Enter The Buckeye Zone
Strong D, strange events make Ohio State a legit title contender
Posted: Saturday November 15, 2003 9:56PM; Updated: Saturday November 15, 2003 9:56PM
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In the world of Ohio State football, each Saturday is just like the Saturday before it -- and the Saturday before that and the Saturday before that.
The opponent gives everything it has. The Buckeyes give every indication this will be the week it all comes tumbling down.
Then suddenly, a fortuitous break here, a big play there, yada, yada, yada, strike up Carmen, Ohio.
"Teams know however good they play, the Buckeyes somehow pull it out," said OSU cornerback Dustin Fox after the latest episode of America's favorite suspense thriller, a 16-13 overtime victory over No. 11 Purdue.
They're not necessarily the team you love, not necessarily the team you love to hate. They're the team you've written off a billion, gajillion times over the past 14 months only to wake up one day and realize they're 10-1, that they've won 24 of their past 25 and, at No. 3 in the BCS standings, are potentially closing in on another national championship berth.
But not before the rest of us get a couple more chances to write them off.
No. 5 Michigan next week at the Big House? Are you kidding me? Surely the Wolverines have too many weapons. The Buckeyes' ugly brand of football would never hold up against such a glamorous bunch, would it?
A potential date with super-human Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl? Get real. The Sooners score more points in a quarter than the Buckeyes do in half a season. The game would be a joke.
"I believe we believe in ourselves a lot more than anyone else does," said defensive back Nate Salley, and he's right.
At this point, however, one would have to be insane to count this team out against anyone this side of the '72 Dolphins. To do so fails to acknowledge the Groundhog Day phenomenon that is Ohio State football.
Strange things keep happening whenever teams step into the Buckeyes' world. Perfectly capable football players suddlenly develop the strangest afflictions. Saturday, it was Purdue QB Kyle Orton, he of steady will and sure hands, twice coughing up the ball near his own end zone at crucial junctures.
Who's to say the same thing couldn't befall a John Navarre or Jason White?
Previously unflappable kickers like Purdue's Ben Jones suddenly miss two makeable field-goal tries, one of which prevented the Boilermakers from sending the game into double overtime.
And the strangest thing of all is, both players had been doing almost everything else right. Orton was sensational in leading the Boilers to a game-tying 92-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. Jones, who missed from 28 and 37, made ones from 45 and 47.
Maybe the proper theatrical title for this production isn't Groundhog Day but the Twilight Zone. How else to explain a team being 10-1 with a quarterback like Craig Krenzel, who constantly overthrew receivers Saturday, got sacked five times, yet finished with a respectable 15-of-29, 226-yard performance?
How else to explain how a defense that allowed 355 yards and seemed constantly on its heels trying to defend Purdue's spread-receiver formations winds up smelling like roses yet again?
How else to explain a team blowing a 13-6 lead with 4:36 remaining, punting it back less than a minute later, recovering a fumble deep in Purdue territory only to get its game-winning field goal try blocked, then turning around and pulling it out in overtime?
"There were a couple of times, you wondered whether we have a couple charms up our sleeve," acknowledged tight end Ben Hartsock. "The guys on this team have genuine faith and belief we can get through these things."
Those things, mind you, aren't limited to dropped passes and missed field goals. Things like losing your star tailback for the season before you even play your first game, having your manhood tested by of all people San Diego State, losing your starting quarterback to injury for a few games -- heck, actually losing a game to Wisconsin -- ultimately none of these things have prevented the Buckeyes from possibly replicating their magic run of a year ago.
Beat Michigan next week, and it's hello, Pasadena, which in itself would be a suitable culmination to one of the most successful eras in a program's already prestigious history. But it might not stop there. One USC or LSU loss and they could be headed to the BCS title game.
The idea may still seem laughable to some people, but it won't be to whoever has to play them -- yes, even to mighty Oklahoma.
"I think if you're 11-1, if you're the defending national champ, you should play in the [title] game," said defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio. "But that's for you guys to write."
Now who would be crazy enough to write that?
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.