This is why they play the game.
The regular season went like clockwork for the Miami Hurricanes.
Picking up where they left off in Pasadena eight months earlier, the defending champs systematically stepped through another undefeated season, dispatching all 12 of their would-be challengers. Sure, there were a few bumps along the way — some luck against Florida State and fourth quarter comebacks against Rutgers and West Virginia — but with impressive wins against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech to close the season, the well-oiled machine from south Florida seemed poised to win a second straight title. After all, it had the weapons:
n Ken Dorsey, a Heisman Trophy finalist on the verge of the record for career victories by a Division I-A quarterback.
n Willis McGahee, a second Heisman Trophy finalist, four quarters away from solidifying himself as the top running back in April’s NFL draft.
n Larry Coker, a humble leader, yet to taste defeat as a head coach.
n Jarrett Payton and Kellen Winslow Jr., offspring of two of the NFL’s finest and just two of a cast loaded with unparalleled talent.
n And, the streak. With 34 consecutive victories, the mythical record of 47, by Bud Wilkinson’s 1940s Oklahoma Sooners, suddenly seemed within reach.
Coming on the heels of the disappointing Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowl games that, though compelling on paper, fizzled on the field, it appeared the trend of BCS debacles would continue with the Fiesta Bowl, likely raising further questions about the need for a playoff system. On paper, it looked like nothing short of a re-coronation celebration for the two-touchdown favorite Hurricane kings.
But someone forgot to give the Ohio State Buckeyes a script for this play — and boy, are we glad! For in the final game of the 2002-03 season, a double overtime thriller, the Miami Hurricane juggernaut was surprised and subdued by a fired-up and fearless Ohio State team with nothing to lose.
Defensively, the Buckeyes employed a package that included slant, cross-blitz, and zone-blitz schemes where defensive backs and linebackers pressured the quarterback while linemen dropped into pass coverage, something the Miami offensive line had not seen all season. It showed. A Dorsey sack on the first play of the game — something that had only happened nine times all season — was a sign of things to come. Overall, a confused Hurricane “O” line gave up four sacks and allowed their quarterback to be knocked down 10 other times — both season highs. Dorsey could not find rhythm, throwing two costly interceptions and losing one of the team’s three fumbles. The Buckeye defense also disrupted the Hurricane running game, limiting McGahee to a mere 67 yards before he left the game with a devastating knee injury.
Offensively, the Buckeyes, as usual, did just enough. Star tailback Maurice Clarett only rushed for 56 yards, but his mere presence on the field proved critical. More important than his offensive touches was Clarett’s heads-up play as a running back-turned-defender, stripping the ball from Miami safety Sean Taylor on the return of an OSU interception. That re-possession led to a key OSU third quarter field goal. Keying on Clarrett, the Hurricane defense would often over-pursue and OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel capitalized, running for a game high 81 yards and two touchdowns, earning the MVP award.
That Miami remained competitive amidst five turnovers, no running game, and a limited passing attack is a tribute to both Dorsey, the gritty leader, fighting valiantly through the final play, and Winslow, his star tight end. Together, they willed their team into overtime, aided by kicker Todd Sievers, and then the lead. But ultimately, the Miami defense, on the field 18 minutes longer than its Buckeyes counterpart, could not hold.
Fans in south Florida will inevitably point to a questionable pass interference call for the improbable ending to their team’s winning streak. Whether there was interference will be debated for years. What will not be debated, however, is that the Buckeyes, led by Associated Press Coach of the Year, Jim Tressel, were prepared to play and unafraid of the Miami mystique. Having survived so many close calls this season — with six regular season games decided by seven points or less — they knew their situation and persevered to the end.
In college football annals, the 2003 Fiesta Bowl will likely go down as one of the greatest games ever played, and, for the moment, the BCS gurus can breathe easy.
Throughout the season, sportswriters, this one included, relished each opportunity to bash the BCS whenever possible. While the first three games in this year’s BCS will inevitably raise questions about conference affiliation, minimum records, and the selection process, let us put those to rest and take a moment to celebrate that, on Jan. 3, the BCS got it right — a national championship game for the ages.