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Underdog Week: Ohio State shocks Miami in the Fiesta Bowl

The Buckeyes were nearly two touchdown underdogs when they traveled to the desert to take on Miami for the national title in 2003

Jim Tressel on the sideline Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With it being “Underdog Week” at SB Nation, what better way to truly celebrate the week than by looking at one of the most famous upsets, not only in Ohio State history, but in college football history. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl was a game not many people outside Ohio were giving the Buckeyes a chance to win, since Ohio State was taking on a Miami Hurricanes team that entered the game riding a 34-game winning streak.

How the Buckeyes got there

The 2002 season was Jim Tressel’s second year in charge in Columbus. The Buckeyes entered the season coming off a 7-5 season where they lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Ohio State was ranked 13th coming into the season, but many didn’t see them in the mix for the national title. The common thought was if there was going to be a team from the Big Ten that was going to make the BCS, it was going to be Michigan.

Shortly after the finish of the 2001 season, Ohio State received a boost when safety Mike Doss announced he was going to be returning for his senior season. Along with starters like Will Smith, Matt Wilhelm, and Cie Grant, the defense of the Buckeyes was one of the best in the country. The biggest question Ohio State was facing is if they could get enough offense to compliment the stingy defense.

Ohio State’s offense entered the year with a new starter at quarterback, as Craig Krenzel had attempted just 50 passes in his first two seasons with the Buckeyes. Little did Krenzel and the rest of Buckeye Nation know just how much of an impact a true freshman was going to make throughout the season, which would take a lot of the pressure off of Krenzel.

Maurice Clarett was a U.S. Army All-American coming out of high school in Youngstown before enrolling early at Ohio State. The extra time on campus allowed Clarett to step in immediately for the Buckeyes, as he rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-21 win over Texas Tech to open the season. Clarett would top that number just a few weeks later, rushing for a career-high 230 yards against Washington State.

After three pretty easy victories to open up the season, Ohio State hit the road for the first time this season, heading down I-71 to take on Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium. The Buckeyes trailed the Bearcats 19-14 heading into the fourth quarter, but a six-yard Krenzel touchdown run with less than four minutes left in the game gave Ohio State the lead for good.

The next close call for Ohio State came a month later in Madison. The Buckeyes were again trailing heading into the fourth quarter, but Krenzel again saved the day, this time with a little more time left on the clock. Krenzel capped off a nine-play, 88 yard drive with a three-yard touchdown pass to Ben Hartsock. Ohio State was able to hold off Wisconsin the final 10 minutes off the game, securing a 19-14 win.

The next week Ohio State returned home, but they were again pushed to the limit. Penn State entered the game ranked 17th in the country, and the Nittany Lions scored first after the Buckeyes fumbled their first possession at the Penn State one-yard-line. After carrying the football 30 times the previous week, Clarett only saw four carries against the Nittany Lions. This allowed Chris Gamble to steal some of the spotlight. After starting his career at cornerback, Gamble started at wide receiver, becoming the first Buckeye in nearly 40 years to start on both sides of the football. Gamble’s 40-yard interception return in the third quarter was the difference in the game, with the turnover sending Ohio Stadium into an absolute frenzy.

The final three games of the regular season would see some of the most nerve-racking games in school history. First came “Holy Buckeye” against Purdue, where Krenzel found Michael Jenkins on fourth down with 1:36 left in the game for the go-ahead touchdown. Then came the first overtime game in school history at Illinois, with Maurice Hall clinching the victory on Ohio State’s first possession in overtime.

Ohio State was on the verge of securing a spot in the BCS title game, but standing in their way was Michigan. The Buckeyes had undefeated seasons ruined by the Wolverines in 1993, 1995, and 1996, so nothing was being taken for granted heading into the game. Michigan took a 9-6 lead into halftime and many were wondering if Jim Tressel was going to fail against the Wolverines like John Cooper did so many times in the past.

With less than nine minutes remaining in the game, Ohio State started a drive at their own 43. Krenzel was able to pick up a critical fourth down on the drive and eventually Maurice Hall scored from two yards out to give the Buckeyes the lead. Michigan wouldn’t go down without a fight but Will Allen secured Ohio State’s trip to Tempe with an interception on the final play of the game.

How Miami got there

The Hurricanes were the class of college football in the first few years of the millennium. After losing to Washington in the second game of the 2000 season, Miami had been perfect since. Larry Coker took over as head coach prior to the 2001 season after Butch Davis left to coach the Cleveland Browns. Coker’s first season saw the Hurricanes win the national title, winning most of their games by at least 20 points, including a 37-14 win over Nebraska in the title game.

Following the 2001 season, Miami saw five players drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft and 11 players overall selected. Despite losing so much talent, the Hurricanes were still loaded with talent. Andre Johnson, Ken Dorsey, and Jonathan Vilma were just a few of the talented players who would be coming back to try and repeat as national champs.

The 2002 season saw much of the same for the Hurricanes. There was some evidence that college football was catching up with Miami, though. Florida State nearly knocked off the Hurricanes, falling 28-27 in the Orange Bowl. Miami also only beat Pittsburgh by a touchdown in November and closed out their regular season with a 56-45 win over Virginia Tech.

Heading into the game

Even though Maurice Clarett had taken the college football world by storm, not many people were giving the Buckeyes a shot to beat Miami. The prevailing thought is Ohio State would give Miami all they could handle and stay within shouting distance of the Hurricanes, but in the end Miami would bring a second-straight national title back to the Sunshine State. Oddsmakers set Ohio State as nearly a two-touchdown underdog in the game.

It’s hard to find fault with a team that was on a 34-game winning streak, but it was obvious that the Hurricanes weren’t quite as good as the 2001 team. Even though they weren’t as dominant, Miami was still a very dangerous team that was loaded with players who would go on to play in the NFL. Even though the Buckeyes also had plenty of guys who would play at the next level, the thought is Ohio State wouldn’t have enough to pull the upset.

Things would get even uglier heading into the game for the Buckeyes when Clarett was upset that he wasn’t allowed to fly home for the funeral of a friend who was shot before Christmas. Because of NCAA rules, Ohio State couldn’t buy a ticket for Clarett to go back to Youngstown. Instead, Clarett would have had to buy the plane ticket and file paperwork with the NCAA to be reimbursed.

The game

Both teams started off the game slowly, punting their first possessions of the game away. The Hurricanes looked to find a little rhythm on their second possession, with a 28-yard catch by Kellen Winslow Jr. eventually setting up a 25-yard Roscoe Parrish touchdown. Sean Taylor then intercepted a Craig Krenzel pass on the first play after the touchdown, and it was looking like the Hurricanes were going to put some distance on the Buckeyes. After a first down pass to Andre Johnson, Ohio State’s defense rose up to force the Hurricanes to punt, keeping the Buckeyes in the game.

The tide started to turn for the Buckeyes early in the second quarter when Dustin Fox intercepted a Ken Dorsey pass. The drive didn’t end in points for Ohio State after they failed on a fake field goal attempt, but it did give the Buckeyes some confidence.

Not long after, Ohio State got their biggest play so far in the game when Mike Doss intercepted a pass and returned in 35 yards to the Miami 17-yard-line. Craig Krenzel would score the first points for Ohio State in the game a few plays later to tie the score at 7-7. The Buckeyes would take the lead before halftime when Darrion Scott recovered a fumble on the Miami 14-yard-line. Maurice Clarett would punch the football in two plays later.

Things got really wild in the third quarter. Chris Gamble hauled in a 57-yard pass from Craig Krenzel and it looked like the Buckeyes were about to go up by two touchdowns. Then Sean Taylor looked to have ruined the drive when he intercepted a pass and was looking for return yardage before Maurice Clarett stole the football right out of Taylor’s hands. Ohio State would turn the extra opportunity into three points to go up 17-7. Before the third quarter was over, Miami would close the gap to 17-14 after a Willis McGahee touchdown run.

Early in the fourth quarter Miami suffered a huge loss when Willis McGahee was hit by Will Allen. The hit by Allen caused all three ligaments in McGahee’s knee to rupture, and many wondered if McGahee would ever play football again. The Hurricanes attempted a 54-yard field goal a few plays after the injury, but the kick missed. The Buckeyes answered with a missed field goal of their own, giving Miami the football back down 17-14 points with 6:36 left.

Miami couldn’t make anything out of their first crack at erasing the deficit, fumbling after a couple plays. Chris Gamble looked like he was going to help Ohio State run some more clock when he caught a pass on third down, but it was ruled incomplete because the officials thought he was out of bounds when making the catch, even though Gamble didn’t actually go out of bounds.

Ohio State looked to be in trouble when Roscoe Parrish returned the punt 50 yards to the Ohio State 26-yard-line. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Miami didn’t get anything going on offense, and had to settle for a game-tying field goal as time in regulation expired.

Miami got the football first in overtime, with their drive eventually ending in a 7-yard touchdown pass to Winslow. It looked like the Hurricanes were on their way to a second straight national title when the Buckeyes faced 4th & 14 but once again Michael Jenkins came up huge for Ohio State, hauling in a 17-yard pass.

A little later in the drive Ohio State faced fourth down again, and this time it looked like the Buckeyes were done for good when a Krenzel pass to Chris Gamble fell incomplete.....until one of the latest flags you’ll ever see was thrown and pass interference was called on Glenn Sharpe. Even to this day, the call is still a controversial one, with many thinking the Buckeyes didn’t deserve it.

Craig Krenzel would sneak the ball into the end zone, tying the score at 24 at the end of the first overtime. The Buckeyes didn’t leave any doubt with their possession in the second overtime, as Maurice Clarett scored from five yards out to give Ohio State a 31-24 lead.

It looked like Miami was going to tie the game up when the Buckeyes were called for a facemask penalty, moving the football to the six-yard-line. The football was moved even closer when the Hurricanes benefited from a pass interference call. It seemed like only a matter of time before Miami reached the end zone.

Then the Silver Bullets put together one of the best defensive stands you’ll ever see, holding the talented Miami offense to just one yard over the next four plays. The game was capped off by Cie Grant hitting Ken Dorsey on fourth down as Dorsey released the football. The pass fell incomplete and the Buckeyes could finally celebrate.

The aftermath

The victory by Ohio State capaulted Jim Tressel into the conversation as one of the best head coaches in college football. Under Tressel, the Buckeyes would regain their place as one of the best teams in college football, with Ohio State reaching two more title games under Tressel before his tenure in Columbus ended with the “Tatgate” scandal.

Maurice Clarett wouldn’t play another snap for Ohio State, as questions into his NCAA eligibility arose. Clarett would go on to test the rules about jumping to the NFL, but would see his attempts fail. The running back would go on to be drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 2005 NFL Draft but he was waived just a month after signing his contract.

Many other Buckeyes would go on to play in the NFL, with 26 Ohio State players being taken in the next four drafts. Eight of those players were drafted in the first round, including Will Smith, Chris Gamble, and Michael Jenkins in the 2003 NFL Draft, which took place just a few months after the title game.

The whole 2002 season was a year Ohio State fans will never forget but the title game will live in infamy forever. With Ohio State being such a big favorite, they showed that you can never count out the underdog heading into the game, no matter the situation.