10 Years On: Ohio State vs. Cincinnati
In 2002, as in all years, the month of September brought with it the beginning of the fall season, which for many people means one thing: football.
And on September 21st of that year, football was the main event in a day filled with activity. In the heart of the city, Oktoberfest was in full swing, bringing thousands of merry citizens into the streets and transforming its roads into a carnival. On the riverfront, two marquee matches were set to begin– in the evening was the last-ever night game at the Reds’ Cinergy Field, and in the afternoon, the hometown Bearcats football team was hosting the No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Such was the enormity of UC’s matchup against the Scarlet & Gray that the powers that be decided to move it from their regular home field of Nippert Stadium, located on campus, to the massive Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals.
The Buckeyes entered the game with a 3-0 record, beating teams by an average of over 25 points per game. But the capacity crowd in the Queen City were not going to let the visitors have things that easy, and the game would turn out to be a preview of the many tight contests Ohio State would find itself in that season.
In the week leading up to the game, Ohio State’s standout freshman tailback Maurice Clarett had arthroscopic right knee surgery, ruling him out for his team’s first matchup with the Bearcats in 91 years.
Poised for an upset, UC came out of the blocks flying. Their no-huddle offense gave the Ohio State defense fits, forcing it into consistent errors from constant pressure. After an impressive first drive, the Bearcats struck first on a one-yard touchdown from their senior running back DeMarco McCleskey. They also converted a field goal in that first quarter, but a failed extra point attempt from former All-American Jonathan Ruffin after the McCleskey touchdown would come back to haunt the hosts later in the afternoon.
Ohio State’s offense couldn’t find an answer. Quarterback Craig Krenzel was intercepted twice, and Lydell Ross, stepping in for the injured Clarett, coughed up a fumble in what proved to be a frustrating half.
A second-quarter touchdown pass from Krenzel to tight end Ben Hartsock finally put the Buckeyes on the board, but Cincinnati responded with another field goal of its own to cushion its lead to 12-7 heading into halftime.
Both teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter – first Chris Vance caught a short touchdown pass for the Bucks, with Tye Keith doing the same for Cincinnati. The Bearcats still had a 19-14 lead heading in the final quarter, but it was then that Ohio State would show its true colors.
After an OSU field goal from Mike Nugent early in quarter cut the deficit to 19-17, the Bearcats found themselves driving in their opponent’s half with under nine minutes to play. The pivotal play of the afternoon followed – Ohio State defensive end Darrion Scott easily getting past his blockers to smack UC quarterback Gino Guidugli with a vicious hit, jarring the ball loose enough for backup defense lineman David Thompson to pick it up.
From there, Krenzel led the Buckeyes on the first of many clutch drives that year and finished it off with a typical tough play. On second and goal from the six, Krenzel’s main target, Michael Jenkins, was blanketed in coverage, so he did what he does best – improvise. Scrambling to his left, Krenzel was met by six Bearcats, but with some talented elusiveness and a deft spin move, he somehow found a route to the endzone and dove over the goal line.
After a failed two-point conversion, the Buckeyes had their first lead of the day, 23-19. Cincinnati had 3:14 left to score, but only a touchdown would suffice, the missed point-after attempt finally revealing its importance.
The Bearcats got all the way down to Ohio State’s 15-yard line, and after a couple end zone drops, were presented with 4th-and-10 with 32 seconds to go. Guidugli looked up and saw two receivers streaking to the middle of the end zone. His pass, however, was tipped by linebacker Matt Wilhelm into the gracious hands of safety Will Allen. The Buckeyes had escaped.
It was Ohio State’s first real test of the season, and even though it may not have been pretty, it was still a W. The Buckeyes had coped with Clarett’s absence, and Lydell Ross proved to be more than just an adequate replacement with his 130-yard effort.
The game did give OSU fans one conclusion: their team could pull a game out of tough situations. An in-state rival being cheered on by a sold-out crowd was always going to be a tough examination of a team’s mettle, even if their opponent was unranked.
In the end, Ohio State was 4-0 and had come out of its biggest test unscathed. The Big Ten schedule beckoned, and it would prove to be the Buckeyes’ finest campaign in a generation.