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The 1998 Ohio State-Michigan State game was a program-defining upset for the Spartans. Before both teams open up B1G play tomorrow, let's look back at the would-be blowout that never was.
For anyone old enough to remember what Ohio State home games were like in the 90s, there are probably a few things that come to mind. One of the things that I remember is a relic of years gone by and a casualty of technology: the old scoreboard in the South Stands. This was a classic scoreboard, or course, using simple lights to broadcast stats, scores and pictures in the lowest definition possible to the fan base below. Nowadays, fans are treated to 5208 square feet of high definition beauty, the standard by which all other scoreboards will be judged (if there were a panel judging these things, of course).
But in 1998, it was the old school scoreboard (that looked very similar to this) showing a picture of Mad Magazine's Edward E. Neuman after a Michigan State field goal with the text "What, me worry?" on it. In a roller coaster game that should have been over before it started, Neuman and the Buckeye faithful93,595 fans that packed the stands that day did much, much more than worry.
1996, 1997, and 1998 were interesting years for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Coach John Cooper's squads would combine to go 32-5, with a Rose Bowl ('96 season) and Sugar Bowl ('98) win and, standard of the Cooper era, a 1-2 mark against Michigan. Many will argue that the 1996 squad was Cooper's best of his career, and for a lot of reasons, they would be right -: 11-1 record (heartbreaking loss to Michigan), seven NFL draftees, and a dramatic 72-0 win over Pittsburgh that still gives Fat Urkel nightmares.
For me, however, I'll take the 1998 team every time. Talent-laden, hard-nosed and Michigan-beating are three traits that do it for me every time. This was also a fun team to watch in every aspect of the game. Senior QB Joe Germaine was the man behind center, removing any doubts about his abilities sans Stanley Jackson. Germaine was throwing passes to the irreplaceable David Boston, the brash receiver who would be drafted 8th overall after the season. And a defense headlined by future first round picks Antoine Winfiled and Andy Katzenmoyer. To this day, I still think the 1998 teams beats the 1996 team by 10 points.
The 1998 Michigan State Spartans, however, were a bit of a different animal. Opening with losses vs Colorado State and at Oregon, the team would bounce back to somehow beat #10 Notre Dame...only to lose to Michigan the following week. So it was for these Spartans that year - one step forward and two steps back. Coming into the clash against the Buckeyes, the mission was incredibly difficult for the green and white: beat the number one team, in their house, on national television. No problem, guys.
1998 was a different time in college football. That year saw the introduction of this weird new ranking metric called the Bowl Championship Series, wherein the goal for the Big Ten (as it was then known) was not to get to the Rose Bowl, necessarily, but to get to the BCS championship game, that year the Fiesta Bowl. John Cooper was in his 11th year as Ohio State coach, with a fan base that loved winning, but was growing more and more tired of losing to Michigan more and more often.
On the other side of the field was the Michigan State Spartans, who were mired in a few consecutive years of six- and seven-win seasons, but were now under the control of lawn gnome stand-in Nick Saban, in his fourth year in East Lansing. Despite finishing 1998 at 6-6, the Spartans would move onward and upward, propelling Saban to stardom in the SEC at Louisiana State and Alabama, and a forgettable few seasons in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins.
Coming into the game, Ohio State had everything going for them, and looked more than ready to finally get over the Michigan Hump and win that mythical
National Championship BCS Championship that had been sorely lacking since 1970. Despite a Michigan State field goal to tie things up at 3 in the first quarter, and the aforementioned Mad Magazine spokesman on the scoreboard, the first half concluded according to the script: Ohio State leading and looking reasonably good doing it.
The start of the third quarter also looked to signal a win for the Buckeyes, when Damon Moore picked off the Spartans, and took it to the house, putting Ohio State up by a seemingly insurmountable 24-9 score. Surely the Buckeye defense could hold a 15-point lead at home against a middling Big Ten squad that may as well have a direction in front of their name. This game was just to be another in a road trip to a Big Ten and BCS championship. Naturally, no one told the Spartans.
Ohio State shot itself in the foot in a number of ways in this game, most notably in handing the ball over to the Spartans at inopportune times. Joe Germaine was sacked and lost the ball, leading to a Spartan field goal. A muffed Ohio State punt return was recovered by Michigan State, leading to a Spartan touchdown. Little things that don't make a difference when you're up by 30, but are wholly important in a 15-point game.
After the Moore pick-six, the game turned completely around and Michigan State would score 19 unanswered points. Ohio State was helpless on offense, and out of ideas on defense, and the Spartans were completely dominant in ways no one outside of East Lansing (and inside East Lansing, for that matter) would have believed heading into the game.
Ohio State's last chance was a 4th and 10 deep in Spartan territory with the game on the line. Enter: Renaldo Hill.
That was all she wrote. A stunned crowd watched Sparty kneel on the ball and walk out of Ohio State a winner. Somehow.
The 1998 game was a springboard in a number of ways. For Ohio State, it set the course for the eventual firing of John Cooper, and hiring of Jim Tressel, who would reverse the losing ways against Michigan and win a national title in 2002. Along with some other stuff, allegedly. For Michigan State, the next year's team went 10-2, again beating Ohio State and arch rival Michigan, springing Saban to greener, southern pastures, and clearing the way for current skipper Mark Dantonio.
Saturday's match up won't hold the same amount of clout as the 1998 game, nor could it. While both teams come into the contest ranked in the top-25, and ESPN's College GameDay will be on site in East Lansing, neither team is looking at a national championship run, with Michigan State's recent loss to Notre Dame counting them out, and tattoos, jewelry and stupidity keeping Ohio State out. But the faithful in Spartan Stadium will no doubt look back to 1998 as the year the Spartans shocked the Buckeyes and the world, and took a potential championship out of Ohio State's hands.