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Football: ‘Holy Buckeye’: Ohio State’s magical 2002 National Championship run told through former players, coach 20 years later

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Jim Tressel, head coach of the 2002 National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes, is lifted into the air by his former team during a celebration of their victory during No. 3 Ohio States 21-10 win over Notre Dame on Sept. 3. Credit: Zachary Rilley | Photo Editor

Perhaps the most memorable game that kept Ohio State football’s 2002 dream season alive was a Nov. 9, 2002, date with Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium.

After a 32-yard field goal from former Boilermakers kicker Berin Lacevic gave Purdue a three-point lead, then-No. 3 Ohio State trailed 6-3 with under eight minutes to go.

The defensive slog continued until a last-ditch effort on a potential game-winning drive by the Buckeyes was met with a third and 14 at the 50-yard line. The next play — a 13-yard completion to former tight end Ben Hartsock — set up a fourth and 1 that most Ohio State fans forever remember.

Former quarterback Craig Krenzel dropped back to pass, stepped up in the pocket and without setting his feet, dropped in a 37-yard strike to wide receiver Michael Jenkins.

“Touchdown, touchdown. Michael Jenkins on fourth and 1. Would you believe it?” play-by-play broadcaster Brent Musburger said on the ABC broadcast. “Craig Krenzel strikes with a minute and a half left. Holy Buckeye.”

The Buckeyes’ push for a national championship marched on with a 10-6 victory against the Boilermakers, but the game was indicative of their entire 2002 title season: survive and advance.

“If you’re a sports fan and you enjoy Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em fights, we had a number of them that year,” former running back Maurice Clarett said. “It was something fans appreciated because there was a lot of effort exerted and there was a ton of dedication, heart, commitment, fight, will, all that stuff mixed into one season, and that’s why people appreciate it to this day.”

Clarett shocked the world when he trotted out for Ohio State’s season opener against Texas Tech, earning the starting job as a true freshman and quickly emerging as a weapon in the Buckeyes offense.

He silenced doubters, rushing for 175 yards and three touchdowns in his collegiate debut. Two weeks later against then-No. 10 Washington State, he carried the load once again, going for 230 yards on the ground and two scores in a 25-7 win, requiring just four completions on 10 attempts from Krenzel.

After the Sept. 14, 2002, contest against the Cougars, the Buckeyes could only breathe sighs of relief in a 45-17 win against Indiana, a 50-7 blowout against San Jose State and perhaps their most surprising performance of the year, a 34-3 dismantling of then-No. 19 Minnesota, holding the Golden Gophers to just 112 yards of total offense.

The other games were not as easy to come by, as Ohio State survived upset attempts against Cincinnati, Northwestern, Wisconsin, then-No. 17 Penn State, Purdue and Illinois in overtime, but the Buckeyes had just the right man to lead them in head coach Jim Tressel.

Clarett said he appreciated Tressel’s coaching style in addition to his kind-hearted spirit in helping players after their playing days were over.

“He was as similar as my high school coach. My high school coach was very Super A personality, very subtle and wise and firm,” Clarett said. “Coach Tress is the same way, but, you know, even more than that, who he is as an individual and what he’s been able to help guys with after the game, that’s where more of his credibility, reputation and who he is, that means more to me than anything.”

The No. 2-ranked Buckeyes had just one game to go in the regular season: “The Game” against then-No. 9 Michigan at Ohio Stadium.

Like other games that season, the Buckeyes looked to be down and out, until they weren’t.

The Buckeyes trailed 9-7 heading into the fourth quarter and Ohio State’s offense had struggled to move the ball most of the day. Late in the final frame, the Buckeyes capped off an eight-play, 57-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run from former running back Maurice Hall to put them ahead 14-9 with just under five minutes to play.

Ohio State wasn’t out of the water, yet.

Following a three-and-out, Ohio State punted back to Michigan, which had to go 80 yards in the game’s final 58 seconds. The Wolverines marched down the field, reaching the Ohio State 24-yard line and having one final shot to win the game with one tick left on the clock.

Former Michigan quarterback John Navarre rifled a pass to the goal line, but former safety Will Allen jumped the route a split second before the intended target came down with the catch.

Allen rolled on the field, sealing the Buckeyes’ Big Ten title as players and fans rushed the field, and Ohio State was off to Tempe, Arizona, to face then-No. 1 Miami — on its 34-game winning streak — in the Fiesta Bowl for the Bowl Championship Series National Championship.

The Buckeyes weren’t given much of a chance, and the Hurricanes allegedly printed fliers about the party to be held after their second-consecutive national championship victory.

“We knew about that. We had known about those fliers,” former safety Mike Doss said. “We knew about their preparation and just thinking that they were going to roll us over.”

Come game time, Ohio State was unphased by the daunting opponent.

Ohio State jumped out to a 17-7 lead, but in typical 2002 Buckeyes fashion, Miami clawed its way back in the game. Regulation ended with former Hurricanes kicker Todd Sievers drilling a 40-yard field goal to tie the game at 17.

In overtime, the Hurricanes struck first in five plays, giving the Buckeyes the ball up 24-17. On Ohio State’s first overtime drive, it marched down to the Miami 5-yard line, setting up for a fourth and 3 — another memorable fourth down from that season.

Krenzel lobbed a fade route which was batted away from former wide receiver Chris Gamble, but a pass interference call extended the Buckeyes’ drive and they tied the game on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.

Ohio State retained possession in the second overtime period, scored with ease on a 5-yard rush from Clarett to go up 31-24 and needed just one more stop from its defense.

Miami drove down to the Buckeyes’ 1-yard line, and former linebacker Matt Wilhelm knocked down former Hurricanes quarterback Ken Dorsey’s 43rd pass attempt of the game on fourth down, and the confetti rained scarlet and gray.

Tressel said the national championship win was special because it snapped Ohio State’s 32-year titleless drought and left a lifelong impact on the fan base.

“There were lots of people who weren’t sure they were going to live long enough to see that happen again,” Tressel said. “Then for it to happen, just to see the joy in Buckeye Nation and everyone remembers right where they were that night.”

Doss said the 2002 National Championship season was “a culmination of perseverance, comaraderie, love” and the Buckeyes “went out there and upset the world” against Miami.

“Our team banded together. We played for each other and that’s what it takes to be a champion,” Doss said. “We changed the scope of college football — that you can beat any team and make it to a championship and actually have a chance to win it all.”

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