The 1998 Ohio State football season was one of high accomplishment but not quite reaching to the expectations of the team. Of course, the cliché is that Ohio State is expected to win a national championship every year. It is Ohio State, after all. But this was one season in which they were really expected to win it all.
Moreover, a victory against Michigan was expected. No, it is better to say "demanded". Now again, it is always understood that if he wins no other games on the season, a head coach at The Ohio State University is expected to beat Michigan. However, after soul-crushing losses to That Team Up North in 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1997, the pressure to finally score a victory against the hated Wolverines was intense. And because of the quality of this particular OSU team, it should have been no great struggle to achieve that simple goal.
In the first season of the BCS, Ohio State was the favorite of favorites for the college football pundit class. Sports Illustrated famously declared in their 1998 season preview "Ohio State is No. 1*", with the asterisk pointing to the conditional phrase "If Andy Katzenmoyer makes the grade". Katzenmoyer's eligibility had been in doubt due to some academic issues but he was eventually cleared to play. And so, with the team at full strength, and with the mythical national championship now decided on the field and not in the perceptions of sportswriters (never mind that perceptions are a large part of how the two teams get to that final game), the Buckeyes were expected to become the first ever "BCS Champions".
Why were the expectations higher than the lofty norm? The 1997 OSU team had won 10 of 11 games before wilting under the pressure of playing "The Game" against an undefeated Michigan squad and then being overwhelmed by the depth of Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. That team was young, and all of its stars returned for (at least) one more shot at glory. Katzenmoyer, the team's All-American middle linebacker and anchor of the defense, had won the coveted Butkus Award as a sophmore and was ready to elevate his game as a junior in preparation for jumping to the NFL. All-American cornerback Antoine Winfield returned to lead a secondary that was considered second to none in the country.
The offense was led by returning senior quarterback Joe Germaine, who had spent the past two seasons splitting time with the departed Stan Jackson. As part of the platoon, Germaine still passed for over 1,800 yards in 1997 and would now have the job all to himself. His job was made easier by the presence of junior wide receiver David Boston, who had set a new school record for receptions the previous season with 73 for 970 yards and 14 touchdowns. Four of the five offensive line starters also returned, led by All-American guard Rob Murphy. Veteran tailback Michael Wiley, who had also split time as a starter the previous season, returned to anchor the backfield, and WR Dee Miller and 6'9" tight end John Lumpkin rounded out the receiving corps.
There would be no climb to the top for the Buckeyes, as they were #1 in all polls to start the season. But now they faced a season-long "king of the hill" struggle against a host of teams that were anxious to knock them off. They would begin the season in a raucous and hostile environment playing at #11 West Virginia in a nationally televised night game. #21 Missouri visited Columbus in week 3, and #7 Penn State in week four. To top it all off, the hated Wolverines, coming off a season in which they went undefeated and captured a share of the national title, came to Columbus in week 11.
The opening showdown at West Virginia turned out to be less than advertised. Ohio State got off to a 17-3 lead behind the passing of Germaine and the running of Wiley. WVU's Marc Bulger cut it to 20-10 right before halftime on a 6-yard TD pass to Shawn Foreman, but OSU broke it open early in the 3rd quarter on a 39-yard TD pass from Germaine to Boston, and then freshman tailback Jonathan Wells scored on a 7-yard run in the 4th to make it 34-10. WVU scored a garbage TD to make the final deficit 34-17. Germaine passed for over 300 yards and Wiley had 140 yards rushing to lead the Buckeyes.
The home game against Missouri was similarly anti-climactic as OSU prevailed, 35-14. Those games were sandwiched around a 49-0 spanking of Toledo, and so the Buckeyes cruised into the home showdown with the Nittany Lions. In a tense defensive struggle, Penn State took a 3-0 lead midway through the 2nd quarter. But a Jerry Rudzinski (starting OLB) fumble recovery in the end zone and a Percy King (reserve DB) blocked punt for a TD, sandwiched around a 20-yard TD pass from Germaine to Wiley, gave the Buckeyes a commanding 21-3 lead early in the 3rd. The Lions attempted to come back, but an interception by CB Ahmed Plummer led to a 1-yard TD run by reserve tailback Joe Montgomery for a 28-9 victory.
Ohio State had little trouble with the remainder of their pre-Michigan schedule, with one major exception. On a cloudy afternoon in November, the 8-0 and #1 ranked Buckeyes squandered a 24-9 lead and lost a heart-breaker to Michigan State in Columbus, 28-24. After the game, Rudzinski and the other seniors rallied the team towards the goal of finishing well and taking it to the hated Wolverines with gusto. Meanwhile, Michigan had to cope with a few disappointments of their own.
The Wolverines' defense of their shared national championship had begun in inauspicious fashion. They began the season with a nationally televised 36-20 loss at Notre Dame. The loss dropped them from #5 to #13 in the rankings, and it would not improve in Week 2 as UM was pummelled at home by Syracuse, 38-28. In that game, junior starting quarterback Tom Brady was benched in favor of freshman Drew Henson, and Henson rallied the team to make the formerly lopsided score a bit more respectable. Nevertheless, Brady and Michigan bounced back and won their next 8 games, the last two over top-10 opponents Penn State and Wisconsin.
Michigan had fallen from the rankings after the loss to Syracuse, but the winning streak had buoyed them back up to #11 entering the showdown in Columbus. Ohio State was #7, having crushed Iowa on the road after the disappointment against Michigan State. Now the Buckeyes could smell redemption in the series in which they had been dominated so thoroughly the past few years. And it would not take long for the domination to begin.
After an opening exchange of punts, OSU's Michael Wiley took a pitch right and then quickly cut upfield and sprinted 53 yards for a touchdown to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 1st quarter lead. The defense forced a quick 3-and-out from Michigan, and then UM's punter Jason Vinson briefly fumbled the snap from center before getting off a wobbly kick that went out of bounds without crossing the line of scrimmage. This gave the Buckeyes possession at the UM 16-yard line, and from there Germaine hit Dee Miller in the back of the end zone with a touchdown pass, and just like that OSU was up, 14-0.
Special teams play went from bad to worse for the Wolverines in the 2nd quarter after Jay Feely kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 14-3. After an exchange of possessions, OSU forced another punt. Vinson again attempted to get the kick off but this time it was blocked by OSU reserve CB Derek Ross. The Buckeyes' Jonathan Wells recovered at the Michigan 20-yard line, putting OSU in business once again. After a 15-yard penalty moved the ball back to the 35, Ohio State gained 5 yards, setting up a 2nd and 5 from the UM 30.
Germaine dropped back to pass, and one of Michigan's defensive linemen beat his block and came barrelling toward the OSU QB. Germaine calmly spotted Boston on an out pattern to the left sideline and delivered the ball to him just as Boston had beaten the coverage of CB Andre Weathers. As he caught the ball, instead of heading out of bounds, Boston spun around and slipped past the streaking Weathers and headed up the sideline. Michigan safety Marcus Ray attempted to close, but Boston beat him to the corner of the end zone, and he taunted Ray as he ran past him for the touchdown. Buckeye fans were not angry about the resulting "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalty because the score put them up, 21-3.
Michigan closed to 21-10 just before halftime, as Brady hit Tai Streets with a 3-yard TD pass. But the 2nd half was dominated by OSU, as Boston beat Weathers again on a 43-yard TD pass from Germaine, and the Buckeyes cruised to a 31-16 victory. Germaine passed for 330 yards, 217 of them to Boston, who set a new school record for most receiving yards in a game. Michigan's running game was non-existent, forcing Brady to throw 56 passes. He completed 31 of them for 375 yards, but the lack of any punch on the ground kept them out of the end zone in the 2nd half. Germaine and Brady's respective performances were the highest yardage totals ever by opposing quarterbacks in the long series between the two teams.
Ohio State would go on to dominate Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl in a not-as-close-as-the-score-indicates 24-14 victory. The Buckeyes finished the season ranked #2, narrowly missing out on going to the first BCS championship game despite the late loss to MSU. Germaine would end up setting a new school record for most passing yards in a season with 3,330, and ended up 3rd in career passing yards with 6,370. Boston would also set new school records for receptions and receiving yards in a season with 85 catches for 1,435 yards and in his career with 191 receptions for 2,855 yards.