The year 2000 began with trepidation for many people, as we were breathlessly informed about some silly computer problem that never happened. As amusing as it may be now to laugh at those unenlightened days when we feared "The Millennium Bug", it turned out that the year 2000 was a pivotal turning point for the Ohio State football program. It was a year where the team rose up from the ashes of a miserable 1999 campaign and contended for the Big Ten title. But it was also the year where the problems on and off the field would cost the head man his job.
In 1999, coach John Cooper's Buckeyes had suffered through only their
first second bowl-less season since 1987, the season that marked the swan song of the last head football coach, Earle Bruce. While the end of the 1999 season did not repeat the bizarre series of events that led to Bruce's ouster in 1987, it was bad enough that Cooper, long a target of disgruntled fans, was in serious danger of being ousted himself.
Cooper was not the only Buckeye to feel the pressure of unmet expectations. Quarterback Steve Bellisari made a big splash in the 2nd game of 1999 but struggled mightily afterwards, reflecting the performance of the team in general. But in 2000 Cooper, Bellisari, and company were out to prove that the previous season had been an anomaly. This was Ohio State, and the fans would not settle for 6-win seasons.
The nucleus of the offense returned for 2000, but considering how frequently the offense had disappeared in key situations the year before, fans weren't sure if that was good news. In addition to Bellisari at QB, the top running backs Derek Combs and Jonathan Wells returned, along with starting WRs Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo. Undersized but tough-as-nails LB Joe Cooper anchored the defense, along with standout DE Rodney Bailey. Promising sophomores Matt Wilhelm and Mike Doss stepped into starting roles at middle linebacker and safety, respectively.
The new season started with a game that looked great on the stat sheet but provided some clues that the offensive woes from 1999 had not been completely dealt with. The Fresno State Bulldogs came to town for the first game, and early in the 1st quarter OSU drove deep into FSU territory but could not cash in as they failed on a 4th and goal from the two. However, the Bulldogs fumbled the ball into their own end zone and Doss pounced on it for a touchdown. It would be the first of four defensive TDs for the Buckeyes as they won 43-10.
Week 2 sent the Buckeyes packing for their first-ever trip to Tuscon to play the Arizona Wildcats. Once again, defense was the name of the game as OSU held Arizona to only 194 yards of total offense for the game. Bellisari struggled in the first half, and Arizona went to halftime with a 17-10 lead. But he went deep early and often in the second half, hitting backup WR Chad Cacchio for a 60-yard TD and then hitting Reggie Germany with a 46-yard completion to set up a Wells TD run. Shutting out the Wildcats after halftime, Ohio State went home with a hard-earned 27-17 victory. They had started the season ranked #16, but with the victory they moved up to #15.
Normally, Ohio State devours in-state foes who have the audacity to come to Ohio Stadium for a game. They had not played Miami (OH) since 1911, but in week 3 the Redhawks came to Columbus well prepared to give the Buckeyes a game. They were not fazed by the large hostile crowd, and the weather was unusually cool, which meant that fatigue would not be the factor it normally is in these types of games. Miami QB Mike Bath was a threat to run or pass, and so the OSU defense would have to be ready for anything. Whether the team in general was ready for the kind of challenge Miami would give them remained to be seen.
The Redhawks had finished 7-4 the previous season under first-year coach Terry Hoeppner. Hoeppner would never have a losing season at Miami, and his success there would eventually lead to a job coaching Indiana. But in 2000 his Redhawks appeared to be poised for a breakout. They opened the season with a 33-30 upset victory at Vanderbilt, and followed it up with a convincing 34-17 win on the road at Eastern Michigan. Still, this was a MAC school and Ohio State was a national powerhouse, and so they were still a heavy favorite.
The Buckeyes jumped out to an early lead when Dan Stultz converted a 49-yard field goal in the first quarter. But Miami came back in the second quarter with a field goal of their own, and followed that up with a 26-yard TD pass from Bath to Sly Johnson. Trailing 10-3 with just over 2 minutes remaining, the OSU offense drove right back down the field and tied the score on a 35-yard pass from Bellisari to Cacchio. Going into halftime tied at 10 was not what John Cooper had in mind, and he made sure his team knew about it in the locker room.
Ohio State came out with more passion in the 2nd half, and they scored on their first two possessions. First, Stultz kicked a 28-yard FG and then Wells rambled 19 yards for a TD and the Buckeyes had scored 17 straight points to go up 20-10. But the Redhawks were not finished. Still in the 3rd quarter, Bath hit Ty Buxton with a 23-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 20-16. However, Miami kicker Andy Brumbergs missed the extra point. Undaunted, the Redhawks drove deep into OSU territory again on their next possession, but the Buckeye defense stiffened and forced a 21-yard FG attempt. Brumbergs missed again, and that seemed to take some of the wind out of their sails.
From there, the OSU running game and the defense took over and pounded Miami. Cooper and new offensive coordinator Chuck Stobart called for power runs again and again, and despite the relatively cool weather the Redhawk defense began to wear down. After an interception by Buckeye CB Nate Clements, Combs and Wells carried repeatedly as OSU moved down the field into FG range. As Stultz made the kick, Miami roughed him up, and the resulting 15-yard penalty gave Ohio State a first down. They did not waste the gift, as Wells pounded into the end zone from 1 yard out to give OSU a 27-16 lead, and that would be enough for the win.
Bellisari had an up-and-down game, and on the stat sheet he was outplayed by his Miami counterpart. But the OSU defense forced the Redhawks into 3 interceptions and the offense racked up 273 yards on the ground. Combs led the charge with 142 yards on 21 carries, but Wells was also impressive with 113 yards on 17 carries. For Miami, Bath led the rushing attack with 105 yards on 11 carries, mostly scrambles. Bellisari was held to 194 yards passing (13/30 for 43%) and 4 yards rushing, but he protected the ball and the Buckeyes in general had no turnovers.
Miami would go on to finish 6-5, struggling on defense for most of the season. They finished in a tie for first in the East division of the MAC, but overall they ended up in the middle of the pack in the conference. Hoeppner would coach 4 more seasons at Miami and compile a 48-25 record there, finishing 1st in the MAC his last two seasons and leading his team to bowl games both years. He coached for two seasons at Indiana, compiling a 9-14 record before his untimely death in 2007 from brain cancer.
Ohio State would shake off the lackluster performance and blast Penn State in week 4 by the biggest margin in the entire series, 45-6. They would also get revenge on Wisconsin for a home loss the previous year by winning at Madison 23-7. However, the Buckeyes continued to have trouble with "M" teams, losing at home to both Minnesota and Michigan, before being drubbed in their bowl game against former OSU assistant coach Lou Holtz and the South Carolina Gamecocks. The loss, and the way it went down, was such a humiliation to the school that it ended up being the last hurrah for John Cooper's career at Ohio State. After that, a new era would begin for the team and the program, and the rest is history.