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Picked Off This time it was Michigan State that got between top-ranked Ohio State and the national championship

It has become as much a manifestation of fall in Columbus as the
leaves changing and the weather taking a chilly turn: Ohio State,
having fielded a prodigiously talented football team and cruised
through September and October, lets a potential national
championship season slip away by suffering an ignominious
late-season loss.

With rejuvenated Michigan, the traditional spoiler, undefeated
in the Big Ten, Buckeyes fans were already steeling themselves
for a Nov. 21 showdown against the Wolverines, but
disappointment hit town earlier than usual this year. Last
Saturday, before a season-high crowd of 93,595 at Ohio Stadium,
unranked Michigan State, a 28-point underdog that came into the
game with a 4-4 record, scored the biggest upset of the season.
In knocking off the top-ranked Buckeyes 28-24, the Spartans
destroyed Ohio State's chances of winning the national title,
reshaped the Bowl Championship Series picture and continued a
string of stunning late-season successes by teams from Michigan
against Ohio State (chart, below).

What happened? How did the Spartans, a young, undersized team
with lots of holes, knock off the country's deepest, most
talented outfit--on the road? "When you don't put a team away,
they start to think, Hey, we can win this game," Ohio State coach
John Cooper said in his Monday postmortem. "That's exactly what
happened on Saturday. They started to come alive and make plays.
We didn't."

If the Buckeyes felt the game had a Twilight Zone quality to it,
then Michigan State, long regarded as one of the most
schizophrenic teams in college football, was an appropriate
opponent. The Spartans had blown a 16-0 lead in a 23-16 loss to
Colorado State in their season opener and then crushed Notre Dame
45-23 two weeks later. Following a 29-17 defeat at Michigan, they
needed overtime to upend so-so Indiana, then lost 19-18 to lowly
Minnesota, despite having held an 18-10 lead with less than two
minutes to go. So, after last Saturday's game, no one was
surprised to learn that the last unranked team to derail a
top-rated opponent was...Michigan State, when it beat Michigan
28-27 in 1990. The Spartans' tendency to undulate wildly wasn't
lost on the Buckeyes. "To be honest, with their history, we were
surprised they hung in with it," said Ohio State tackle Tyson
Walter after Saturday's loss. "They had an M.O. of pretty much
giving up when the going got rough."

This time the Spartans got tough. Early in the second half, as
darkness enveloped the Horseshoe, Buckeyes safety Damon Moore
picked off a third-down pass by Michigan State quarterback Bill
Burke and galloped 73 yards for a touchdown, giving Ohio State a
24-9 lead. In the past that play might have been the Spartans'
cue to fold. Instead, they were galvanized. Burke, a junior, was
unflappable in the pocket, and the defense got to Ohio State
quarterback Joe Germaine as Michigan State scored 19 unanswered
points. When the Spartans failed to make it into the end zone,
Paul Edinger took over. He kicked five field goals on the day,
tying the Michigan State record for the second straight week.

In the days leading up to the game, Burke, an Ohio native who
wasn't recruited by the Buckeyes, had sought inspiration from
tapes of Michigan State's '74 upset of then No. 1 Ohio State.
Spartans' coach Nick Saban tried to put some fight in the rest of
his players by encouraging them to emulate Rocky. "We talked
about how we were going to be in a 15-round fight, and no matter
what happened, we were going to hit them with a haymaker in the
15th round," Saban said. "We were the squirts in the neighborhood
who had to pick a fight with the bully."

The analogy was particularly apt for Spartans junior Julian
Peterson, a Lilliputian 220-pound defensive end thrown into the
fray when starter Robaire Smith broke his right leg in the first
quarter. Peterson played last season at Valley Forge Military
Academy & College in Wayne, Pa., and didn't arrive in East
Lansing until Aug. 29, too late to have his photo included in the
team media guide. On Saturday, though, he dented more than the
public's consciousness with a sack, two forced fumbles and nine
tackles--five more than the Buckeyes' ballyhooed Andy Katzenmoyer
made as he played yet another mediocre game. "We were all in the
zone," Peterson said. "We knew that if we played 60 minutes, we
could beat the Number 1 team in the country."

Not that Ohio State looked like the nation's best team. It
committed a season-high five turnovers, and even then it had many
chances to escape with its undefeated record intact. As Michigan
State nursed a four-point lead late in the fourth quarter, the
Buckeyes used 12 straight running plays to move from their 19 to
the Michigan State 26, but they failed to convert on
fourth-and-one when backup tailback Joe Montgomery was stuffed by
Spartans linebacker T.J. Turner.

The Buckeyes mounted one last drive after forcing Michigan State
to punt with 1:51 left. Wide receiver David Boston returned the
kick to midfield, and Germaine, throwing on every down, moved
Ohio State to the Spartans' 15. From there, though, Germaine
threw three incompletions and a pass that was intercepted in the
end zone by Renaldo Hill. Apollo Creed lay sprawling on the

For the Buckeyes this latest deflating defeat ranks right up
there with the 13-9 home loss to Michigan in 1996 that expunged
them from the national title picture. Given the vagaries of the
Bowl Championship Series, Ohio State, now 8-1 overall and 5-1 in
the Big Ten, has virtually no chance of playing for the national
championship in the Fiesta Bowl and will need to finish ahead of
undefeated Wisconsin, whom the Buckeyes don't play this season,
in the Big Ten just to gain a berth in the Rose Bowl.

It's a matter of debate whether fate wrote the script once again
or Ohio State's late-season meltdowns are more than coincidence.
Regardless, Saturday's defeat will revive past criticism of
Cooper, who, for all his stellar recruiting, has yet to bring
Buckeyes fans their first national title since 1968. Some critics
have even suggested that Ohio State is too talented this year and
that any team that wins by an average of more than 29 points is
sure to choke in a tight game. "Believe me, I'm ecstatic, but
part of me feels for [Cooper]," said Saban, who briefly served as
an assistant under Earle Bruce in Columbus in the early '80s. "I
know the mentality here and what people will be saying, and it's
not fair."

But Cooper, whose November record against teams from Michigan
is--wince--2-9-1, all but saw this loss coming. "Every Sunday
people are talking about the big upsets, but there are no big
upsets," he ominously said earlier this season. "I've found
myself thinking that if we win the national championship, maybe I
ought to retire because you don't get the chance to leave on your
own terms in this business. It's hard to win all your games. I
know that as well as anyone."

Perhaps it's all the years of practice, but folks in Columbus at
least have the grief-therapy drill down cold. On Sunday, as
dispirited fans of the scarlet and gray filed out of town, their
hopes dashed once again, the gift shop at Port Columbus
International Airport had already cued up a videotape of the
Buckeyes' 1996 Rose Bowl victory.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Bowled over With Hill's interception in the waning seconds, Dee Miller and the Buckeyes' Fiesta Bowl bid bit the dust. [Renaldo Hill with ball near Dee Miller lying on field]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Stopped short Michael Wiley had 100 yards on 22 tries, but the Spartans limited other Buckeyes backs to 14 yards in 25 carries. [Michael Wiley engulfed by Michigan State players]


Teams from Michigan have made a habit of knocking Ohio State out
of the running for the national title. Below are eight contending
(ranked fifth or higher) Buckeyes squads since 1974 that have
taken a fall in November against either Michigan or Michigan


1974 No. 1 8-0 16-13 to Michigan State No. 4
1977 No. 4 9-1 14-6 to Michigan No. 11
1980 No. 5 9-1 9-3 to Michigan No. 15
1993 No. 5 9-0-1 28-0 to Michigan No. 11
1995 No. 2 11-0 31-23 to Michigan No. 6
1996 No. 2 10-0 13-9 to Michigan No. 2
1997 No. 4 10-1 20-14 to Michigan No. 12
1998 No. 1 8-0 28-24 to Michigan State -