Centerville is a fairly ordinary city in Montgomery County, Ohio. Ordinary that is, unless you are an Ohio State football fan. For those who bleed Scarlet and Gray, the suburb that lies on the Southern edge of the metro Dayton area is a factory for players who epitomize what it means to be a Buckeye. The names are legendary: Herbstreit, Hawk, Mangold. But the smallest player among all of the Centerville legends was the Big Man On Campus on September 11, 2004, the last time Ohio State played the Thundering Herd of Marshall in football. Of course, I am speaking of former OSU kicker Mike Nugent.
Nugent booted a 55-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Buckeyes over Marshall and, at least momentarily, preserve their undefeated record in that young season. The kick tied the longest ever by an Ohio State player in the Horseshoe, and sealed Nugent's legendary status after 2 incredibly consistent seasons making field goals for OSU. It also demonstrated why coach Jim Tressel places so much emphasis on the kicking game. As if to highlight this point, Marshall's kicker had missed a 35-yarder with just over 3 minutes left in the game, and then had shanked a punt 26 yards on their last possession, setting the Buckeyes up in position to drive for the winning kick.
The 2004 Ohio State football season had started out with nervous optimism, as the team was attempting to replace several long-time starters, many of whom were principals on the 2002 National Championship team. Among those were QB Craig Krenzel, DE's Will Smith and Darrion Scott, DT Tim Anderson, OT Shane Olivea, C Alex Stepanovich, LB Robert Reynolds, CB Chris Gamble, and WR Michael Jenkins. In fact, in the 2004 NFL draft Ohio State set a new record for one school when 14 players were drafted. The cupboard had been depleted significantly, but there were plenty of promising youngsters waiting for their chance to shine.
Leading the pack of young studs was WR Santonio Holmes. Holmes began the 2003 season as the 3rd receiver, but when starter Drew Carter went down with an injury, the Belle Glade FL native made the most of his opportunity. He torched Michigan by grabbing 8 receptions for 121 yards and 2 TD's, repeatedly showing Marlin Jackson the back of his jersey. For good measure, he caught 2 more TD passes from Krenzel in OSU's 35-28 victory over Kansas State. Other 2003 contributors stepping up into starting roles were CB Ashton Youboty, LB Mike D'Andrea, S Donte Whitner, DE's Simon Fraser and Mike Kudla, and DT Quinn Pitcock.
But most of the focus of fans and reporters was on the two players vying to replace Krenzel at QB: Justin Zwick and Troy Smith. Both players had been stars in high school, but Zwick had the higher profile, having set school single-game and season passing records at iconic Massillon Washington High School. Still, Smith showed enough potential that Tressel pledged to rotate the two players until one of them was firmly established at starter. In the opener against Cincinnati, both played but Zwick got the start and the majority of the playing time, completing 14-26 passes for 213 yards and a TD in a 27-6 OSU victory.
The game against Marshall started out like it would be another easy win for the Buckeyes. Marshall had some players, but none of them were of the Chad Pennington or Randy Moss caliber. On Ohio State's second possession, Zwick dropped back on the first play and tossed an 80-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. But Marshall regrouped quickly and put together a 12-play 80-yard drive for a TD of their own. QB Stan Hill was 7-8 on the drive, revealing problems in OSU's young secondary.
After an exchange of punts, Zwick went back to work. He hit WR Roy Hall for a 13-yard completion, then hit Holmes for 19 yards to the Marshall 47. After an incompletion, Zwick dropped back and threw long to Holmes over the middle. The future Super Bowl MVP reached high to grab the pass and stumbled into the end zone for his 2nd TD of the game. The 1st quarter ended with the Buckeyes up 14-7.
The 2nd quarter began with the OSU defense stopping Marshall again, and it looked like they had gained the measure of Stan Hill and Co. But then one of the lingering weaknesses of the offense reared its ugly head. During the previous season, the Buckeyes had struggled to get any production out of the running game. The loss of 2002 phenom Maurice Clarett to suspension left the position in the hands of juniors Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall. Hall had recurring injury issues, and Ross never seemed to be able to find the hole. As the team's leading rusher in the Michigan game, he tallied only 22 yards on 9 carries.
2004 brought promising freshman Antonio Pittman to the fold, but he had not yet found his bearings at this point and so Ross was still the main ball-carrier against Marshall. Despite the success Zwick was having in the passing game, Ross was unable to break out for any significant yardage on the ground. And with less than 6 minutes to go in the first half, he fumbled the ball away to Marshall's Jonathan Goddard at the OSU 27, and Goddard returned the fumble for a TD to tie the score at 14.
Undaunted, Zwick took the Buckeyes on another 80 yard drive, hooking up with Holmes for gains of 13, 9, 13, and 18 yards. From Marshall's 20, Zwick hit Roy Hall across the middle for another touchdown, and Ohio State had regained the lead 21-14. The lead remained that way until halftime, but there were ominous signs that the Buckeyes would not be able to hold a lead if the ground game could not get started.
In the 2nd half, both offenses struggled. Marshall was able to move the ball on the ground with RB Earl Charles mixing good gains with the passing of Hill. But they repeatedly stalled in OSU territory, turning it over on downs in the 3rd quarter and missing a chip-shot FG in the 4th. OSU meanwhile fared worse, struggling with turnovers and untimely penalties. In the 4th quarter, Zwick threw interceptions on consecutive passes, the first of which set Marshall up with a 1st down at the OSU 26. A penalty against the Buckeyes moved the ball to the 13, but they appeared to stop the Herd and force a field goal attempt. However, Marshall was called for holding on the play and Tressel strangely decided to accept the penalty. On 3rd and 20, Hill connected with Brad Bates for a 23-yard touchdown and the game was tied again with 8:40 remaining.
At this point, the youth of Zwick showed as he tried to throw deep over the middle again and was baited into another interception by Chris Royal. But the Herd stalled and missed the FG, and then after an OSU punt they stalled again and shanked the punt 26 yards to the OSU 45. With only 25 seconds remaining, Zwick regained his composure and led the team down the field with completions of 9 and 7 yards to Holmes, using only 8 seconds in the process. But on the next play he threw over the middle to Ryan Hamby for a 7 yard gain that did not yield a first down. With no time-outs left, the team had to hurry up and spike the ball in order to get Nugent out on the field. LT Rob Sims was not set, but Zwick snapped the ball anyway and spiked it with 2 seconds left. After the penalty, OSU was sitting on the Marshall 37 yard line, setting up a 55-yard FG attempt. Nugent nailed it, and the crowd went crazy.
Ultimately, the weaknesses of the team caught up with them as the season progressed, leading to 3 straight losses to begin the Big Ten season, including the first loss to Northwestern in over 30 years. Zwick finished the Marshall game by completing 18-30 passes for 324 yards and 3 TD's, but those 2 interceptions seemed to shake his confidence. As it turned out, Marshall was the high-water mark of Zwick's OSU career, as he later lost the job to fellow sophomore Troy Smith. However, the career of Santonio Holmes exploded from there. Holmes finished with 10 receptions in the game for 224 yards and 2 TD's, but his greatest days were yet to come.
After the initial Big Ten stumble, OSU recovered to win 5 of their last 6 games including a resounding 37-21 triumph over favored Michigan. The Troy Smith legend was born in that game, and he went on to become one of the best (if not the best) quarterbacks in Ohio State history. Nugent went on to win 1st team All-American status and also won the prestigious Lou Groza Award. Justin Zwick started for Ohio State in the Alamo Bowl game against Oklahoma State due to Smith having to serve a 2-game suspension for off-the-field matters. He tweaked his hamstring in the first half, but gutted it out to lead the team to a 33-7 victory, a victory that set the stage for greater team success in 2005.