The season that began with so much promise was on the edge of tipping over into a downward slide. Coming off a tough loss on the road, the Buckeyes appeared to be still hung over and out of sorts. But then their fortunes reversed dramatically with one bad coaching decision and a handful of players who capitalized on the opportunity.
After Ohio State routed the Rose Bowl-bound Michigan Wolverines and then crushed the other OSU (i.e. the Okie State Cowboys of Les Miles) in the Alamo Bowl to close out the 2004 season, it appeared that the team might be ready to build on those wins in the next season. They had found their leader at quarterback, plus a few other playmakers at the key skill positions. There was no reason to believe that the offense would do anything but roll.
Things began to get off track before the season even began, as starting quarterback Troy Smith had to serve the second game of a two-game suspension that began with the bowl game against Oklahoma State. When he returned for the second game of the 2005 season, he had limited practice time and so the coaches had to alternate him with Justin Zwick. The result was a unit that sputtered and broke down in the red zone in a home contest with Texas, and the Longhorns exploited OSU's inconsistent attack on their way to a 25-22 victory.
Things began to look up as the team recovered with a pair of wins against San Diego State and Iowa, but with Smith now fully entrenched as the sole option at quarterback, the offense nevertheless struggled on the road against Penn State. That struggle resulted in another loss, and at 3-2 the Buckeyes were looking like nothing more than a run-of-the-mill pretender rather than a contender for national honors. Also, at 1-1 in the Big Ten and with the up-and-coming Michigan State Spartans coming to town, OSU needed to get it into gear quickly or face an uphill challenge to get anywhere near the top of the conference.
MSU was led by third-year coach John L. Smith, who had come to East Lansing in 2003 after a successful stint as the head coach of Louisville. Smith's wide-open offensive attack was a crowd-pleaser, and his immediate success at Michigan State earned him Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after leading the Spartans to an 8-4 record that year. They slipped to 5-7 in 2004 and began the 2005 season unranked. That changed after they defeated #10 ranked Notre Dame in South Bend 44-41 in an overtime thriller.
They moved up to #17 the next week, and then to #11 after crushing Illinois 61-14. A 34-31 loss at home to Michigan dropped them to #16, but coming into their match-up with the Buckeyes they were 4-1 and ranked #16. Their multi-faceted offense, featuring an option running game and an aggressive downfield passing attack, was averaging over 45 points per game. However, their defense was suspect and this appeared to be a good opportunity for the OSU offense to get a jump start for the main stretch of the Big Ten season.
The first half did not go well for the Buckeyes. Midway through the first half, Spartans quarterback Drew Stanton connected on a pair of deep curl routes to set MSU up deep in OSU territory. The drive stalled from there and they settled for a field goal to go up 3-0. But on the ensuing kickoff, Buckeye receiver Ted Ginn Jr. failed to field the short kick from MSU and as the ball rolled free inside the OSU 10-yard line Michigan State jumped on it at the three to set themselves up in prime scoring position. From there, running back Jehuu Caulcrick plunged into the end zone to give Sparty a 10-0 lead.
Ohio State responded with a drive to cut the lead. Successful runs by Antonio Pittman set the Buckeyes up at their own 49, and from there Troy Smith faked the run to the right and dropped back to throw, finding receiver Santonio Holmes wide open down the left side. Smith hit him in stride for a 51-yard touchdown and the Buckeyes had closed to 10-7.
It stayed that way until midway through the second quarter, when the Spartans began a long, clock-abusing drive. Using their option running game, they moved methodically down the field for 11 plays to the OSU 36-yard line. From there Stanton dropped back and threw deep over the middle, hitting receiver Jerramy Scott for a 36-yard touchdown pass to put MSU up 17-7.
The teams traded possessions as the OSU offense went back into struggle mode. Michigan State had trouble with pass protection, as Stanton was sacked to force a fourth-and-33 situation. On the ensuing punt, Ginn fumbled again and this time MSU recovered at the Buckeye 27-yard line with 1:20 remaining in the first half. From there they moved to the 17, but Stanton was stopped for no gain on a second down play with 16 seconds left and MSU had no time-outs left.
Rather than spiking the ball, Smith decided to run his field goal team on the field. There was much confusion, with players running onto and off of the field in sequence. Finally, they spotted the ball and snapped it for the field goal with only ten players on the field and no wingback on the left side. OSU safety Nate Salley soared in from that side and blocked the kick, sending it hurtling backwards. Fellow defensive back Ashton Youboty scooped up the loose ball and ran it back 72 yards for a touchdown with no time left on the clock to pull OSU to 17-14 at halftime.
On the Michigan State sideline, Smith was livid with his special teams coach, and as he was interviewed by sideline reporter Jack Arute going into halftime, he let loose with an epic tirade that still ranks as one of the best in conference history. That play salvaged a terrible first half for Ohio State, and it changed momentum dramatically.
On their opening drive of the second half, OSU began moving down the field with effective running from Pittman. As they faced a third-and-four from their own 43, Troy Smith dropped back and found Ginn for the first down at the MSU 47. Two Spartan defenders collided as they tried to tackle Ginn, and the speedster broke free and sprinted down the left sideline for a 57-yard touchdown. Suddenly, an Ohio State team that was thoroughly dominated in the first half was up 21-17.
Michigan State would respond on their next drive, going 80 yards on 11 plays culminated by a six-yard touchdown run from Jason Teague. But the OSU defense clamped down from there, stuffing the running game and relentlessly pursuing Stanton with their pass rush. They would end up with a school record 12 sacks on Stanton for the day with linebacker Bobby Carpenter picking up four of them.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Ohio State would embark on an 80-yard drive of their own, with Smith hitting Holmes again for a touchdown down the left sideline to put the Buckeyes back up 28-24 with under five minutes to play. They forced the Spartans to punt on their next possession, then Holmes returned the punt down to the MSU 17-yard line. From there, in clock-grinding mode, the Buckeyes used the running game to punch it in, with Smith taking it the last one yard for a touchdown. That would ice the game, and OSU won it 35-24.
That was the first of seven straight wins for Ohio State to finish the season, with the last of those a 34-20 thrashing of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. For MSU, it would be the second of three straight losses, and they would lose six of their last seven to finish at 5-6 for the season. Smith lasted one more season at Michigan State, going 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten, before he was fired and replaced by current coach Mark Dantonio.
John L. Smith, play us off.