Ohio State fans go borderline biblical when recalling the football program’s salvation moment, when a vest-wearing Moses of the Horseshoe led OSU out of bondage and into the Promised Land.
It happened on Jan. 3, 2003, when eight days after wandering into the desert the Buckeyes defeated the Miami Hurricanes 31-24 in double overtime for Ohio State’s first national championship in 34 years.
The Buckeyes’ Fiesta Bowl victory in the Bowl Championship Series title game gets a national audience replay at 8 p.m. Thursday on ESPN, which touts it as a Throwback Thursday classic.
For those who have never watched the game, and that probably includes one-quarter of Buckeye Nation, considering it was 17 years ago, I suggest you tune in, or DVR it for later. It rates among the biggest wins in school history, with memorable twists and turns in a season known for its close-calls.
The game serves as a seminal moment in the trajectories of both Ohio State and Miami. The Buckeyes entered at 13-0, but faced plenty of doubters, having won six games by seven points or fewer. They also were coming off a 7-5 season. The Canes, 12-0 and listed as 11½-point favorites, were riding a 34-game winning streak and looking to win a second consecutive BCS championship.
The game was crazy. Terry Porter’s late flag at the end of the first overtime. Maurice Clarett’s strip-fumble of Sean Taylor. And the most impressive running play I have witnessed in 25 years of covering the Buckeyes: a horde of out-of-shape sports reporters racing from the press box to watch the first overtime from field level, then huffing and puffing from sideline back to press box to write a deadline story in 15 minutes.
Who knew then that even as Ohio State coach Jim Tressel raised the crystal football during the postgame celebration the Buckeyes were about to ascend into rarified air, becoming the winningest program of the next two decades — and Miami would become an afterthought in college football?
The Buckeyes are 190-34 (.848) since the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (including a 12-1 record in 2010 that OSU counts as 0-1 because of vacated wins due to NCAA violations) with one national championship (2014), two more appearances in national-title games (2007 and ’08) and two other College Football Playoff appearances (2016 and ’19).
The Hurricanes are 132-84 (.611) since then, with no national titles and no playoff appearances.
"It was the end of Miami," said Bobby Carpenter, a freshman linebacker in 2002 who appeared in every game for the Buckeyes. "And it validated a coach (Tressel) who had won a lot in Division I-AA. It proved his formula for success transcended Division I-AA and could be successful across the country."
It wasn’t that Tressel took Ohio State to heights never seen in Columbus — Woody Hayes won three national titles, after all — but especially early in his tenure he succeeded in three areas where the previous two OSU coaches came up short: double-digit wins (eight of 10 seasons), winning the biggest bowls (5-3 in BCS games) and, most especially, beating Michigan (9-1).
Urban Meyer built on what Tressel established, going 83-9 (.902) while Miami is on its sixth coach, including two interims, since Larry Coker was fired after the 2006 season.
Given its dominance at the time, it remains stunning that Miami’s program diminished like ancient Egypt after the Scarlet Sea closed upon the Canes that night in Tempe, Arizona.
Equally impressive is what the win did for Ohio State’s confidence.
"Beating a team that people had looked up to, that had all that NFL talent, gave us the belief that we were as good as anybody in college football," Carpenter said. "After that, there was not a single team, that if we played our best, we didn’t feel we have a shot to win."
That confidence overflowed into the fans, who became almost cocky after suffering through a decade of losing to Michigan and dropping bowl games to Southeastern Conference speed.
Probably half of Buckeye Nation had not yet been born when OSU defeated Southern California in the 1968 Rose Bowl, so finishing the 2002 season No. 1 connected new believers with the many who finally experienced pure joy after decades of blown opportunities.
Prayers were answered for about 80% of the congregants assembled in the stadium that night. For the other 20% it was hell.