-- After 60 minutes of regulation and two overtimes, Friday's Fiesta Bowl had become a grueling gridiron marathon -- a tortuous test of will for Ohio State and Miami fans, coaches and players, alike.
But the longest stretch of the game, which saw Ohio State upset college football's top-ranked team to claim its first national championship in 35 years, was the few seconds' delay during the first overtime in which field judge Terry Porter hesitated before throwing a penalty flag that changed everything.
In that split-second lull after Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel's fourth-and-three throw to Chris Gamble fell incomplete, pandemonium broke out. Fireworks exploded over Sun Devil Stadium, and jubilant Miami coaches, players and millionaire alumni, such as Warren Sapp and Jessie Armstead, stormed the field flailing their arms triumphantly.
But Porter's pass interference call, which came in the form of a silent yellow flag tossed amid the mayhem, declared the celebration premature and kept the Buckeyes' title dreams alive.
With the reprieve, Ohio State fought on. Krenzel rushed one yard for a touchdown to even the score at 24 and force another overtime. Freshman Maurice Clarett spun and lunged five yards for a touchdown that put the Buckeyes up 31-24 in the second overtime. And linebacker Matt Wilhelm batted down Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey's final throw to seal the improbable victory.
Of all the critical moments in a game that was hailed as an instant classic, the pass interference call against freshman cornerback Glenn Sharpe is likely to become the most reviled, celebrated, debated and dissected for years to come as the 2003 Fiesta Bowl assumes its place as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game.
This morning, weary and gracious Buckeyes Coach Jim Tressel had little to say about the officiating, other than offering that in 28 years of coaching he'd found that the good and bad calls generally evened out.
Tressel also shied from fingering any single play as more significant than the hundreds of others, as if naming one would do short shrift to the rest. If one factor decided the championship, Tressel added, it might have been the tens of thousands of screaming, scarlet-and-gray Buckeyes fans who descended on Tempe to turn Sun Devil Stadium into a Horseshoe away from home.
"They had a hand in it," Tressel said with gratitude. "Maybe that was the play."
But several others stood out:
* The forearm-to-knee collision that sent Miami running back Willis McGahee off the field on a cart early in the fourth quarter with tears to his anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. (The Heisman Trophy finalist will undergo surgery Sunday to repair the damage, but the lengthy recovery will prevent him from leaving Miami early to enter April's NFL draft and could sideline him for part or all of next season.)
* Miami's 40-yard, game-tying field goal with three seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime.
* Krenzel's clutch throw on fourth and 14 in the first overtime to keep the Buckeyes in it.
Each of those plays infused the game with heart-lurching drama that swung the momentum and turned what was predicted to be a rout into a wild, four-hour ride.
But the pass interference call will surely stick in the Hurricanes' craw longest.
"There's not another official in the history of the game that would make that call," groused Miami secondary coach Mark Stoops.
Said Sharpe, who was called for the penalty: "That was a joke. That's all I can really say."
Ohio State trailed 24-17 and faced fourth and three when Krenzel cocked his arm to make the throw to the right side of the end zone, where Gamble lurked. The quarterback was knocked to the ground as the ball was released, so he couldn't really gauge Sharpe's aggressive coverage.
After the throw fell incomplete, Krenzel just sat there.
"To be honest, it was a feeling of dejection thinking the game was over, knowing how hard we played and how much effort we put in, and just at that time thinking we weren't victorious," Krenzel said.
Said Gamble: "He was holding me. He was in my face mask and shoulder pads."
But the interference call didn't come.
That's because Porter, the official, was reviewing imaginary film in his mind to make sure he got it right.
"I saw [Sharpe] holding [Gamble] prior to the ball being put in the air," Porter explained. "He was still holding him, pulling him down while the ball was in the air. I gave the signal for holding. Then I realized it should be pass interference because the ball was in the air. . . . I replayed it in my mind. I wanted to make double-sure it was the right call."
After 3 hours 56 minutes, the national title was finally settled with the Bowl Championship Series producing an undisputed champion in Ohio State (14-0), the only undefeated team left standing, thanks in part to a call that will long be debated.
Fiesta Bowl Notes: The game drew the highest television rating since the BCS started pairing the top teams for the national title after the 1998 season. ABC reported an 18.6 rating -- a 31 percent jump from last year's national championship, when Miami routed Nebraska, 37-14, in the Rose Bowl.
The ratings were measured in the country's 55 largest markets. Nationwide ratings will be released Monday.