The biggest game on the Texas schedule comes a month earlier than usual this year. For Ohio State it's two months early. Forget, for now, the Longhorns' annual Red River Shootout with Oklahoma in October and the Buckeyes' traditional season-ending Big Ten showdown with Michigan. This Saturday night sixth-ranked Ohio State, with multithreat sophomore Ted Ginn Jr., welcomes No. 2 Texas, with freak quarterback Vince Young, to Columbus in an epic nonconference matchup. This first-ever meeting between the two schools will define each team's season and derail one challenger to USC's bid for a third national championship. ¬∂ Texas looked every bit a title contender in winning its opener 60-3 last Saturday in Austin, though it was against a designated, hyphenated sacrificial lamb, Louisiana-Lafayette, a team already emotionally ravaged by the Hurricane Katrina disaster back home (box, page 66). Likewise, the top-ranked Trojans, No. 4 Michigan and No. 10 Florida beat weak opponents by an average margin of 26.7 points. But third-ranked Tennessee needed help from its backup quarterback to get past Alabama-Birmingham (box, page 50), and No. 7 Oklahoma picked up where it left off in last January's Orange Bowl loss to USC: stinking up the joint, this time in a 17-10 home loss to TCU (box, page 47).
So arguably it was sixth-ranked Ohio State that made the biggest statement of the weekend. Cruising past Miami of Ohio 34-14, the mature and disciplined Buckeyes looked as underrated as the Sooners looked overrated. Ohio State committed only two penalties, unheard of in an opener, and its defense allowed the RedHawks all of 48 yards rushing. The Buckeyes have enviable depth at quarterback, perhaps even an unenviable quarterback controversy in the making. With Troy Smith, a hero off the bench last season, serving a two-game NCAA suspension for accepting $500 from a booster last year, fellow junior Justin Zwick completed 17 of 23 passes in less than four quarters of work.
Happy as it made them to see Zwick running the team's new spread offense--have aliens abducted Jim Tressel, Ohio State's normally staid coach, and replaced him with a freewheeling doppelg√§nger?--fans were equally cheered by the sight of sophomore tailback Antonio Pittman rushing for 100 yards on 14 carries. He signaled the revival of a ground game that had lost traction since Maurice Clarett left for an ill-fated bid to join the NFL after his freshman season in 2003.
And then there is the Ted factor. One of the fastest, most dangerous players in the nation, Ginn (pronounced with a hard G), a six-foot, 178-pound sophomore flanker, caught five passes for 75 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown, against Miami of Ohio. He carried the ball three times and ran back two punts and one kickoff. A year ago, late in preseason camp, the coaches switched Ginn from cornerback to flanker, and his head was spinning. Recalls Zwick, "He was just trying to get lined up right. [Now] he's the one helping other receivers." Coming off his performance in the last four games of 2004--18 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns, two punts returned for TDs--Ginn had the Longhorns' attention. "We're not going to talk about [Ohio State]," Longhorns coach Mack Brown told reporters before the team's opener. "I don't want to think about that Teddy Ginn; I'll start losing sleep two weeks early."
The story of how Ginn made it to Ohio State and became a solid B student and an All-America candidate starts with a nightmare, but may end in a dream season for the Buckeyes.
The trauma occurred 10 years ago, but to hear the hurt in Ginn's voice as he tells the story, it might as well have happened yesterday. On his first day of fifth grade at St. Aloysius in the Cleveland suburb of Glenville, Ginn was pulled out of class. There had been a misunderstanding. Yes, he had attended St. Aloysius since first grade, but unbeknownst to him, school officials had informed his parents the previous June that the school no longer had the resources to deal with his learning disability.
So the boy was soon standing on a curb waiting for his father to pick him up, tie knotted, white shirt gleaming in the sun, tears running down his face. He was confused and ashamed.
The road would dip again before it began to rise for Ginn. There was the sixth-grade teacher who called him out in front of a class at Forest Hill Parkway, insisting that he spell a word. "But I couldn't," recalls Ginn. "So he told me, in front of the whole class, that I was going to flip hamburgers my whole life." Finally, in eighth grade, Ginn was placed in a special program that gave him the tools he needed to learn. "Once he was comfortable in the classroom," says his father, Ted Sr., "the real Ted could come out."
The real Ted was determined to make up for lost time. When Glenville High teacher Margaret Robinson had trouble starting a ninth-grade English class because of rowdy students, one child stood up. "We're in here for a reason," said Ginn, looking around. "And I want to learn." By 10th grade he was on such solid footing that he returned to regular classes. Ginn went on to graduate in the top 10% of his class.
The real Ted, it turned out, was also a once-in-a-generation athlete. He had run the 110-meter hurdles in 14.9 seconds and the 400 meters in 52.9--in eighth grade. As a sophomore, Ginn ran the last leg on Glenville's 4√ó400-relay team at the Adidas national championship meet in 45.2 seconds. A year later he took three firsts at that meet, winning the hurdles in 13.4 seconds and running on two victorious relays.
Remember the brief NFL careers of butterfingered track stars Johnny (Lam) Jones and Renaldo Nehemiah? Ginn is the inverse of those guys--"a great football player who happens to excel at track," as Buckeyes senior linebacker Tony Schlegel aptly describes him. "Look at his lineage."
Indeed, while Ted Sr. has coached Glenville's track team to three straight state titles, he is better known as the coach of the Tarblooder football squad, which has produced a steady stream of Division I talent. Ted Jr. is one of five former Glenville players on the Ohio State roster and the brightest star Ted Sr. has ever sent down Interstate 71 to Columbus. In addition to punting, returning kicks and playing every offensive skill position for Glenville, Ginn was also the nation's top lockdown corner as a senior, intercepting eight passes and returning five of them for touchdowns. It wasn't long after he arrived on campus that the Buckeyes started trying him at positions other than defensive back. "It became very obvious to us," recalls Tressel, "that while he could be a very good defender, he was out of this world with the ball in his hands."
But after the switch to flanker, Ginn was "force-fed" the offense, in the words of passing-game coordinator Joe Daniels, and it took him a while to digest it. The moment he stopped overthinking and trusted himself to execute the plays properly, he kicked into high gear. "All of a sudden," says Daniels, "he was full speed, and it was like, Wow!"
Ginn's breakout game came on Nov. 6 against Michigan State. Having made a bold prediction to receivers coach Darrell Hazell--"I feel like I'm going to score three times"--Ginn got busy backing it up. He reached the end zone on a 17-yard reverse, a 60-yard punt return, then a game-breaking 58-yard reception. The Buckeyes won 32-19, and Ginn had arrived.
Two weeks later, as one internet wag noted, it was déj√† vu all over a Ginn. In the third quarter against Michigan, Wolverines punter Adam Finley launched a rocket that went 75 yards in the air. Shot from the end zone, the coaches' video of the play shows Ginn backpedaling to his 18-yard line, catching the ball, then dashing into a maelstrom of white Wolverines jerseys. At the 25 he is encircled by most of the punt-coverage team, but two moves and one burst of speed later he is at the left sideline with only the punter to beat. You know how that movie ends: Ginn's 82-yard return for a touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 27-14 lead, was immediately hailed as one of the most spectacular plays in Ohio State history.
Texas hasn't given up a punt return for a touchdown in seven years, but that doesn't mean Tressel won't find some way to spring Ginn. In addition to flanker he will line up at running back and in the "shot-Ginn" formation, as a kind of single-wing quarterback. Sometimes he gets the ball on a reverse. "You have to be prepared for anything," says Longhorns co-defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. It's almost too much for Ohio State fans, long unaccustomed to such offensive dazzle, to handle. In four seasons Tressel's offenses--even that of the 2002 national champions--tended to be underwhelming. That came to an end down the stretch last season, and not only because of Ginn's emergence. At the same time another freshman flanker, Anthony Gonzalez, was coming into his own, and together they took pressure off leading wideout Santonio Holmes, whom defenses could no longer afford to double-cover with impunity.
The Longhorns will be forced to pick their poison. "Who do you want to put two guys on?" asks Zwick. "'Cause you know we're going to go away from [that receiver] and let somebody else make a play. They can't double-cover everyone."
Ginn is more than the front man for a new offensive era at Ohio State. He is a healing agent, who arrived on campus at the end of a dark period for the football program. Fourteen players were arrested for various misdemeanors and felonies between January 2001 and May 2004. Those scrapes with the law came in tandem with stories of football players being coddled by academic advisers who steered them to such gut courses as Officiating Basketball and Tressel's own class: Coaching Football.
Efforts to right the program were aided immeasurably by Ginn's decision to attend Ohio State over USC. With his work ethic and humility and his triumph over his disability, Ginn has created a stark contrast between himself and Ohio State's last game-breaking sensation. It would be fair to describe Ginn as the un-Clarett.
Ted Sr. tells the story of taking his son to a restaurant two years ago; when Ted Jr. excused himself from the table, he saw two employees, both of whom appeared to have Down syndrome, cleaning the restrooms. We can't eat here, he told his father, upon returning to the table. "They got the slow kids in there cleaning the bathrooms," Ted Jr. said, "and I don't like that."
Having long borne the stigma of "slow kid," Ginn empathizes with those the New Testament describes as "the least among us." That's how Gretchen Taylor, the athletic director at Glenville High, remembers Ginn when he was in her physical education classes. "Sometimes," she says, "you have those who are afraid to participate, maybe because they can't move or they're heavy. Ted would go and talk to those kids, and say, 'Come on, just do whatever you can.' If [the kids] had to run laps, he would run the lap with the heavy kids, telling them how well they were doing, just helping them get around the gym."
There are limits, of course, to Ginn's charity. Two years ago, when officials at St. Aloysius asked him to give a speech to their eighth graders, he said thanks, but no thanks.
• To see a photo gallery of the weekend's best college football action, go to SI.com/galleries.
"I don't want to think about that Teddy Ginn," coach Mack Brown said before the Longhorns' opener. "I'll start LOSING SLEEP two weeks early."
Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer
¬†UNITED FRONT The Buckeyes hooked up last Saturday before storming the field and beating Miami (Ohio) 34-14 in their opener.
REDHAWK DOWN Schlegel and the other Ohio State defensive starters shut out Miami before making an early exit.
ON TARGET Zwick was sharp in his first start since October, but he may give way when Brown returns from a two-game suspension.