Ah, 1998; those were the days. Imagine Ohio State losing their last two games of the previous season and still being ranked number one to start the new season. Imagine being the cover darling of Sports Illustrated's season preview issue, even with the annoying (and unnecessary) asterisk.
Such was the respect that pundits all across the land had for Ohio State football as John Cooper began his 11th season as the head coach. Despite the closing losses, OSU had finished 10-3 in 1997 and had outscored their opponents collectively 394-170. The 20-14 loss against eventual national champion Michigan had stung, but the Buckeyes pretty much beat themselves in that game, tossing an INT in the end zone, having another INT returned for a TD, and giving up a long punt return for a TD.
The man who threw both of those interceptions, QB Stan Jackson, had exhausted his eligibility and that left Joe Germaine to take over the helm full-time. For two long seasons, Germaine had shared the position with Jackson in a platoon. Nevertheless, many fans had long clamored to see Germaine running the ship solo. Now they would get their wish as the team would move forward with an excellent pure passer to distribute the ball to the various weapons of the offense.
And what an offense it was. Four of the five offensive linemen returned, including All-American guard Rob Murphy. At running back, speedster Michael Wiley took over from the departed Pepe Pearson, and
freshman senior Joe Montgomery waited in the wings for his chance. David Boston, who had broken Cris Carter's school record for most receptions in a season with 73, returned to anchor the receiving corps. Reliable possession man Dee Miller and towering 6'10" tight end John Lumpkin added more targets for Germaine's passes.
The defense was no less formidable. SI cover boy Andy Katzenmoyer returned for his junior season, coming off a year in which he was 1st team All-American and won the Butkus Award given annually to the nation's best linebacker. Solid senior Jerry Rudzinski returned at one OLB slot while young stud Na'il Diggs stepped up to take over on the other side. Returning All-American CB Antoine Winfield anchored a secondary that was considered the best in the country.
Despite the lofty ranking and the confidence that the team had going into the season, there was still a lingering pain from the end of the 1997 season. Watching Michigan pick up a share of the national title (split with Nebraska) knowing that OSU should have beaten them was difficult. Not only that, but the team had looked slow and over-matched in the Sugar Bowl against Florida State, losing 31-14 despite the profanity-laced pre-game hubris of their head coach. The Buckeyes needed a solid start to shake off the memory of those losses, and they would get it in spades.
The Buckeyes opened the 1998 season on the road in a nationally televised game against #11 West Virginia. Led by QB Marc Bulger, the Mountaineers put up a good fight, but Ohio State was too much for them. OSU ultimately pulled away for a 34-17 win that seemed to validate their #1 ranking. Next up was the home opener against the Toledo Rockets of the MAC.
Although OSU had played several MAC schools previously, the had never played Toledo before. The Rockets were the reigning champions of the MAC West division, but they probably did not expect to win in Columbus against the powerful Buckeyes. Like most of OSU's early season opponents, they were there to make some money for the university and learn something from the experience of playing against a better team. After seeing their team dispatch WVU with relative ease on the road, OSU fans expected to see a mauling of Toledo, and they would not be disappointed.
Ohio State needed only 11 plays and less than 5 minutes to go up 21-0. On their first possession, Wiley took a handoff and burst through the UT defense for a 76-yard TD run. It got worse for the Rockets from there. By the time the gun sounded for halftime, OSU led 42-0. Germaine, Wiley, and the rest of the starters would not see the field again on this day. The Buckeye defense ran roughshod over the Rocket offense all day long, and ultimately 5 different Buckeyes came up with interceptions. The team would finish the game with a 49-0 shutout.
As most Buckeye fans know, the 1998 season eventually became known for disappointment. It was the first year of the BCS and OSU had lead in the BCS standings for most of the season. Unfortunately, they dropped a late November home game against Michigan State that would cost them a shot at the title. They closed the regular season by drilling Iowa and Michigan and they rolled over Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl.
They would never come that close to a title again under Cooper. The next season, sophomore Steve Bellisari would take over at QB and the team would struggle through a 6-6 campaign. In 2000, the team got off to a good start but melted down at mid-season and lost 4 of their last 7 games. They would be routed by South Carolina in the Outback Bowl and Cooper would be fired shortly thereafter.
Of course, none of this was known to us as we watched the Buckeyes rout Toledo on that day. As far as we knew, OSU was going to win it all. I was at the stadium for that game along with my wife (who was 2 months pregnant at the time). I came up with the novel idea of parking at the City Center garage for $2 and then taking the city bus to the campus area and walking to the stadium from High Street. The goal was to save money and not have to fight the typical post-game traffic jam. My plan was working out great until it came time to leave.
The buses were not crowded on the way to the game, because everyone gets to the campus area at a different time (due to tailgate parties and the like). However, on the way back, everyone leaves at once, and so all of the buses I saw were already full by the time they got to me. Ultimately, my pregnant wife and I decided to just walk back. After all, it was only 3.7 miles to walk, and it was a nice day. Just a good stretch of the legs!
I'm sure you're wondering "why are you telling us about that?" Actually, that story was more interesting than the game was. The 2009 matchup against the Rockets was just as lopsided, even if the score doesn't show it. Expect more of the same on Saturday.