Sunday, September 19, 2004

Buckeyes capitalize on Wolfpack turnovers



By JON SPENCER
(Mansfield, Ohio) News Journal

RALEIGH, N.C. - Judging by the sick look on the faces of the North Carolina State football players as they left their field, Ashton Youboty's description of Saturday's turnover-fest rang so true.

"It was like an epidemic ... they came one after another," said the young Ohio State cornerback after the Buckeyes rode three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and five field goals by Mike Nugent to a 22-14 victory in Carter-Finley Stadium.

An OSU defense that couldn't buy a turnover in its first two games was suddenly swimming in them.

On turf soaked from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan, it was the ninth-ranked Buckeyes (3-0) who exhibited the surest footing - at least on defense and special teams.

Minus-seven in turnover ratio entering the game, with zero takeaways and seven giveways, the Buckeyes won that battle 5-1 over the Wolfpack and survived their first road trip despite generating just 137 yards of offense.

Youboty, starting for injured captain Dustin Fox, set the tone with a leaping interception, foiling a scoring threat at the OSU 26. The Buckeyes converted three subsequent turnovers into Nugent field goals, helping him match the school-record five field goals kicked by Bob Atha against Indiana in 1981.

"You've heard our formula many times," OSU coach Jim Tressel said. "If you play a good team on the road, you need superior special units ... relentless defense ... and a mistake-free, opportunistic offense.

"If we don't fumble that last one (coughed up by Lydell Ross at the N.C. State 13) and make a touchdown or field goal there at the end, we say, 'Hey, this was decisive.' "

To even say the OSU offense was opportunistic would be a stretch. The average length of Ohio State's six scoring drives was 12.5 yards. Their only touchdown, on a three-yard run by Ross, came on the first play after Donte Whitner's 24-yard interception return right before halftime.

Whitner's pick was the biggest mistake of all from a Wolfpack team that also was flagged 14 times for 121 yards in penalties.

With N.C. State quarterback Jay Davis struggling in his second career start and the Wolfpack reeling from a fumbled punt that made it 6-0, it looked like they would be content to head for the locker room still within striking distance.

But on third-and-10 from his own 20, with one minute to play in the half, Davis threw the ball right to Whitner, making the first start of his career at strong safety. It was 13-0 moments later after Ross plowed his way into the end zone.

"Donte gave us a chance to punch it in," linebacker Bobby Carpenter said. "It's the best way to take the crowd out of the game. They weren't back into it until the fourth quarter and we were back up 22-7."

The Wolfpack finally got on the board in the third quarter on an 11-yard run by tailback T.A. McLendon, but only after his fumbled pitch on the opening series of the half led to a Nugent field goal and 16-0 spread.

The Buckeyes answered McLendon's score with another Nugent field goal and increased the lead to 22-7 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter on Nugent's fifth kick after an interception by linebacker A.J. Hawk.

N.C. State (1-1) took Ross' late fumble and drove 80 yards in 11 plays to close within 22-14 on a 26-yard pass from Davis to split end Brian Clark. But with only 1:28 left, OSU tight end Ryan Hamby recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal a victory the Buckeyes thought was secure minutes earlier.

Ross' fumble might have cost Nugent a school-record sixth field goal. One week after his 55-yarder beat Marshall as time expired, the senior co-captain connected from 50, 30, 33, 46 and 47 yards.

His right foot was all the offense Ohio State needed against the mistake-prone Wolfpack.

"We didn't even get a chance to try to use our kicking game," said N.C. State coach Chuck Amato. "John Deraney (Nugent's counterpart) would have had to try an 85-yard field goal."

Saturday's sequel didn't come close to matching last year's 44-38 triple-overtime classic, won by the Buckeyes. But Tressel has never cared much about style points.

"They had a young quarterback who hadn't been hit, and they played a game two weeks ago (42-0 over 1-AA Richmond) that was probably less difficult than practice," Tressel said. "They hadn't been in a slugging match yet, and we had two."




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