20-17 with only 19 seconds remaining (the extra point was no good). Plummer attempted to rally his team down the field, but he ran out of time and Ohio State had their first Rose Bowl victory since 1974.
With the win, Cooper became the first head coach to win a Rose Bowl game as both a Pac-10 coach and a Big Ten coach (his Arizona State team had beaten Michigan in the 1987 Rose Bowl game). The OSU seniors went out with the most victories of any senior class ever at Ohio State, and they no doubt felt redeemed after the previous season's failures. Plummer, who finished 3rd in the Heisman trophy voting, would be chosen in the 2nd round by the Arizona Cardinals and go on to a fairly successful career in the NFL. Germaine and Jackson would share the QB duties at Ohio State for one more season before Germaine took over full-time in 1998. Boston would go on to become Ohio State's all-time leader in receptions and yardage (the yardage record has since been broken by Michael Jenkins). Best of all, Brent Musberger reversed course and became an OSU homer for the rest of his career (just kidding).