- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio In deliciously fitting fashion, Ohio State's trip to Tempe came down to the very last tick.
With no time left on the clock and a date in the Fiesta Bowl hanging in the balance, Ohio State safety Will Allen intercepted a Michigan pass a step in front of his goal line to cement a 14-9 victory and preserve a perfect regular season for the No.2 Buckeyes (12-0).
"It's over. Oh, man, it's over," Allen mumbled incredulously moments later as the record crowd of 105,539 scarlet-and-gray zealots rocked Ohio Stadium around him. Fans, young and old, poured onto the field, some throwing Tostitos, some gouging out chunks of sacred turf as mementos, some mounting a futile assault on the greased goalposts.
Allen stared at the glorious chaos and finished his thought: "We're actually going to the national title game."
Ohio State, which last won the national championship in 1968, will meet No.1 Miami in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan.3, if the Hurricanes can close out their season with victories over Syracuse and Virginia Tech. And while Miami (10-0) would surely be heavily favored over the Buckeyes, yesterday's game was proof once again that fate seems to fancy Ohio State.
How else can you explain a team that managed its seventh second-half comeback yesterday and its sixth victory by a touchdown or less? Suffice it to say, Ohio State leads the nation in both obscure categories. And if they kept style stats, the Buckeyes undoubtedly would lead the nation in winning ugly.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines (9-3) dominated yesterday's action for the most part. They outgained the Buckeyes by more than 100 yards (368-264). They ran nearly twice as many plays (89-48). And they held the ball for nearly 35 minutes, equal parts passing from quarterback John Navarre and pounding from backs Chris Perry and B.J. Askew shuttling Michigan back and forth between the 20s all day.
But just as they have all season, the Buckeyes turned stubborn in the red zone, leaving the Wolverines with nothing to show for their punt-free first half other than three field goals and a tenuous 9-7 lead.
And when the moment for heroism arrived in the second half, the usual suspects stepped forth for the Buckeyes. Freshman tailback Maurice Clarett, playing with a bum left shoulder, not only turned in Ohio State's biggest offensive play of the day, he called it.
On first down from the Michigan 32-yard line and just under six minutes remaining, Clarett slipped out of the backfield, blew past a Michigan linebacker on a deep sideline route to the short side of the field and hauled in a 26-yard completion from quarterback Craig Krenzel to set up the game's decisive score.
"I just told Coach I thought I could make a play if we ran it," said Clarett, who prefers to communicate with his 230-pound frame.
According to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, Clarett's suggestion wasn't quite so subdued.
"He looked at me two quarters earlier, and he said, 'You better call that play, because they can't check me, no way,'" said Tressel, chuckling about the exchange. "So we waited for the most opportune time, and we called it for him."
Two plays later, Clarett's backup, Maurice Hall, sprinted into the end zone from 3 yards out on a rare option pitch, and Ohio State led 14-9 with 4:55 remaining after accomplishing little on offense most of the day.
Much of the Buckeyes' offensive anemia was due to Clarett's nagging injury. Though he finished with a game-high 119 rushing yards and 35 receiving yards on just 22 touches, he sagged off the field holding his shoulder on no less than five occasions, missing snaps and disrupting Ohio State's offensive continuity.
Clarett, who broke Robert Smith's Ohio State freshman rushing record yesterday by reaching 1,190 yards for the season, typically shrugged off the seriousness of the injury. But Tressel was quick to do Clarett's whining for him.
"I think he was in a lot of pain," Tressel said. "Those stingers are brutal. There's nothing you can do about them but rest the shoulder for a few weeks. If you've ever had one, you know that every time you get hit on that shoulder, your entire arm goes numb. I'm sure he had a lot of pain, but he'd never admit it to you or me. He knew how much this game meant to us, and he was going to be out there. He's a tough kid who loves to compete."
Incredibly, the same could be said for just about any player on the Ohio State roster, which is why nobody was surprised when the Buckeyes survived both of Michigan's late-game victory bids.
On the first drive after Ohio State's go-ahead score, Navarre and Co. coasted 44 yards to a first down at the 30 before the Buckeyes rose up. With 2:15 remaining, junior rush end Darrion Scott exploded off the edge and crumpled both the pocket and Navarre. The Michigan quarterback fumbled, opposite side defensive end Will Smith recovered, and the game looked to be iced.
But after three predictable Ohio State running plays and a punt, the Wolverines took possession at their 20 with 58 seconds left and repeated the process. Once again, Navarre and his two favorite targets, Braylon Edwards and Ronald Bellamy, flashed downfield, reaching the Ohio State 24 with seven seconds remaining.
"At that point, I just took the headphones off and started praying," said Tressel.
Navarre's first toss from the 24 sailed high through the end zone, largely because Ohio State linebacker Cie Grant nearly decapitated him during his release. With one second remaining, Navarre then fired for Edwards on a post route. Allen jumped the route, and Ohio State's Tums-addicted crowd breathed for the first time in five minutes.
"That's the Ohio State-Michigan game we knew it was going to be a slugfest," Tressel said. "I guess it's been like that all year. It hasn't always been pretty, but we're 13-0. We've got a scrappy, smart, tough, talented bunch here that wants to achieve."
And now they're just one more gut-wrecker away from college football's greatest achievement.

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