COLUMBUS – They’ve won by seven points or fewer six times this season.
They’ve struggled against anyone with a pulse, and, even then, struggled against teams without one.
But they’ve won the Big Ten and are going to the Fiesta Bowl to play Miami (Fla.) or Oklahoma or another team of that caliber, and the Buckeyes are brimming with confidence.
“We were one step away coming into the game and we played our hearts out for 60 minutes. We proved Ohio State can play with anybody,” senior strong safety Mike Doss said after the Buckeyes’ 14-9 victory over Michigan on Saturday.
Doss’ confidence and the team’s, comes from an expectation that the plays that need to be made will be made; thus far, that expectation has been accurate. This year the adage that “big players make big plays in big games” rings as loudly as the Horseshoe’s victory bell in Columbus. Ohio State can’t beat teams by a lot of points, and has had to rely on young players like freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, sophomore defensive back/receiver Chris Gamble and junior quarterback Craig Krenzel to win close games.
On Saturday the go-to guy was Clarett, who had missed most of the past three games with a shoulder injury. The word out of the Buckeyes’ camp was that Clarett could have played last week against Illinois, but it was evident on Saturday that the young superstar was playing with a great deal of pain. Although Clarett didn’t admit it afterwards, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel confessed that his tailback – who has aspirations of becoming a professional – was putting himself in harm’s way.
“I think he was in a lot of pain,” Tressel said. “But he knew what this game meant to his teammates; he knew what this game meant to Ohio State. So he was going to play no matter what.”
Clarett carried the ball 20 times for 119 yards and a touchdown, and caught two Krenzel passes for 35 yards, including a 24-yard reception that set up teammate Maurice Hall’s 3-yard game-winning touchdown run. The Hall touchdown and the Will Allen interception of Michigan quarterback John Navarre’s last-second pass to win the game were examples of Ohio State players stepping up to make plays that were absolutely necessary for the Buckeyes’ success and undefeated status. Two weeks ago it was a 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins by Krenzel on 4th-and-1 that gave Ohio State a 10-6 victory over Purdue.
The difference on Saturday was not Ohio State’s dominance of rival Michigan; it trailed in every significant offensive category and trailed for most of the game. But in close games, it is key plays from key players that determines who wins and who loses.
“We didn’t make the plays when we had to, and they made the plays,” Michigan assistant coach Fred Jackson said.
The Ohio State defense has shown that it can keep the game close. As long as it is, Clarett and the Buckeyes’ should have the playmaking ability to do the rest when the Fiesta Bowl rolls around.
“I am surrounded by great teammates, and we made the plays when it counted,” Clarett said.