With Clarett in the game, Ohio St. offense comes to lifePosted: Saturday November 23, 2002 6:30 PM
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He was the prototypical knight in shining armor.
Big, white shoulder-wrap armor.
A roar erupted among the 105,539 at Ohio Stadium as soon as No. 13 jogged on to the field for the first time Saturday. And No. 13 made them erupt again the first two times he touched the ball.
In his first significant action in five games due to a lingering shoulder stinger, Maurice Clarett gave a much-needed lift to the Ohio State offense, carrying 20 times for 119 yards and a touchdown and making two catches for 35 yards, one of them setting up the go-ahead touchdown.
Though he wouldn’t say it, the freshman star clearly played with substantial pain. It didn’t seem to mattter.
“He knew how much this game meant to his teammates; he knew how much it meant to Ohio State,” said Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel. “He was going to play no matter what.”
Clarett, who set a new freshman school rushing record by reaching 1,190 yards on the season, first entered the game on the second play of Ohio State’s second possession. The Buckeyes, trailing 3-0, had gone three and out their first series and gained 1 net yard in their first four plays from scrimmage.
But with the appearance of Clarett, the offense seemed to instantly morph from stagnant to stout.
On his first play, second and eight from OSU’s 26-yard line, Clarett caught a screen pass, bobbled it momentarily, then took off with one of his patented jukes, gaining 10 yards.
Two plays later, another first down on his second touch, a 7-yard carry.
His third touch, a nifty 28-yard gain, took the Buckeyes down to the Michigan 11, but after the next play, a 1-yard run, he trudged off with a grimace, having apparently reaggravated his shoulder injury.
Two plays later, following a pass-interference call on Michigan, OSU got the ball first and goal at the Wolverines’ 2. Everyone in the stadium knew the call, but that didn’t mean the Wolverines could do anything about it.
Handoff Clarett, touchdown Buckeyes. Ten plays, 76 yards -- 42 of them from No. 13.
Though Clarett remained productive while continuing to rotate with Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall, OSU’s offense went silent for most of the next two quarters. Part of the problem was that it couldn’t get back on the field. Michigan held the ball for all but five plays of the second quarter and over 15 minutes of the next 17:56.
But when the offense took over down 9-7 with 8:30 remaining in the game and sitting on its best field position of the day, its own 43, it once again called on Clarett to deliver the big play.
After gaining two first downs to get to the Michigan 32, Tressel called a long pass play to the tailback.
Or, more specifically, Clarett called it.
“A couple quarters earlier, he told me, ‘You better call that play coach; they can’t check me,’” said Tressel. “So we waited for the opportune time.”
When that time struck, quarterback Craig Krenzel found Clarett streaking down the sideline for a 26-yard yard completion down to the Wolverines’ 6-yard line. Two plays later, Maurice Hall took an option pitch and scored what would be the deciding touchdown in a 14-9 win.
“I really wanted to win this game for the seniors because it meant a lot to them,” a smiling, pain-free Clarett said afterward. “I had 10 other guys helping me all the time, so there wasn’t a lot of pressure on me. I just went out there and played my role.”
After OSU gained just 264 yards and 13 first downs on the day, it would appear on the surface that the Buckeyes still haven't overcome their offensive strugggles of the entire second half of the season. Then again, it’s hard to argue with Clarett’s production, Krenzel’s 10-of-14 passing day and, of course, the final score.
Either way, Krenzel knows that even with a weapon like Clarett in the backfield, questions about his offense will continue right up until the Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl.
“Maurice is a great player, a great tailback,” said Krenzel. “We sputtered offensively; we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties. I think people respect our defense, but offensively, people might not think we have what it takes to play a game of that caliber.
"We’ll just have to go out and prove all those naysayers wrong.”
Stewart Mandel covers college football for CNNSI.com.