EDITOR’S NOTE – This season marks the 10-year anniversary of Ohio State’s 2002 national championship season. We will share stories on all 14 of OSU’s wins that season, including this look at the win over Cincinnati. That game was played exactly 10 years ago today on Sept. 21, 2002.
Highlights of OSU's 23-19 win at Cincinnati in 2002
A week after humbling 10th-ranked Washington State, No. 6 Ohio State found the shoe on the other foot.
The Buckeyes, making their first road trip to the Cincinnati area since 1911, found themselves in a true dogfight and narrowly defeated the upset-minded Bearcats 23-19 before a sellout crowd of 66,319 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Ohio State (4-0) needed an interception by Will Allen -- coming on a pass tipped by OSU's Matt Wilhelm in the end zone with 26 seconds left -- to preserve the win.
"I feel like I just watched a wreck and I wasn't involved in it," said OSU tight end Ben Hartsock. "We were definitely very happy to get the win, but we had a lot of mistakes come out today."
The Buckeyes played the game without tailback Maurice Clarett, who carved up WSU for 230 yards a week earlier. Clarett made the trip, but did not dress for the game after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery earlier in the week.
Although the Buckeyes got a fine rushing performance from backup tailback Lydell Ross (130 yards on 23 carries), it was clear the offense was missing its best weapon.
"We played an excellent football team in Cincinnati," OSU coach Jim Tressel said. "My hat's off to them for the way they played for 60 minutes.
"This was a great environment. It was exciting and electric. It was a great crowd with tremendous energy. I think they gave both teams energy.
Cie Grant defends pass vs. Cincinnati
"But we feel very fortunate to leave Paul Brown Stadium today with the win.
Quarterback Craig Krenzel also struggled, completing 14 of 29 passes for 129 yards with two interceptions. But he did toss two touchdown passes and, for good measure, scored what became the game-winning touchdown on a twisting 6-yard run with a scant 3:44 left.
"In this day and age with college football, a win is a win," Krenzel said. "We're excited and happpy with our effort. We had guys make plays when it counted. But, at the same time, we're disappointed. We had way too many mistakes. We almost beat ourselves."
The Buckeyes took a while to get going, managing just 20 yards and one first down on five first-quarter possessions. Two of them ended on turnovers with a Maurice Hall fumble and a Krenzel interception.
UC quarterback Gino Guidugli completed 26 of 52 passes for 324 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions for the Bearcats (1-2).
"I congratulate Ohio State for coming in and playing the way they did," said UC coach Rick Minter. "We let an opportunity get away. We had too many errors at crunch time. We take no solace in losing. We had a chance to win and didn't. You never, ever want to be satisfied with losing."
After forcing an OSU punt to open the game, UC's no-huddle spread offense moved 80 yards on nine plays for the game's first touchdown. Guidugli came out hot, hitting 6 of 7 passes for 79 of the yards. The biggest play was his 36-yard pass down the left sideline to Tye Keith down to the OSU 1. Two plays later, tailback DeMarco McCleskey turned the corner and beat OSU's Cie Grant to the pylon for the 1-yard touchdown.
Jonathan Ruffin missed the PAT kick, but UC led 6-0 with 10:13 left in the first quarter.
A 46-yard run by McCleskey on UC's next possession put the Bearcats in the red zone. But OSU linebacker Matt Wilhelm had a pair of tackles for loss, including a sack of Guidugli, and UC had to settle for Ruffin's 44-yard field goal and a 9-0 lead with 6:24 left in the first quarter.
The Buckeyes finally scored on their sixth possession, going 61 yards in 10 plays. Krenzel converted first downs with passes of 12 yards to Ross and 5 yards to tight end Ben Hartsock. That combination hooked up on the touchdown as Krenzel faked a handoff on third-and-2 at the 20 and threw to a wide open Hartsock for the touchdown, cutting the lead to 9-7 with 10:03 left in the first half.
UC answered by moving 33 yards in nine plays. But the drive stalled after OSU's Simon Fraser batted down a third-down pass and UC took Ruffin's 49-yard field goal to extend the lead to 12-7 with 6:05 left in the half.
That score stood at halftime, especially after Chris Gamble's ensuing 94-yard kick return for an apparent score was nullified by an OSU holding penalty.
OSU won the field position battle to open the second half, pinning UC back at its own 8 on the kickoff and taking possession after a punt at the UC 36. The Buckeyes needed five plays to find the end zone with Ross ripping off gains of 16 and 15 yards to open the possession.
Facing third-and-goal at the 5, Krenzel rolled left and stayed alive just long enough to find Chris Vance at the goal line. Vance took the ball away from UC's Zach Norton for the touchdown and OSU's first lead at 14-12 with 10:53 left in the third quarter.
OSU moved into scoring position on its next drive, but could not convert on fourth-and-1 at the UC 33. Ross was stopped for no gain and the Bearcats took possession.
UC moved 67 yards in 11 plays to retake the lead. Guidugli hit on 6 of 9 passes on this push, including a 23-yarder to LaDaris Vann, who made a great one-handed grab. Guidugli then threw again to Vann, who beat OSU's Will Allen for a 23-yard gain down to the OSU 4. Finally, on second-and-goal, Guidugli hit Keith for the 5-yard TD, putting UC back up 19-14 with 2:36 left in the third.
Ohio State came back with a strong possession, keyed by a 29-yard scramble by Krenzel down to the UC 6. After netting 5 yards on the first three plays, OSU called timeout to ponder its fourth-down call at the 1. But the Buckeyes came out of the break with 12 men on the field. Extra lineman Adrien Clarke appeared to be the culprit. Pushed back 5 yards, OSU had to settle for Mike Nugent's 24-yard field goal and cut the UC advantage to 19-17 with 12:36 left in the game.
The Bearcats then drove all the way down to the OSU 13. But Guidugli tossed an interception in the end zone to OSU's Gamble, who was filling in on defense.
OSU had to punt the ball away, but the Buckeyes got another huge turnover as Darrion Scott blindsided Guidugli and forced a fumble, which teammate David Thompson recovered at the UC 47 with 8:11 left.
The Buckeyes needed 10 plays to find the end zone and take the lead for good. Krenzel found Jenkins for gains of 12 and 16 yards on quick outs. Ross then carried on successive plays for 4, 5, 6 and 0 yards.
Finally on second-and-goal at the 6, Krenzel rolled left and kept the ball. He absorbed hits from three UC players at the 2, but spun and put the ball over the goal line for the go-ahead TD with 3:44 left. The Buckeyes led 23-19.
Then, it was on the defense. UC quickly moved into OSU territory and, after a 19-yard pass to McCleskey, had a first down at the OSU 15 with 1:01 left.
Guidugli threw incomplete twice to Jon Olinger in the end zone with OSU's E.J. Underwood and Gamble breaking up the passes. Then, on third down, Guidugli and George Murray appeared to hook up on the score, but the ball bounced out on the turf.
UC called a timeout with 32 seconds left to set up its final play and OSU followed with one of its own.
Finally, Guidugli tried to find inside slot man Vann on a skinny post. But Wilhelm tipped the ball up and Allen intercepted it to preserve the win.
OSU fell on the ball to close the game and the two sides, after a hard fought game, shared handshakes and hugs at midfield.
Next Up: The Buckeyes opened Big Ten play against Indiana on Sept. 28, 2002.
Relive The Memories
You can still purchase our book on the 2003 Ohio State-Miami (Fla.) Fiesta Bowl, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," directly on eBay with a credit card.
You can click here for more details on the book, including sample pages of the cover, table of contents, my introduction and the chapter on the pivotal second overtime.
To order directly online, click this link for eBay.
Or you may send a check or money order for $20 ($17 for the book, $3 for shipping) to:
P.O. Box 34
Pataskala, OH 43062
Allow 2 weeks for shipping.