The 2003 Fiesta Bowl started, as seemingly every national title game had for as long as national titles had been played, with a hearty “Hello again, Keith Jackson here along with Dan Fouts,” from the voice of ultimate authority in college football. The 13-0 Buckeyes were set to take on the defending champion 12-0 Miami Hurricanes. The pair of blue-bloods would spend the next four hours battling for the “Circuit City National Championship Trophy” (a very funny sentence in 2018), but little did they know this would turn out to be not just a championship game, but rather, the most important game in the history of either school.
Most Buckeye fans know what happened in the 2002 season, even if they weren’t old enough to truly follow it. Ohio State, led by Youngstown legends Jim Tressel and Maurice Clarett, underwent one of the most chaotic seasons in the history of the program, and rode the chaos to a title berth, after close victories over Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan.
The regular season isn’t the story here. That isn’t what we need to remember, or learn from, or honor. No, the most important part of that season happened exactly 15 years ago today.
“And here are the Ohio State Buckeyes”. Read that is Keith Jackson’s voice. Remember where you were during this game. Remember how you felt, how excited you were, how nervous you were. The Buckeyes had the chance to win a national title for the first time since 1970, and the only thing standing in their way was one of the greatest college football teams of all time.
“Miami in winning the toss, defers, they will give the Ohio State Buckeyes the ball first”. The game started as so many had for Ohio State in 2002: slowly. The teams traded punts, before Miami struck first, with a touchdown pass to Roscoe Parrish, who had blown past Mike Doss. It’s fun to look back at wins, because you forget how mad you were during the game. Mike Doss had no business covering Parrish, but Dustin Fox was on the wrong side of the field, away from his assignment.
“Interecepted, on the rebound, by Sean Taylor”. The ill-advised throws like this one fade away over time when your team wins the game. Craig Krenzel had throws like this one all season, though he was able to make up for them, and shape his legacy with iconic plays like “Holy Buckeye” (it’s iconic because you already know what that links to, just because of two words).
“The pass is in the air... intercepted, by Dustin Fox”. 15 years later, you may not remember the Krenzel interception, or the Doss missed coverage, but you probably remember this interception 3rd and 4, with Ken Dorsey sailing a pass across the middle directly to Dustin Fox.
“3rd and 6. Pass hummmmmed INTERCEPTED!”. Mike Doss made up for the missed coverage earlier with the deflected interception. Ignore the downright silly call on Ohio State’s previous drive, when they opted to fake a field goal despite having an outstanding kicker (and failed miserable).
“The quarterback keeps it, and he’s in there”. It doesn’t matter that it took an absurd number of tries from right outside the goal line, or that Ohio State managed to misuse a star running back (does this sound familiar?), because ultimately, Krenzel tied the game just before the half.
Let’s skip ahead to the part everyone knows, to the play that changed the trajectory of Ohio State (and Miami) football. “The ball goes into the endzone and it is.. incomplete. Intended for Gamble, now there’s a penalty flag thrown”. That penalty, whether you believe it was correctly called or not, may have been the most important play in Ohio State’s football history.
It doesn’t really matter if the call was right, at this point. That game has been finished for 15 years, and nothing anyone can say or do will change that. The call, much like everything else that wasn’t positive for Ohio State, has mostly left the minds of Buckeyes fans around the nation. Ohio State won, and because of that, we remember the Fox and Doss interceptions, the Krenzel touchdown, Maurice Clarett chasing down and stripping Sean Taylor after an interception, the game winning touchdown, and the fourth down incompletion that sealed the game in double overtime.
We don’t remember the bad, because there’s no reason to. That’s what fandom is all about. The specifics don’t matter when you win the game, and in winning this game, Ohio State may have saved themselves from the kind of obscurity that major schools like Tennessee, Nebraska, Florida and Michigan are currently finding themselves in.
It’s impossible to say for sure that Ohio State wouldn’t have still been great under Jim Tressel if they lose this game. Hell, they probably would’ve been fine, because Tressel was a very talented coach, but this win did more for Ohio State’s reputation, relevance, and respect in the college football world than any one game has or will, in the history of the program.
If Ohio State loses the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, does that incredible 2002 team fade from our collective memory, just like the bad plays did? Does the Jim Tressel era do the same, without a title to boast?