Buckeyes have title game look

Sunday, October 4, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

OSU quarterbacks coach Tim Salem was so thrilled with Joe Germaine's 20-yard TD strike to Michael Wiley late in the first half, he put his fist through the plate glass window of the coaches box.
(AP photo)

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COLUMBUS -- An eternal reality of college football is, to get to the few glamorous games, you have to wade through lots of games that deserve bags on their heads. Who but a diehard Ohio State fan could abide Buckeyes-Illinois next week without the promise of Buckeyes-Michigan?

The top-ranked Bucks sloshed past No. 7 Penn State in the pouring rain Saturday, 28-9. Allegedly, this was a glamor game, one of three for OSU this year, before the bowl season.

Truthfully, it was a testament to OSU's resourcefulness. If the Buckeyes want their first national title since 1969, they'll need all hands taking part the way they did Saturday. OSU scored a touchdown on defense, and another on special teams.

Percy King blocked a Penn State punt so cleanly in the third quarter, he nearly caught the ball off the kicker's toe. Joe Cooper recovered in the Nittany Lions end zone. OSU led 21-3, and the rest was mud. "We made a pretty good statement today," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We beat them 28-9, and it should have been worse than that."

Only now, what's left for the Buckeyes? If you are an Ohio State fan, between now and Michigan is seven weeks of holding your breath.

Coaches have to offer the party line. "Illinois has a heckuva football team," John Cooper offered. But the rest of us know better. Barring some strange bounces, the Buckeyes regular season begins and ends with Michigan.

And after that, perhaps Nebraska in a national title game. Don't think the players aren't considering it. As Winfield said, "If we keep playing the way we've been, and Nebraska keeps playing the way they've been, we'll see them in the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 4."

It's not a bad bet in the first week of October. The Buckeyes won easily Saturday, even as usually precise QB Joe Germaine was completing just 16 of 30 passes. Quarterbacks coach Tim Salem was so thrilled with Germaine's 20-yard TD strike to Michael Wiley late in the first half, he put his fist through the plate glass window of the coaches box.

Cooper said the Bucks escaped the win without injury. He neglected to mention Salem.

Big plays, right time

If you're going to contend for a national title, you have to win on days like this. At halftime Germaine, no scrambler, led OSU in rushing. The Buckeyes were averaging 530 yards a game on offense; they finished with 326 Saturday.

But they got the big plays they needed, the biggest being linebacker Jerry Rudzinski's fumble recovery in the Lions end zone. Rudzinski dwells in the shadow of Andy Katzenmoyer, but he is a steady, heady player whose smarts allow Katzenmoyer the freedom to act on his instincts.

The Buckeyes were down 3-0 in the second quarter and sputtering -- two missed field goals, penalties canceling big gains -- when Rudzinski blitzed from the right side untouched and threatened Penn State QB Kevin Thompson, running a bootleg from his 13-yard line.

Thompson tried to throw, but the wet ball slipped from his hand. Rudzinski cradled the gift in the end zone. Without so much as one highlight film offensive play, the Buckeyes led 7-3.

"I think people started having a little more fun after that," Rudzinski said.

Cooper told his defense it would be their day, and it was. In the mud, there aren't a lot of Xs and Os. "Just wrapping guys up, getting your pads down and not getting knocked off the ball," Rudzinski said.

And winning. Easily. The great thing about starting the year No. 1 is, unless you lose a game or fail to beat a bad team by fewer than five touchdowns, chances are good you'll keep your ranking. Thus, even though Nebraska appears to be the Buckeyes equal on the field, in the polls the Huskers are no better than No. 2.

Nebraska's road to the Fiesta is blocked only by Kansas State. After Saturday, OSU's is impeded only by Michigan. As usual.

Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.