You might think Ohio State is consumed by the notion of closing
the gap between itself and Michigan, since coach John Cooper's
Buckeyes have beaten the Wolverines just once in 10 tries. Oh,
the indignity: Two years ago Michigan beat Ohio State and cost
the Buckeyes a chance to play for No. 1; last year the
Wolverines won a share of the national championship themselves.
Ohio State, however, has set its sights elsewhere. It doesn't
merely want to catch up to Michigan. It wants to catch up to
The Buckeyes came away from last season's 20-14 loss to the
Wolverines frustrated. They came away from their 31-14 Sugar
Bowl loss to the Seminoles humiliated. "I can't even watch that
game," says All-America guard Rob Murphy. "It's sickening." The
biggest pain for Ohio State was a Florida State defense that
forced three interceptions.
Joe Germaine, the Buckeyes' gentleman quarterback, speaks in
more polite terms. "That game was a wake-up call," he says. "We
were a little bit embarrassed. We don't want anything like that
to happen again. That was a good team. That's the level we want
to be at all the time."
And that's the level that deeply talented Ohio State will reach
this fall, provided that three key players--Murphy, strong
safety Damon Moore and, most important, All-America middle
linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer--pass their summer classes and
retain their eligibility. If they survive report card day on
Sept. 4, the Buckeyes will immediately have to pass another test
on Sept. 5: the attention-getting matchup in Saturday-night
prime time at West Virginia. That, however, will be their last
tough road trip. The toughest games en route to the Fiesta
Bowl--against Missouri, Penn State, Michigan State and
Michigan--will be played at Ohio Stadium.
In last season's Sugar Bowl, Florida State appeared deeper and
better conditioned than Ohio State. Cooper thinks that was a
function of geography. "I think Southern teams have to
substitute a lot to survive the heat," Cooper, a Tennessee
native, says. "Consequently, they get more depth. Maybe I'm
looking for an alibi. Southern teams are a lot quicker than we
are at that time of season. And we're not a slow team."
To bolster the Buckeyes' depth, Cooper had hoped to work more
players into the lineup during spring practice than he has in
the past. Injuries curtailed that plan, but heading into the
fall almost everyone had healed. "We've got more good young
players than any team I've coached here," Cooper says. "We're a
young team. We had 10 seniors last year. Only six of them
started, and two of the six alternated."
Those two were tailback Pepe Pearson, whose carries will be
absorbed by junior Michael Wiley, and quarterback Stanley
Jackson, who tag-teamed with Germaine to lead the Buckeyes to a
21-4 record over the last two seasons. Germaine surely has set
some sort of record by throwing for more than 3,000 yards (and
31 touchdowns) with only one career start. He's admired by his
teammates for handling a difficult situation with grace. Though
he plays for John, he's more a disciple of the Gary school of
Coopers. Germaine has both Gary's unflappability and his
aw-shucks manner. "Joe is one of the funniest guys I know,"
Murphy says. "He doesn't intentionally try to be funny. He came
into the huddle once and said, 'C'mon guys! Let's raise the
roof.' He did the hand motions. He said it in a real white way."
Gosh darn, excitement spreads across Germaine's face when he
talks about the season to come. "That's why I came here, to be a
starting quarterback," Germaine says. "I've proven I can do the
job. In the hotel lobby the day after the Sugar Bowl, I told
[quarterbacks] Coach [Tim] Salem I was ready to start full time."
He'll operate behind an offensive line that learned on the job
last season. Defenses sacked Buckeyes quarterbacks 14 times in
the first three games. Though the rate dwindled to nearly half
that over the remainder of the season, the sacks took a
toll--277 yards, to be precise--as did busted running plays.
Ohio State had 479 yards of negative rushing yardage. No other
team in the top 15 had more than 420.
That line has matured to the point that it should give Germaine
the time he needs to become the most prolific passer in the Big
Ten. He has the best group of receivers in the league: All-Big
Ten split end David Boston and flanker Dee Miller combined last
season to catch 122 passes, 19 of them for TDs. Another plus:
Boston's nemesis, Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, has gone
to the NFL.
It all comes back to the Wolverines, doesn't it? With Woodson
gone, the best secondary in the nation no longer wears maize and
blue. Buckeyes corner Antoine Winfield was an All-America last
year, and safeties Moore and Gary Berry made big plays. In front
of them should be Katzenmoyer, the best linebacker in Ohio, as
any Cincinnati Bengals fan will tell you. His return would be
the signal that this will be a season to remember for Ohio
State--as long as he and all the Buckeyes remember Florida State.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Time to shine After sharing the position the past two seasons, Germaine gets to show what he can do in a full-time starting role. [Joe Germaine in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN F. GRIESHOP Wiley [Michael Wiley]
1997 record: 10-3 (6-2, tied for 2nd in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 12 AP, No. 12 coaches' poll
Rushing Passing Total
1997 Averages Scoring Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 31.7 167.9 244.9 412.8
DEFENSE 11.6 124.3 143.7 267.9
Coach: John Cooper
11th year at Ohio State (86-32-4); career Division I-A record:
WR David Boston Jr. 70 rec., a team season record
LT Tyson Walter So. Orlando Pace heir had 13 starts
LG Rob Murphy Jr. Returns from right-knee injury
C Kurt Murphy Jr. Started final 6 games
RG Ben Gilbert Jr. Started all 13 games
RT Brooks Burris Sr. Most games played on OL (32)
TE John Lumpkin Sr. 6'8" with good hands (2 TDs)
WR Dee Miller Sr. 52 rec., 902 yds., 5 TDs
QB Joe Germaine[*] Sr. Nation's third-most efficient QB
RB Michael Wiley[*] Jr. 579 rushing yds., 5.7 avg., 6 TDs
FB Matt Keller Jr. 17 rec., third highest on team
K Dan Stultz So. 13 of 21 FGs, 47 of 48 PATs
LE Rodney Bailey So. Only true frosh starter in '97
LT Clinton Wayne[*] So. Scored on int. vs. Indiana
RT Joe Brown So. 23 tackles, 1 sack
RE James Cotton Jr. Made adjustment from LB
OLB Na'il Diggs[*] So. 4 sacks in final three games
MLB Andy Katzenmoyer Jr. Butkus winner had 93 stops
OLB Jerry Rudzinski Sr. Gained 20 yds. as RB
CB Antoine Winfield Sr. 92 tackles, second best on team
SS Damon Moore Sr. First-team All-Big Ten
FS Gary Berry Jr. Two TDs vs. Michigan State
CB Ahmed Plummer Jr. 4 int., 39 tackles
P Brent Bartholomew Sr. 65 punts, 45.1-yd. avg.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1997 season.
Junior tailback Michael Wiley averaged a team-leading 5.7 yards
per carry last season while sharing the position with Pepe
Pearson. Wiley should see his production increase this fall
behind an improved offensive line.... Junior David Boston needs
63 catches and seven touchdown receptions to pass Cris Carter as
the Buckeyes' career leader in both categories.... There's
something about strong safety Damon Moore and winning; after
starting for three years on the Fostoria (Ohio) High team that
accumulated a 37-2 record, he has played on three Ohio State
teams that are 32-6 overall.... Good news: Fourth-year starting
punter Brent Bartholomew averaged 45.1 yards per punt last
season and landed 20 of his 65 attempts inside the 20. Bad news:
The Buckeyes allowed 11.5 yards per punt return last season,
including a 78-yard touchdown by Michigan's Charles Woodson.
Schedule strength: 2nd of 112
Sept. 5 at West Virginia A salty opener against a veteran team
whose loud fans are sure to be roused to fever pitch for this
Saturday-night event. Cooper's Buckeyes are 9-2 against Big East
Oct. 3 vs. Penn State In two Big Ten visits to Columbus, the
Nittany Lions have scored 13 points and no touchdowns against
the Buckeyes' first-team defense.
Nov. 7 vs. Michigan State, Nov. 21 vs. Michigan Each year that
Ohio State has beaten its northern neighbors in the Horseshoe,
the Buckeyes have finished No. 1. The last (and only) time: 1968.
The X Factor
When Ohio State gets to the brink of beating Michigan, will the
Buckeyes believe they can do it? After so much heartbreak, that
will be at least half the battle.
The Bottom Line
Cooper, who at age 61 says he doesn't see himself coaching much
more than another three years, may not get a better chance to win
it all than this season.