Every now and again circumstances conspire to produce a game that will live and be re-lived forever, and that's what Miami and Ohio State gave the football world Friday night. For anyone who cares about either a determined battle or the human drama of athletic competition, this was a thriller, a keeper, a game not perfectly played but one fabulously contested. After a game-tying kick with no time left in regulation, three converted fourth downs in two overtimes and too many scintillating plays to recount without first taking a deep breath, Ohio State prevailed to win a national championship.
The score hardly matters, just that Ohio State freshman Maurice Clarett ran five yards for a touchdown in the second overtime and Miami's Ken Dorsey threw incomplete on fourth and goal from the 1, and the inexplicable had taken place in the Fiesta Bowl.
Miami lost. For the first time in 35 games, for the first time in Larry Coker's tenure as head coach, the Hurricanes lost a football game. They got beat and beat up. Willis McGahee tore a knee ligament in the fourth quarter and Dorsey had to leave the lineup briefly in the second overtime after being battered to the turf. What could have been a wondrous story of Miami riding a tight end named Kellen Winslow and a running back named Payton to glory, turned into the kind of historic upset that propelled Miami into national and perennial prominence nearly 20 years ago.
Conversely, it had grown comical the way Ohio State football entered each season believing a national championship was in reach. In that context there was nothing to show for the 1970s, the '80s and the '90s. Good Buckeyes folk, since 1968, had pretty much been clutching the memories of Woody Hayes and Archie Griffin. Clemson had won a national championship since Ohio State. So had Georgia Tech. So had Brigham Young. Florida State had gone from an all-girls school to national champion while Ohio State was trying to find its way back to the top. Ohio State had become a joke, the school at least partially responsible for the phrase "three yards and a cloud of dust."
So there was the school of Woody Hayes, down to fourth and 14, converting a 17-yard pass to cling to life. And there was a fourth-and-three conversion -- maybe a gift -- compliments of a pass interference penalty in the end zone. The flag was thrown so late that some Buckeyes players walked off the field thinking they'd lost, Miami players stormed the field thinking they'd won, and the folks in charge of game operations let go with postgame fireworks.
Only, the penalty gave Ohio State a first down at the 2, and the Buckeyes scored three plays later to complete the closest, wackiest and perhaps most compelling championship game since Miami defeated Nebraska on the final play of the Orange Bowl 19 years ago for the Hurricanes' first championship. As resilient as the Buckeyes were, Miami sabotaged its own effort by committing five turnovers and failing to stop Ohio State on those two critical fourth down plays in overtime. Ohio State's perseverance was more impressive than most of what the Buckeyes did strategically. It will be remembered as one of those games in which an underdog team with less talent refused to lose a game that appeared at least twice to be lost.
As often as Miami stands atop the heap, this wasn't the first time Miami has lost an everything-on-the-line bowl game. In fact, 16 years ago, Miami walked into this same Sun Devil Stadium with a formidable lineup that included Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Brian Blades and the irrepressible Jerome Brown, bless his heart. They were as confident then as their successors were Friday night. The Hurricanes wore military fatigues and combat boots that week around town. One might argue, rather easily, that the Hurricanes re-defined swagger in the context of college football that week. But they lost the Fiesta Bowl and the national championship that night to Penn State. Testaverde threw five interceptions. Miami committed seven turnovers, and lost.
So history repeated itself to a great extent. Dorsey's second interception of the night essentially handed Ohio State a 14-7 lead. The widely held notion among a lot of college and pro football people who have followed Miami all season (the ones who would not give Dorsey their Heisman Trophy vote) thought Dorsey was the weak link in the Hurricanes' offense, good enough to live off the talents of the best runner (McGahee), the best receiver (Andre Johnson) and the best tight end (Winslow) in college football, but too careless with the ball to be considered the best quarterback.
It sounded crazy at times to suggest a kid was inadequate while leading his team to a record of 38-1. But the argument was a little easier to understand Friday with the way Dorsey threw those two interceptions and lost the fumble at his 14 that handed Ohio State another touchdown. Only Dorsey's gift-wrapping of 14 points enabled Ohio State to win a game in which its quarterback, Craig Krenzel, completed only 5 of 19 passes in regulation.
"We knew," Buckeyes safety Donnie Nickey said, "that we had the heart to take this thing home." On a night when premature fireworks were no match for what took place on the field, what burned inside the Ohio State players and coaches may indeed be the only thing that separated them from an especially worthy champion.