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Going back in time to remember Ohio State’s 2002 national championship

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Remembering “Tressel-Ball” and the 2002 championship season.

Indiana Hoosiers v Ohio State Buckeyes
Coach Jim Tressel and running back Maurice Clarett during the 2002 season
Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

If you find yourself, during this week without a Buckeye game, getting tired of 60-point blowouts and 400-yard passing games, go back in time to a period when points and yards were harder to come by. Go back and re-live “Tressel Ball.”


August, 2002

Although the Ohio State Buckeyes found themselves ranked #13 in the AP preseason poll, Buckeye fans were less optimistic. The previous year Jim Tressel had replaced John Cooper, who had difficulty (to say the least) beating Michigan. Tressel’s first team went 7-5, losing to South Carolina, the same team that handed Cooper his final OSU loss – and his walking papers. By any definition, 2001 was a ho-hum year. The offense averaged 26 points a game (62nd in the nation), while the defense gave up 20.3 (24th). That slim point margin makes for a 7-5 season.

Tressel was an Ohio guy, from Youngstown; in fact, in winning four Division 1-AA championships while coaching at Youngstown State, 1986-2000, he was an Ohio legend. And he had coached a couple of years at Ohio State, handling the quarterbacks and receivers in 1983 and adding running backs to his duties in 1984.

The rap against Tressel might have been unfair. Many Buckeye fans regarded 1-AA ball as the minor leagues, insufficient head-coaching experience for Ohio State, a place that, let’s face it, could have its pick of coaches. Secondly, Tressel favored a very conservative brand of football, a style that came to be known (fondly or derisively) as “Tressel-ball.”

In brief, here what Tressel liked. He liked field position. As a consequence, the kicking game loomed large. A punt was a weapon; a field goal was a good result for a drive. Both the punter and the kicker – Andy Groom and Mike Nugent – on that 2002 team went on to the NFL. He liked a large turnover margin in the Buckeye favor. In 2002, it was 14, one per game. He liked the ground game and maintaining possession. He liked a running quarterback. He liked a stout defense. He liked tough line play. He didn’t like daring calls. He didn’t like risks, period. He hated mistakes, including stupid penalties. A boring style. But one that could be tolerated if it brought wins, especially if it brought wins against Michigan. In 2001, it did.


Maurice Clarett

The 2002 team had a couple of freshmen that we remember for sure: A.J. Hawk and Maurice Clarett. They both made names for themselves after their Ohio State careers were over. Hawk still holds the Green Bay Packer record for most career tackles, and Clarett hit the front pages with scandal and imprisonment. Today, however, I’m sure that all Buckeye fans join me in congratulating Clarett for turning his life around and really making a positive contribution to his community.

As the Bucks lined up in the season opener against Texas Tech, it was Clarett that excited the fans. Like Tressel, Clarett was from Youngstown, but he played his high school ball at Warren G. Harding in Warren, a powerhouse school that put Clarett in the national spotlight. Where he shone. High school All-American, USA Today Player of the Year, a 5-star recruit. And Tressel brought him to Columbus. Against the Red Raiders that day, Clarett didn’t disappoint. He carried the ball 21 times for 175 yards (8.3 yds/carry average) and three rushing touchdowns. At 6-0, 230 pounds, Maurice Clarett was made for Tressel-ball.

The 2002 season. As the season progressed, quarterback Craig Krenzel was solid, if not spectacular. By season’s end, Krenzel would have thrown 249 times and completed 148 of them for a completion percentage of 59.4%. He had 12 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Clarett remained the workhorse, gaining 1237 yards on 222 rushes (5.6 yard/carry average) and 16 rushing touchdowns.

The wins just kept coming; the Buckeyes were rolling. Not all of the games were wipeouts. There were plenty of close calls. OSU beat Cincinnati, on the road, 23-19. In late October, the Bucks beat Wisconsin, in Madison, 19-14 and held off #18 Penn State the following week, 13-7. Tressel-ball. When Ohio State edged Purdue on November 9, 10-6, the Buckeyes’ record stood at 11-0, and they reached #2 in the AP poll the following day.

Two more close wins – at Illinois, 23-16, and at home against Michigan, 14-9, and the Buckeyes received their bid to the Fiesta Bowl to face #1 Miami for the national championship.


The championship

All season the Bucks had been opportunistic. Often losing the first down or the yardage battles, OSU made the big plays on defense, getting a crucial turnover or a big 3rd-down stop. They scored just enough to win.

Miami was a different story. The Hurricanes came into Tempe sporting a 34-game win streak. They were defending national champs and had clobbered #6 Florida 41-16 earlier in the season. They squeaked by rival #9 Florida State 28-27 and had most recently won a slugfest against the Virginia Tech Hokies, 56-45. Hardly Tressel-ball.

Miami was led by veteran quarterback Ken Dorsey and by an emergent All-American running back named Willis McGahee. Whereas Ohio State’s leading scorer was kicker Mike Nugent, Miami was led (by a large margin) by McGahee’s 28 touchdowns. McGahee was big and fast, and, averaging 6.2 yards per carry for the season, looked unstoppable. The spread on the game was Miami by 11.5 points. A big margin for a championship game.

The Hurricanes scored first, as Ken Dorsey completed a 25-yard strike to Roscoe Parrish with 4:16 left in the first quarter. The Buckeyes struggled to move the ball against a tough defense, but turnovers finally caught up with the ‘Canes, and Ohio State scored on short fields. After a second Dorsey interception, Krenzel took the ball into the end zone on a one-yard run with 2:24 left in the half. Almost immediately, OSU forced a Dorsey fumble. Clarett scored from the seven with 1:18 left in the half. Halftime score: Ohio State 14, Miami 7.

The Bucks extended the lead to 17-7 with Mike Nugent’s 44-yard field goal, but McGahee rushed in from nine yards out to pull Miami to 17-14 at the end of the third quarter. The game remained without another score until the ‘Canes’ Todd Sievers put a 40-yard field goal attempt through the uprights as regulation time ran out. Score: 17-17.


Overtime

Miami had the ball first in the overtime and scored quickly as Dorsey completed a TD pass to Kellen Winslow. The Bucks converted one fourth-down play but found themselves stalled and looking at another one, fourth and three at the five. Krenzel passed to Chris Gamble in the end zone, but Gamble couldn’t hold on. Hurricane players and fans swarmed the field, only to be cleared later when a late pass interference flag was thrown against Miami. Krenzel scored from one yard out to tie the game and send it to a second overtime.

In the second OT, the Bucks had the ball first, and, though it took five plays, Clarett scored on a five-yard rush. 31-24. The ‘Canes were done. With McGahee out with a bad knee injury suffered in the fourth quarter, it was up to the veteran Dorsey. Breaking through the protection, as Buck defenders had all night, Matt Wilhelm rocked Dorsey and put him out of the game for a play. When he returned, he was obviously dazed, and his pass went incomplete. The Buckeyes win 31-24 on two short runs, some vicious defense, and a controversial penalty.

The stats for the game aren’t pretty. OSU had only 14 first downs, to Miami’s 19. OSU accumulated only 267 total yards, while Miami had 369. But McGahee managed only 67 yards on his 20 carries (3.4 average), and, with sacks and other tackles for loss, the ‘Canes had only 65 rushing yards for the game. Ohio State had 145, Clarett picking up 47 and two TDs, Krenzel adding another 81 yards and another two TDs. But for the architect of Tressel-ball, the stats that brought smiles were the turnovers, Miami 5, OSU 2, and Andy Groom’s 47.7-yard average on six punts. Field position wins games, as does toughness. As a Miami player put it in a postgame interview, “I know that we have the better team [meaning, I suppose, “more talent”], but they just played so hard.” Tressel-ball.


Aftermath

The Buckeyes finished 14-0 for the 2002 season. As a heavy underdog, they ended Miami’s win streak and played a brand of football that would flourish in Columbus until the sheer speed of the SEC’s Florida and LSU showed how to beat it. For the following year, Krenzel was back as quarterback, but Clarett had been dismissed from the team and would eventually spend nearly four years in prison. He was replaced at running back by Lydell Ross. The team finished 11-2, losing at Wisconsin and at Michigan.

Go Bucks! The 2021 Buckeyes, with all of their offensive weapons, now take aim at the Indiana Hoosiers. No more Tressel-ball, as Ohio State and college football, generally, have moved on to a more exciting, offense-oriented game; look for something like OSU 55, IU 21 in the next one.