Rob Oller | Ohio State football owes a lot to The Strip by Maurice Clarett in 2003 Fiesta Bowl

Rob Oller
In the first of five sequence of photos, Ohio State's Maurice Clarett starts to pull the ball out of the hands of Miami’s Sean Taylor during Taylor’s interception return in the third quarter of the Fiesta Bowl in 2003. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]

Ohio State football was birthed in 1890, the same year Groucho Marx, Agatha Christie and Columbus’ own Eddie Rickenbacker entered the world.

Call it serendipity. Beginning with the first Buckeyes game on May 3, 1890, against Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware, the program has pinballed among ...

Needling comedy: Why is the turf at Michigan Stadium made of cardboard? Because the Wolverines always look better on paper.

And mystery: How did Urban Meyer lose to Purdue?

And victory under duress: Holy Buckeye!

(Note: Stan Laurel also was born in 1890, and like the comedic star, Ohio State occasionally falls on its face. But this is a family show, so for now we’ll keep it PG.)

Beginning with this column and continuing intermittently over the coming weeks and/or months, I’ll take a deep dive into the most remarkable, game-changing, season-saving, misery-inducing and just plain famous plays in program history.

Clarett’s saving strip

Craig Krenzel never saw the hit coming. Boom, the Ohio State quarterback was flying through the Arizona night air, which at that moment was being sucked out of Sun Devils Stadium by the gasping Ohio State fans who outnumbered Miami’s crowd 10 to 1 at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

“I was in midair, parallel to the ground,” Krenzel said last week, sharing details of The Strip with The Dispatch for the first time. “I got up and didn’t know where I was.”

Turns out he was on his way to a national title, thanks to a defensive play made by an offensive player.

In 25 years of covering the Buckeyes, I have never witnessed anything like Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett stripping the ball from Miami safety Sean Taylor in the third quarter of OSU’s 31-24 double overtime win over the Hurricanes.

Krenzel never witnessed it, either. The junior went face-mask down in the grass after Miami nose tackle Vince Woolfork leveled him. He missed seeing Taylor jumping a 7-yard pass to tight end Ben Hartsock deep in the end zone and returning it down the Miami sideline for what looked to be a pick-six.

Then out of nowhere came Clarett. But it took his quarterback making a mistake for the freshman to make history.

“It was a bad read on my part,” said Krenzel, who converted enough other plays to be named offensive MVP. “I did not have enough respect for just how good Sean Taylor was. He was one of the best center fielders to play that position in college football. He was so long and covered so much ground. I’m convinced if you give me that throw against anybody playing in the Big Ten that year, it’s a touchdown.”

Taylor nearly made six points the other way. The defensive back, who sadly was murdered by an intruder during a Florida home invasion in 2007, baited Krenzel into targeting Hartsock, who thought he was about to put Ohio State ahead 21-7 with 10:40 left in the third quarter.

“In that moment where time slows down, I saw Craig lock his eyes on me and I had enough time to think, ‘I’m going to catch a flippin’ touchdown in the national championship game,’ ” said Hartsock, who also participated in the interview.

It didn’t work out that way. Taylor make the pick, Hartsock tumbled to the turf, and for a few seconds it appeared Taylor would tie the score at 14.

“I went down and when I got up, (Taylor) was 30 yards away,” Hartsock said. “I heard a groan from the crowd on the interception and then a roar and didn’t know what happened, but then Clarett came up with the ball.”

Clarett chased down Taylor at an angle, stuck a hand between arm and rib cage and stole the ball. The Buckeyes regained possession, and four plays later Mike Nugent kicked a 44-yard field goal for a 17-7 lead.

“(Center) Nick Mangold is chasing, but he’s not catching Sean Taylor from the moment Taylor is 5 yards deep in the end zone,” Hartsock said.

Clarett still downplays what is among the most impressive bang-bang plays in Ohio State history.

“It not like I had this big epiphany of what I was about to do,” Clarett told me last year. “Every day at practice you do ball-security drills, so subconsciously when you see somebody carrying a ball wrong you just know they’re doing it wrong. As I’m getting closer to him I’m like, ‘This guy doesn’t see me.’ ”

Neither did Krenzel, but who it was that saved the day did not surprise him.

“When you look at that play, it’s Reese to a T, fighting like crazy to win the football game,” Krenzel said.

By prohibiting Taylor’s path to the end zone, Clarett’s head’s-up play changed the course of Ohio State football. That night in the desert, the Buckeyes won their first national championship since 1968. They played in two more title games the next five seasons and in 2014 won the first College Football Playoff championship. Not sure any of that happens without The Strip.


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