Ohio State's football teams should come with a warning attached: BEWARE: DON'T GET BETROTHED TO THE BUCKEYES—THEY CAN BREAK YOUR HEART. They have run this tease before, plowing through September and October and dangling a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl bid and a national championship in front of their fans, only to snatch the possibilities away in some November failure. The 1993 season began with eight consecutive wins and ended with a come-from-behind tie at Wisconsin and a 28-0 loss at Michigan among their final three regular-season games. Last year was worse: Eleven and 0, one win away from its first Rose Bowl berth since 1984 (and with that, the chance to play for a piece of No. 1), Ohio State stumbled at Michigan 31-23.
Now the Buckeyes do their autumn dance again, courting greatness. Last Saturday afternoon in Columbus they didn't just deal Penn State a 38-7 defeat, coach Joe Paterno's worst loss in 12 years, they scoffed at the Nittany Lions, who came into the game 5-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation. "Dominated them, I'd say," was how Buckeyes junior offensive tackle Orlando Pace put it. The rout came a week after Ohio State's 29-16 victory at Notre Dame. In that two-game span the 4-0, No. 2-ranked Buckeyes have laid out a fearsome arsenal: speed and strength, offense and defense, the full load. They invite awe, yet also skepticism. The drumbeats of doubt are never distant, always pounding.
More than an hour after Saturday's game, Ohio State junior All-America cornerback Shawn Springs stood in the southeast corner of Ohio Stadium, waiting for his roommate, senior quarterback Stanley Jackson, to finish a radio interview on a cellular phone. "If I was watching this game on TV today," said Springs, the 21-year-old son of former Ohio State and Dallas Cowboys running back Ron Springs, "I would have to think, man, that Ohio State has got some team." Springs was prompted by a questioner: "Is that all you would think, Shawn, if you didn't play for the Buckeyes, if you were completely neutral?"
Springs turned loose a glowing smile. "No," he answered. "I would also say, 'They'll probably mess up somewhere and lose to Michigan or somebody before the year is over.' " The smile turned into a laugh, and when the laugh ran out of gas, Springs looked at his feet and shook his head repeatedly, resigned to his team's reputation. It is a long time until November is finished, and only then will these Buckeyes have earned full approval.
Coach John Cooper sits at the center of this vortex of disbelief. He has a 69-28-4 record in his nine years at Ohio State, yet he has left Buckeyes fans feeling dissatisfied; expectations are hard to meet in places like Columbus and Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa, where legends once walked. It is of no help that Woody Hayes never went 1-6-1 against Michigan, as Cooper has done. "We won 11 straight last year; how many people do that?" asks Cooper, who since coming to Ohio State has put together a 3-1 record against Paterno and a 2-0 mark against Lou Holtz. With one great recruiting class after another—"We keep bringing in better players every year," says senior linebacker Greg Bellisari—Cooper has elevated the Buckeyes into the ranks of the country's best programs. In the week before last Saturday's game, Paterno stopped in mid-sentence while analyzing his own team and turned instead to Cooper's: "We might be pretty good," Paterno said, "but Ohio State is very good, as good as any team we've [ever] played in the Big Ten."
After his team trounced the Nittany Lions, Cooper ran from the floor of the stadium, serenaded by a long, sustained "Coooooop..." from the Ohio State student section. He later stood outside his dressing room, sipping from a can of soda, measuring the recent past against the present. "You better be able to persevere in this business," he said. "Last week was my 100th game as Ohio State coach, which is about 90 more than some people thought I'd last."
Cooper has often referred to last year's collapse as a rare opportunity irretrievably lost. Now his team is earning a second chance, in circumstances eerily similar to those of '95. Michigan lost on Saturday to Northwestern, as the Wolverines did a year ago. The defending Big Ten champion Wildcats and the Buckeyes are atop the conference, as they were for all of last season. Ohio State does not play Northwestern, as was the case last year. Should the two teams tie for the Big Ten title, the conference will award the Rose Bowl bid to the team with the best overall record. That will be Ohio State if the Buckeyes remain unbeaten. "We were so close to something special last year," Cooper said. "We're trying to get back, trying to get that opportunity again."
There is a subtle difference. Last year's Buckeyes were one of the most sublimely talented offensive teams of the last two decades. Tailback Eddie George won the Heisman Trophy and wideout Terry Glenn the Biletnikoff Award, and both players were taken in the first round of last April's NFL draft. Tight end Rickey Dudley was also taken in the first round and quarterback Bobby Hoying in the third. "We surprised ourselves every week with the things that happened," says Bellisari. But the defense was passive and flawed, and its imperfections were laid open when Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka rushed for 313 yards against it, a performance that vaulted him into the top half of the first round of the NFL draft. "Timmy should send a check to the Ohio State defense for that game," said Springs on Saturday.
Ten of the Buckeyes' defensive starters are back, but this fall they have been placed in the hands of a new coordinator, 19-year Ohio State assistant Fred Pagac, who had been in charge of the team's linebackers. They have been given a more aggressive defensive system and have been joined by 6'4", 250-pound true-freshman middle linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer of nearby Westerville, Ohio. Katzenmoyer is the best of the Buckeyes' many potent recruits, a ready-made college athlete delivered to Columbus, no seasoning required. He had nine tackles on Saturday as the Buckeyes held Penn State to 211 total yards and sophomore tailback Curtis Enis to 34 yards on 11 carries. "You knew wherever he went, he would play without any problem," says Paterno, who also pursued Katzenmoyer. "He's no surprise at all."
The addition of Katzenmoyer allowed Pagac to shift Bellisari to his more natural outside linebacker spot. Ohio State blitzes often and relies on Springs and Ty Howard to play man-to-man on the corners, which they do superbly.