THE GAMBLE in
Ohio was inspired by a Gamble from Ohio. The 2007 college football season
turned on a piece of advice given by Brian Gamble, a freshman wideout from
Massillon who altered the course of gridiron history when he made so bold as to
nudge an Illinois teammate on the sideline at the Horseshoe last Saturday.
Gamble spoke up during a timeout that the Ohio State Buckeyes will regret
having taken for the rest of their lives.
quarterback Juice Williams was pacing the sideline like Hamlet with 6:53 left
against the top-ranked Buckeyes. Having staked his team to a 28--21 lead with
four touchdown passes and zero picks, the sophomore was pitching the football
equivalent of a perfect game. But he could see how things might slip away. On
fourth-and-one from his 33, Illinois coach Ron Zook sento ut the punt team.
It was the proper
call. No matter how slender the distance'"I'm telling you, it was one
inch," Williams insisted the next day'you punt the ball. You don't chance
handing the Buckeyes a short field, in their own house, when you're clinging to
a one-touchdown lead. The problem was, pacing that sideline, his guts in a
knot, Williams knew he could pick up the first down. When Ohio State called a
timeout it only prolonged his torture. Should he say something to Zook?
among the Illini. Williams could hear defensive players questioning the
decision to punt. As linebacker J Leman later put it, "We didn't go through
all those 6 a.m. winter workouts, didn't suffer in summer conditioning, didn't
come all the way to Ohio to give the ball back to them."
the timeout, Gamble approached his quarterback. Feeling his oats, perhaps,
after having caught the touchdown pass that put his team up 21--14 just before
the half, the 18-year-old told Williams, "If you think you can get it,
you've got to tell him."
over to Zook and tapped him on the shoulder. It was the tap heard round the
college football cosmos, the tap that set in motion the events that soon laid
waste to whatever order and sanity the BCS rankings had promised to provide.
With closing wins over Illinois and Michigan, the Buckeyes were guaranteed a
return to the BCS title game. Yes, there would be an unseemly brawl for the
other spot: The airwaves would fill with recriminations and gripes about
strength of schedule, the what-ifs and why-nots of one-loss teams. But one half
of the equation, mercifully, would be filled in. The rancor would be
to chaos. Or as Antony says in Julius Caesar, "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip
the dogs of war."
And Tigers (on
two campuses) and Ducks and Jayhawks and Sooners and Mountaineers, and yes,
even the undefeated Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii, who won't allow the fact that
they have no shot at playing for the national title prevent them from
expounding on the unfairness of it all.
This cacophony is
brought to you by Zook, who changed his mind, of course. "You better get
it, or I'll hurt you," Williams recalls him saying. ("I don't think he
really meant it," the quarterback allowed the next day.) Torpedoing over
the left buttock of center Ryan McDonald, Williams moved the chains with a
two-yard gain, then got on with the job he did better than anyone else this
season: exposing the soft underbelly of a unit that had begun the day ranked
No. 1 in total defense and scoring defense. That fourth-down conversion was
followed by a trio of third-down conversions'Williams calling his own number on
each'that allowed the Illini to devour the final 8:09 of the clock.
Thus did the
Buckeyes' loftiest ambitions die under the bright lights of the Horseshoe. With
running back Rashard Mendenhall gashing the defense on early downs and Juice
moving the chains, Ohio State couldn't get the unranked visitors off the field.
(In the fourth quarter the Illini ran 26 plays to OSU's three.) In the end the
Buckeyes were proved unworthy of a BCS title-game berth. The burning question:
Who the hell is?