BY JOHN ERARDI
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS -- Ohio State senior linebacker Jerry Rudzinksi, who played quarterback in high school for Kettering Alter in the Greater Catholic League, grew accustomed to taking big hits from spotlight-hogging Moeller and Elder.
Ohio State's Na'il Diggs twists Penn State's Cordell Mitchell to the ground.
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But Saturday, in a hard-fought 28-9 victory over the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions, Rudzinski commandeered the mike, the lights and center stage.
With four minutes left in the first half and No. 1 OSU trailing 3-0, Rudzinski singlehandedly brought 93,479 fans in Ohio Stadium to their feet and gave them something to cheer about. On a blitz from the right side, he blasted into Penn State quarterback Kevin Thompson and dove on the loose ball for a touchdown.
It was the turning point in a closely held football game that had all the underpinnings of an upset. Rudzinski's first collegiate TD jump-started OSU past a smash-mouth Penn State defense that had stymied the Buckeyes' highly-touted offense (326 yards, 200 below their average).
"(Rudzinski's TD) was the big play of the ballgame," OSU coach John Cooper said. "That really woke us up."
The defensive play is called "Falcon Stunt" and calls for Rudzinksi to first contain the bootleg that might be coming his way and to then fight his way through to the quarterback.
Rudzinski correctly sniffed out the bootleg and saw what he normally sees only in his dreams: an open lane to the QB.
"The (PSU) linemen were a little softer and the angle of the backs were set up for the "boot,' " Rudzinski said.
Rudzinski's rush to the quarterback mirrored the quarterback's attempt to avoid him. It was as though Rudzinski was a QB-seeking missile.
"I waited five years for this," Rudzinski said. "I've always wanted to score (at home). Then, I did what we're taught to do on defense if you score a TD: hunt up the 10 other silver bullets and have a party." Rudzinski, who has played on both sides of the ball since his Pop Warner days but always wanted to be a big-time college linebacker, knew right away what the impact of his touchdown would be.
"Anytime a defense puts points on the board in a close game it is going to shift the momentum," he said.
Sure enough. When OSU kicked off to PSU, Central McClellion -- the self-proclaimed "leader of the special teams" -- flew through the defensive wall. He blew past kickoff return man Titcus Pettigrew so fast, McClellion was able only to slow down Pettigrew with a clothesline hit (outstretched arm). Derek Ross finished the job with a booming head-on tackle of Pettigrew at the Penn State 20.
For the first time all day, the house was rockin'.
And, for the first time all day, the Buckeye offense knew what do with the ball: It went on an eight-play, 51-yard drive, capped off by a 20-yard touchdown pass to Michael Wiley to make it 14-3 with 1:25 in the half.
"That was big," Cooper said.
The momentum surge continued into the second half.
The Lions got a three-yard rush from scrimmage on their first play, but, then, OSU linebacking star Andy Katzenmoyer blew up a pass play in the flat for a one-yard loss. Then strong safety Damon Moore crushed PSU flanker Joe Nastasi on a reverse for a nine-yard loss.
Cooper knew what to do with the momentum, too. He had nine guys rush the punter; Percy King snaked through an opening and practically took the ball off punter Pat Pidgeon's toe. The ball smacked into King's gut, and it looked like he was going to score.
"I was OK until I looked down and saw I had the ball," King said. "That's when I bobbled it." Joe Cooper fell on it for the TD.
It was 20-3. No way was run-oriented PSU going to come back.
Rudzinski said OSU's defense had been watching film of Penn State for the last two weeks -- especially of last year's debacle in State College, Pa. when the Nittany Lions embarrassed then-undefeated (5-0) Buckeyes with 316 yards on the ground. The defense watched that film before kickoff.
"Before (Saturday's) game, I told the defense that it was time for us to score a touchdown to fire up the team," Rudzinski said. "I didn't know it'd be me. When I saw the referee's arms go up to signal the TD, my dream had come true."