From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about taking sides in head-to-head debates. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”This or That” articles here.
The 2002 and 2014 seasons were amazing for Ohio State fans for many, and different, reasons. Each team captured a national championship and provided memorable moments that will last a lifetime.
But this is ‘This or That?’ week, and that means we’re going to compare the two. It might be like trying to choose which of your children is your favorite, but let’s break down the two teams and try to determine which one was ‘better’ and which one we simply prefer.
Both teams won a school-record 14 games. The 2002 squad went 14-0 and was the ultimate Tresselball team, winning seven — fully half — of those 14 games by a touchdown or less. Two of them required overtime. The trip to Purdue required a key, late fourth-down conversion, and the Buckeyes got that with the now-famous “Holy Buckeye” play. The first overtime game saw the Buckeyes survive a trap game against a middling Illinois team on the road, with Ohio State capturing the Illibuck, 23-16. The Bucks were then able to squeak past No. 9 Michigan in The Game, winning 14-10, before taking down the mighty Miami Hurricanes in double overtime in the Fiesta Bowl to win it all. The other nailbiters included a 13-7 home win over No. 17 Penn State, a 19-14 road win at Wisconsin, and a 23-19 win at Cincinnati.
The 2014 team didn’t go undefeated. Those Buckeyes finished 14-1, but like their predecessors, they went 8-0 in Big Ten play. The lone blemish on the season was a surprising 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech, in which the OSU offense simply could not figure out the Hokies’ “Bear” defense. Urban Meyer’s 2014 squad only played one overtime contest, a 31-24 win at Penn State in double OT. Only two other teams stayed within a touchdown of Ohio State all season — No. 25 Minnesota lost by only one score in a 31-24 game in Minneapolis, and Alabama scored a late touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s 42-35 loss in the Sugar Bowl in the semifinal of the first-ever College Football Playoff.
The 2002 Ohio State offense was run by Craig Krenzel, a quarterback with a football mind and heart that dwarfed his skills. His backup was Scott McMullen. As a junior in 2002, Krenzel played in all 14 games, completing 148 of 249 passing attempts (59.4%) for 2,110 yards and 12 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also rushed for 368 yards on 125 attempts, scoring three times on the ground. Ironically a Michigan native, Krenzel went 24-2 as a starter at Ohio State before being drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Bears, where he won his first three starts. He was cut by the Bears after his first season and picked up by the Bengals, but his career was cut short due to an elbow injury.
While he didn’t put up flashy numbers, Krenzel was an excellent caretaker of Jim Tressel’s offense. There’s no better combined example of Krenzel’s football IQ and ability than the infamous “Holy Buckeye” play. With his first read — the tight end — covered and Chris Gamble having run the wrong route, Krenzel stepped up under pressure with room to pick up the yard he needed on the ground, but he kept his eyes downfield and saw Michael Jenkins break his post route into a go route and hit him with the winning pass to keep the dream season alive.
The starter in 2014 was supposed to be senior Braxton Miller, but he suffered a torn labrum in preseason camp and missed the entire season. Backup J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman, was thrust into the starting role in Urban Meyer’s offense. Barrett played in 12 of Ohio State’s games in 2014, completing 203 of 314 passes (64.6%) for 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. He also ran the ball 171 times for another 938 yards and 11 more touchdowns. Disaster seemed to strike in the Michigan game when Barrett suffered a broken ankle. Enter Cardale Jones.
Ohio State had to win its four biggest games of the year with its third-string quarterback in 2014. Jones, a redshirt sophomore out of Cleveland, at least was staked to a 28-21 lead by Barrett before the injury. The Buckeyes were able to see out their win in The Game with Jones and his first career start came in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, which Ohio State won 59-0 over Wisconsin. Jones then led the Buckeyes to wins over Alabama and Oregon to close the storybook season. In 10 appearances in 2014, Jones completed 56 of 92 passes (60.9%) for 860 yards for seven touchdowns, with two interceptions. He rushed 72 times for 296 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive Skill Positions
Both teams had amazing talent at the offensive skill positions that made big plays all season. In 2002, the bulk of those plays came from freshman running back Maurice Clarett, who fought through injuries and appeared in 11 games that year, breaking the school’s freshman rushing record with 1,237 yards on 222 carries and scoring 16 touchdowns. He also caught 12 passes for 104 yards and two more scores. The starting wideouts were Jenkins and Gamble — the latter a two-way star and special teams standout as well. Jenkins caught 61 passes for 1,076 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games for Tressel’s conservative offense, while Gamble added 31 catches for 499 yards on the offensive side of the ball, but he surprisingly did not have a receiving touchdown. He did have one rushing touchdown on his three attempts that year.
The 2014 was loaded with freaks. Ezekiel Elliott carried 273 times his sophomore season, gaining 1,878 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 28 passes for 220 yards. Elliott finished the year incredibly strong, surpassing 200 rushing yards in the games against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon to close the year. The starting wideouts were Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, and Jalin Marshall. Smith, a senior, was the home run hitter, catching 33 passes for 931 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns, averaging more than 28 yards per catch. Sophomore Michael Thomas was the go-to guy, catching 54 passes for 799 yards and nine touchdowns, while freshman Jalin Marshall added 499 yards and six touchdowns on 38 catches.
On the offensive side, the 2002 OSU front five was a largely underrated bunch without big names, but they executed well. The offensive line consisted of (left to right) Ivan Douglas, Adrien Clarke, Alex Stepanovich, Bryce Bishop, and Shane Olivea. The defensive front four was much more formidable, led by junior Will Smith and including senior Kenny Peterson, junior Tim Anderson, and junior Darrion Scott.
The 2014 Buckeyes had an offensive line that included three players who excelled at the center position but two of them played guard that year. Taylor Decker was the left tackle, and looking down the line Ohio State had junior Taylor Decker, freshman Billy Price, junior Jacoby Boren, sophomore Pat Elflein, and senior Darryl Baldwin. The defensive line was every bit as fearsome as the 2002 group, with Joey Bosa the biggest name, but that line also included Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, and Steve Miller.
I’ll be honest, the only reason I thought the 2002 team had a shot at beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl was because of the defense. That was a nasty and opportunistic group that Tressel had and it finished second in the country in team defense, holding opponents to 13.1 points per game. The 2002 Silver Bullets held opponents to an average of 77.7 yards rushing, 321 yards of total offense per game, and forced two turnovers per contest on average. The linebackers, Cie Grant, Matt Wilhelm, and Robert Reynolds were solid, sure-tackling, and swarmed to the ball. Gamble was a lockdown corner and Dustin Fox held his own on the other side. Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey were fearsome hitters and equally adept at separating receivers from the ball or attacking opposing runners.
The 2014 defense certainly wasn’t bad. The Buckeyes were 19th in total defense that year, limiting opposing offenses, on average, to 22 points and 342 yards per game. The 2014 defensive squad was just 34th in the country in rush defense, 29th in passing defense, and 26th in scoring defense. The linebackers were Joshua Perry, Curtis Grant, and playmaker Darron Lee. Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell were excellent safeties (especially Bell), with Doran Grant and Eli Apple at cornerback.
Jim Tressel was a relatively unknown commodity when Ohio State hired him away from Youngstown State to replace John Cooper. There were bigger names in the mix for the job but OSU got the hiring right. After a mediocre 7-5 season in 2001 (5-3 in Big Ten play), Tressel led the Buckeyes to the national title in just his second season. He also took Ohio State to two more national championship games, but let’s not talk about those. In 10 seasons at the helm, Tressel, who was known for his conservative brand of football, guided Ohio State to seven outright or shared Big Ten championships, a 6-4 postseason record, a national championship, and two national runner-up finishes. He went 9-1 against Michigan.
Urban Meyer, who had previously handed Tressel one of his two losses in national championship games, won the natty with Ohio State in his third season in charge. It’s possible he could have led the Buckeyes to the national title in his first season had Ohio State been eligible for the postseason. Meyer led the Buckeyes to first place in the Big Ten, or at least to a share of it, in all seven seasons, he was in Columbus. Meyer posted a 5-2 postseason record while at Ohio State, led the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff twice, and went 7-0 against the Wolverines.
The 2002 team had to overcome a lot to win the national championship. Most teams do, but how many had to convert a key fourth down on the road against Purdue and threw deep into the end zone on an all-or-nothing play? How many have been able to do it playing conservative football with half of their games being one-score affairs? How many have had to win multiple overtime games to do it, including in the national championship game itself? Tressel’s 2002 team did that with a boa constrictor of a defense and clutch performances by key players when they were needed. There are no better examples of that than Clarett wrenching the ball away from Sean Taylor in the Fiesta Bowl after the Miami standout intercepted Krenzel in the end zone.
On the other hand, the 2014 team had the power of three on its side. The Buckeyes had to run a three-game gauntlet, playing Heisman Trophy finalists in three consecutive games (Melvin Gordon, Amari Cooper, and Marcus Mariota), while their third-string quarterback started. A lot of teams would never have gotten to that position with a home loss on their record, but Meyer’s group found a way. That 59-0 annihilation of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship with Jones at the helm instead of Barrett was too powerful for the committee to ignore. Elliott posting 220, 230, and 246 yards against the Badgers, Crimson Tide, and Ducks, respectively, in the final three games showed how badly he and his offensive line wanted it. Is it even possible for an Ohio State fan to not watch this play as often as possible?
So, which team comes out on top? The 2014 team may have been more talented across the board. The 2002 team didn’t lose any games. The 2014 team had a better offense, while the 2002 team had a stingier defense. The 2002 Buckeyes won the team’s first natty since 1968 and was the first team in FBS to finish 14-0. The 2014 Ohio State squad won the first College Football Playoff. Both teams beat seemingly unbeatable teams, although the 2014 Buckeyes did it in the national semifinal against Bama, while Ohio State’s 2002 team unseated the Hurricanes in an overtime thriller.
I don’t know if I can decide. What do you think?