The firing of John Cooper after the 2000 season ended brought a close to 13 years of stellar highs and occasionally depressing lows for the Ohio State football program. In the wake of a bowl loss that symbolized what had gone wrong that season, the university was looking for someone who would not only improve results on the field, but also restore the reputation of the team away from the field. When Jim Tressel was announced as the new coach at a basketball game, he made the now-famous promise "...you'll be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community and especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan."
Understanding the rivalry and the importance of winning against the hated Wolverines, Coach Tressel embarked on a 10-year journey that brought the team to even higher highs than they had enjoyed under Cooper. There were not many depressing lows, but the ones that came were lower than most fans could have imagined. In Tressel's first season at the helm, the team displayed many of the qualities that would propel the program to the heights, and a few of the ones that would eventually bring it down.
The new head coach was not the only big change at Ohio State that season. Venerable Ohio Stadium was renovated and the capacity increased to 105,000. As a result, the crowd in excess of 102,000 that showed up for the opening game against Akron was a new school attendance record. The fans were not disappointed, as the Buckeyes rolled up 525 yards of offense in a 28-14 win.
The team had lost several stars from the previous team, including CB Nate Clements, DT Ryan Pickett, and RB Derek Combs. QB Steve Bellisari and RB Jonathan Wells returned for their senior seasons, but both had been up and down throughout their Buckeye careers. On this day, Wells rushed for 119 yards and Bellisari threw for 246 yards and 2 TDs with no INTs.
In addition to the outstanding offensive performance, the defense had broken in some new starters, some of which would become stars in the early Tressel years. Specifically, DEs Will Smith and Darrion Scott took over for Rodney Bailey and Brent Johnson, and converted linebacker Cie Grant took over at CB for the departed Clements. The defense gave up only 248 total yards to the Zips and it looked like they had managed to solidify what was thought to be a weakness. However, the next few games would show that there were still some problem areas that would take more time to work out.
A NATION MOURNS
The victory over Akron came on September 8, 2001. We all know what happened three days later. As a result, with football now a lower priority for all Americans, OSU's scheduled 9/15 game against San Diego State was canceled (they would eventually reschedule it for 10/20). When football resumed the next week, the Buckeyes traveled to Los Angeles to play the UCLA Bruins. Despite blocking a punt for a touchdown and getting outstanding play from the defense, Ohio State could not muster anything on offense and eventually lost 13-6. Major weaknesses were exposed as the Buckeyes gained only 8 first downs and a scant 45 yards passing.
Against Indiana in week 3, Ohio State's offense took a step forward, and Bellisari discovered a receiver he could count on. Freshman running back Lydell Ross carried for 124 yards to lead the rushing attack, but it was Michael Jenkins' 3 receptions for 60 yards that were more notable. For the rest of the season, the 6'5" sophomore would be the most consistent receiver, and he gave fans a taste of the kind of big plays he would make the next two years.
BREAKING OUT AND BREAKING DOWN
Back home for a nationally televised night game against the resurgent Northwestern Wildcats, OSU got off to a great start. Wells broke loose for a 71-yard TD run on the Buckeyes' 2nd play from scrimmage to take a 7-0 lead. They took a 21-7 lead to halftime and then scored on their first three possessions of the 3rd quarter on their way to a 38-20 win. NU had been ranked #16 going into the game, but OSU dominated from the beginning, racking up over 250 yards rushing and forcing the Wildcats into 2 costly turnovers.
However, the offensive woes returned again the next week, and it led to an epic collapse. Leading 17-0 against Wisconsin late in the 2nd quarter, the Buckeyes had a punt blocked and that led to a momentum-changing TD for the Badgers. OSU would not score in the 2nd half and eventually lost 20-17.
After defeating San Diego State the next week, the Buckeyes headed to State College to take on Penn State. Again, playing with a lead proved to be treacherous for OSU, as they lost 29-27 after leading 27-9 in the 3rd quarter. Poor special teams play had cost them against the Badgers, and it would do so again. With less than 3 minutes left in the game Ohio State had a chance to pull ahead with a 34-yard field goal, but it was blocked.
TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
The Buckeyes went back on the road again the next week, but this time with more success. Glen Mason's Minnesota Gophers fought hard at home, but this time Bellisari was on target, completing 12 of 17 passes for 203 yards and 2 TDs. Freshman Mike Nugent's 35-yard field goal in the 4th quarter would be the game-winner, as OSU prevailed 31-28.
Back home against Purdue in week 9, Ohio State coasted to a 35-9 victory, thus setting up a showdown with league-leading Illinois the next week. However, in the week leading up to the game, Bellisari was arrested for DUI and suspended indefinitely. Despite a career-high 192 yards from Wells, back-up QBs Scott McMullen and Craig Krenzel were unable to lead the team to victory. The Illini picked off a Krenzel pass and returned it for a TD on their way to a 34-22 win in Columbus. The loss would take OSU effectively out of the Big Ten race, and Bellisari's uncertain status cast a shadow over the upcoming season finale at Michigan.
THE THREE HUNDRED AND TENTH DAY
Catch up on everything you need to know ahead of the season kickoff.
Coach Tressel decided not to suspend Bellisari for the Michigan game, but he would still have to sit out the game. In his place, Michigan-native Craig Krenzel would start and play the whole game for OSU. Knowing that they had an inexperienced passer under center, the offense had extra incentive to execute running plays flawlessly, and it showed in the first half especially. Jonathan Wells rushed for 3 first-half touchdowns and the Buckeye defense played inspired as they took a 23-0 halftime lead.
The Wolverines fought back in the 2nd half, but Ohio State managed to hold on for a 26-20 victory, marking the first time they had won in Ann Arbor since 1987. Wells finished with 129 yards on 25 carries, and Krenzel threw for 118 yards with no interceptions. Moreover, OSU had not lost their big lead as they had done earlier in the season, and the adversity they faced the previous two weeks seemed to bond the team even closer together. It was a triumph of Tressel's focus on team and his preparation for that day which had begun 310 days earlier.
Ohio State was invited to play in the Capital One bowl and it ended up being a rematch of the previous season's game against South Carolina. With Bellisari in uniform but Krenzel still starting, OSU struggled out of the gate and going into halftime they trailed 14-0. USC (Gamecocks, not Trojans) would add two more TDs in the 3rd quarter to take a seemingly insurmountable 28-0 lead. At that point, Tressel put Bellisari in the game at QB and everything changed right away. The senior rallied the team to one TD in the 3rd quarter and three more in the 4th. But an interception led to a South Carolina field goal at the final gun to win the game 31-28.
The 2001 version of the Buckeyes finished 7-5, with a 3rd place finish in the Big Ten conference. It was not great, but it held enough hope that people had optimism going into the next season. That optimism only magnified when fans saw what kind of recruiting haul Tressel brought in after the season. Several of those recruits would see significant time as freshmen, and they would be key contributors to the 2002 national championship season. Fans had gotten a taste of what was to come, both good and bad, but in the next 12 months it would be nothing but good.