The 1997 season was one in which Ohio State was not expected to be a national contender, despite finishing #2 in the nation the previous year. The main reason for caution in hyping the 1997 Buckeyes was the enormous amount of talent that had departed from the great 1996 team. But this was a season in which the team that was supposed to be rebuilding would reload instead, setting up another title run the next season.
Gone from the team that defeated Arizona State in Pasadena to give John Cooper his second Rose Bowl victory with two different teams were three players each from the offensive and defensive lines, including All-Everything left tackle Orlando Pace. Sack leaders Matt Finkes and Mike Vrabel were gone from the defense, as well as nose tackle Luke Fickell. They also lost their starting tight end and fullback, one of their starting wide receivers, both starting cornerbacks and one starting safety.
Amid all of the gloom over departed stars was a pair of defensive stalwarts who were ready to step up and lead the team on that side of the ball. Andy Katzenmoyer was one of the most highly-regarded players in the nation coming out of high school, and he did not disappoint in his freshman season. Meanwhile, Gary Berry had apprenticed behind starter Rob Kelly his freshman year, but now he was poised to join returning starter Damon Moore at safety.
Katzenmoyer (Westerville) and Berry (Dublin) were both from Central Ohio, and both would have excellent seasons in 1997. It was necessary, because without Fickell, Vrabel, and Finkes to occupy blockers and put pressure on the passer, the rest of the defense was under a lot of pressure. During the first half of the season the rebuilt defense would struggle, but in the later games they became a strength of the team.
Another issue that the team faced in the early part of the season was the lack of a consistent running game. Running backs Pepe Pearson and Michael Wiley returned, but without Pace and his linemates (to say nothing of departed fullback Matt Calhoun) to block for them, they struggled to gain a lot of yards. As a result, quarterbacks Stan Jackson and Joe Germaine, the pair that had platooned at the position in 1996, had to make up the difference.
The schedule was tough, but there were no high-profile interconference contests like the matchups against Notre Dame that had propelled the team into the national conversation the previous two years. In this season, the meat of the schedule was in Big Ten play where the Buckeyes would have to travel to Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan. The season began with a strange Thursday night opener, as the team played host to Wyoming in the first-ever Eddie Robinson Football Classic. OSU won that one, 24-10, and proceeded to march easily through the pre-conference portion of the schedule.
Michigan State began the season ranked #25 in Nick Saban's 3rd year as head coach. The Spartans also had a surprisingly easy time with their pre-conference schedule, winning by 30 points or more against Western Michigan and Memphis before taking down Notre Dame, 23-7, at South Bend. The dominance continued into the Big Ten season as MSU took down perennial conference doormats Minnesota and Indiana, 31-10 and 38-6, respectively. But they ran into trouble in Evanston the next week and dropped a heartbreaker, 19-17. Perhaps they were looking ahead to Michigan the next week, but it didn't help them as they were dominated by the Wolverines at home, 23-7.
Ohio State had their own road troubles in the Big Ten. After defeating Iowa at home, 23-7, and rising to #7 in the rankings, the Buckeyes traveled to State College to take on the #2 ranked Nittany Lions of Penn State. The lack of a running game hurt them in that game, as did the inability to stop the run, and PSU came from behind to take the game, 31-27, despite 378 passing yards from Joe Germaine. Coming back home, the Buckeyes took out their frustrations as they crushed Indiana, 31-0, and mutilated Northwestern, 49-6, thus setting up a showdown at East Lansing against the 20th-ranked Spartans.
OSU got off to a slow start in the game as Michigan State took a 3-0 lead on Chris Gardner's 49-yard field goal. But toward the end of the 1st quarter, the OSU defense, and Berry in particular, would make their presence known. After Dan Stultz kicked a 25-yard field goal to tie the game, MSU began to drive again. But as Spartan quarterback Todd Schultz attempted to throw to running back Sedrick Irvin in the flat, he overthrew and the pass was intercepted by Berry, who raced 45 yards untouched for a touchdown.
Ohio State's defense forced a 3-and-out on Michigan State's next possession, and they dropped back to punt. OSU reserve linebacker Marcel Willis streaked in and blocked the punt, and Berry grabbed the ball and carried it in for another touchdown. OSU was now up 17-3, having scored two TDs in a 2-minute span without having to take a snap on offense. Berry was in the right place at the right time on both occasions, and he made the plays that turned the game around.
MSU cut the deficit to 17-6 in the 2nd quarter as Gardner nailed a 30-yard FG. But the Buckeyes came roaring back and scored on an 11-yard pass from Germaine to sophomore receiver David Boston to give OSU a 24-6 halftime lead. The 3rd quarter was a slog as the weather turned ugly and both teams struggled to move the ball in the rainy conditions. But toward the end of the quarter the Buckeyes added 3 more on another Stultz field goal, and then they began a long march that culminated in a 3-yard TD run by Pepe Pearson 35 seconds into the 4th quarter to make the score 34-13.
Michigan State would show a bit of life in the 4th on a 47-yard TD pass from Schultz to Gari Scott, but Stultz added another FG to close out the scoring and the Buckeyes would leave East Lansing with a solid 37-13 win. In the game, eight Buckeyes combined for 202 yards rushing on 44 carries, while Jackson and Germaine combined for 203 yards passing, thus achieving an almost perfect balance. Cornerback Antoine Winfield led the defense with 11 tackles.
Ohio State continued to roll after that, taking down Minnesota and Illinois with ease and setting up another road showdown at #1 Michigan. This time they were not up to the task, as the Wolverines prevailed 20-14 to preserve their unbeaten season and earn a Rose Bowl berth. OSU might have won the game if Katzenmoyer had been able to grab a late interception, but as it was the #4 Buckeyes settled for a trip to the Sugar Bowl to face Florida State. Despite bold talk by coach John Cooper prior to the game, OSU was dominated in New Orleans and ended the season with a 31-14 loss to the Seminoles.
The 10-3 season ultimately was better than most observers had expected for the young team that was replacing so many great players. The 1996 recruiting class showed its strength as players such as Katzenmoyer, Boston, Wiley, and Berry became stalwarts on the team and they would be the cornerstones of the Buckeyes' run for the first BCS championship in 1998. That team would fall short, mostly due to a late home loss to the same Spartans they defeated so easily on the road the previous year.