[Editor’s Note: From now until Big Ten Media Days, we’ll be reaching into The-Ozone’s 23 years worth of archives and each day we will be posting a story from yesteryear. Big moments, small moments, big games, bigger games, and the random recruiting updates about guys you haven’t thought about in a decade or two.]
October 27, 2002 | Ohio State’s 2002 win over Penn State is a landmark in OSU lore due to Chris Gamble’s pick six that gave the Buckeyes another heart-stopping victory during their national championship season. For many of those who experienced it in Ohio Stadium, they will tell you that Gamble’s interception and return is the loudest the Horseshoe has ever been. This game also happened to be the first career start for freshman linebacker AJ Hawk, who also came away with an interception. This pair of stories from John Porentas covers the game that happened and the moments that made it legendary. — TG
Defense, Gamble Interception, Key Buckeye Win Over Lions
By John Porentas
The press box at Ohio Stadium is a sedate place. The rules of decorum within the press box require that the inhabitants conduct themselves professionally. That means no outburst of emotion, no cheering, no noise.
For a half on Saturday, the press box was just as you would have excepted. As usual, the media watched the game in stoic silence. Then the unthinkable happened.
The Ohio State press box lost it’s collective cool. A game that was entertaining but did not inspire outburst suddenly produced a play that generated a shot of excitement that even the usually reserved media could not contain. The perpetrator, OSU cornerback Chris Gamble.
With his team trailing 7-3, Gamble intercepted a Zack Mills pass at the Penn State 40-yard line and returned it 40 yards for what would prove to be the winning touchdown. Gamble’s play sent the record OSU crowd of 105,103 into a frenzy. It also propelled OSU (9-0, 4-0) to a win, relegated Penn State (5-3, 2-3) to a loss, and sent a jolt of excitement through the press box that even the reserved media could not contain. The groan of appreciation for the play was audible, tangible, and completely out of character. It was also, like the play that inspired it, completely unforgettable.
“I was reading the quarterback’s eyes and I saw him throw the ball to the guy running the wheel route and I just attacked it and tried to score a touchdown,” said Gamble.
Gamble’s play would have been memorable without any special circumstances, but the circumstance were anything but normal. When Gamble took the field for the opening snaps on both offense and defense, he became the first Buckeye to do so since Paul Warfield graced Ohio Field in the early 60’s.
With Gamble on the field, an OSU defense that this season had not surrendered many points but had surrendered too many yards, particularly through the air, suddenly stopped surrendering much of anything. With the exception of first-quarter 80 yard scoring drive that ended in a five yard Larry Johnson touchdown run, OSU’s defense was dominating.
Excluding the 80-yard touchdown drive, the Penn State offense that had scored 49 points the week previous could manage only 79 additional yards in the game. The Lions managed just eight first downs, turned the ball over three times on three interceptions, and produced only 57 total net yards of offense in the second half.
“That’s a good football team. That’s a very good defensive football team,” repeated Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno.
“They were taking the pass away,” said Paterno. “They were playing a lot of two deep and linebackers out, making it tough to throw the football. We could throw it a little bit, but that defense wasn’t giving us a lot after the first quarter,” he said.
“I think Ohio State is a better defensive team this year than they were last year. I think it’s a combination of they played real well and we didn’t make the plays that could have been big plays,” Paterno said.
“They’re a good football team. It’s as simple as that.”
Not far behind the OSU defense was the Nittany Lion defense. The Ohio State offense could not put a touchdown on the board against the Lions, but did manage two scoring drives that culminated in two Mike Nugent field goals, both from 37 yards out. That is not a lot of point production from an offense, but it was just enough with the heroics of Gamble and the OSU defense.
The Buckeye offense, which had been dealt a blow earlier in the week when starting right tackle Shane Olivea was lost due to appendicitis, was dealt another major blow early in the first quarter when freshman tailback sensation Maurice Clarett went out of the game with a shoulder injury. Clarett played just five snaps in the game but managed 42 yards on just 4 carries. His 30 yard burst to the midfield stripe on OSU’s second play from scrimmage was the longest rushing play given up by Penn State this season.
With Clarett out the Buckeyes continued their opening drive, reaching the Penn State four-yard line. On third and goal from the five, OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel fumbled at the one-yard line while attempting to scramble for a touchdown. The ball was scooped up by PSU safety Anwar Phillips who raced it 58 yards upfield. Only a great play by Gamble, who ran down Phillips, fought through a blocker, then made the tackle, prevented a touchdown. Penn State was not able to capitalize on the field position when freshman linebacker A. J. Hawk, who started in replacement of injured Cie Grant, intercepted Mills to regain possession for OSU at the Ohio State 43-yard line.
The Buckeyes second field goal came with just one minute left in the third quarter and established a 13-7 OSU lead. The kick culminated a time-consuming (time of possession, 8:21) 72 yard drive that ate up more than half of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter developed into a slugfest, with both defenses doing the slugging and both offenses taking the slugs. Neither team scored in the final quarter. The Buckeyes held both the lead and the field position edge until Shawn Mayer intercepted a pass from Krenzel to give Penn State great field position at midfield.
The Lions did not move the ball, but Penn State punter David Royer pinned the Buckeyes back on their own five-yard line with just under seven minutes to play.
The Penn State defense suffocated the OSU offense and brought up a fourth and 10. It looked like Penn State would gain tremendous field position until OSU punter Andy Groom did his thing…for the first time.
Groom hit a 59-yard bomb to the Penn State 35. A 15-yard clipping penalty on the return moved the ball back to the PSU 21 for a net 69-yard change in field position on the punt.
“Before I went out Coach Tressel was staring at me,” said Groom. “He said ‘Groom, it’s the most important play in football. Show me something.’ I said ‘I’ll get it out of there, coach.’ All I thought was that I wanted to get a nice drop and stay smooth with it and get it out as quickly as possible because I knew they would be coming. They needed a touchdown to beat us so I stayed smooth, got a great drop and I just unloaded on it. It went a ways.”
Groom got one more chance to help his team, this time punting from his own 34 with just over three minutes to play. The senior once again came up big, driving one 55 yards that forced the Lions to start their last offensive possession from their own 15-yard line with 3:02 left on the clock and no time outs.
“I was pretty calm,” Groom said. “I didn’t really hear anything. I just tried to zone everything out and stay smooth with it and hopefully be able to pin them back, and I was able to do that.”
The OSU defense once again rose up on PSU’s final possession. Senior defensive tackle Kenny Peterson made a key play when he sacked Mills for a 10-yard loss.
“I’ll credit the back guys who covered the receivers,” said Peterson.
“That was clearly a coverage sack. I was just the guy who got the opportunity to get to the quarterback. That sack for me, it electrified the whole team. I’m just thankful that I was there to get it.”
The Lions eventually faced a fourth and six from their own 19. An incomplete Mills to Bryan Johnson pass on fourth down turned the ball over to OSU with 2:13 left to play. With Penn State unable to stop the clock, the OSU offense ran out the time to end the game.
Newcomers Gamble and Hawk Shine in Starting Debuts for OSU Defense
By John Porentas
The Ohio State defense turned in an extraordinary performance against Penn State, and they did it with two new faces in the starting lineup.
Wide receiver turned cornerback Chris Gamble made his first career start as a cornerback against Penn State. He also made the start at wide receiver, making him the first Buckeye to start on both sides of the ball since Paul Warfield. All he did was score the winning touchdown with a 40 yard interception return. In the process, he made the decision to play him on defense look like sheer genius.
“We kind of decided really Thursday,” said OSU Head Coach Jim Tressel.
“Coach Dantonio and Mel Tucker said ‘This guy’s extraordinary. He deserves to be our starter. He deserves to be noted and seen by the whole country as being a two-way starter. Mark and Mel asked if they could start him. Like always, I said yes,” said Tressel.
The decision was somewhat of a risk. Gamble had not accumulated much practice time with the defense prior to the game, but Tressel said that Gamble brings more than just talent to the table, and it is those other things that he brings that reduced the risk and made his decision easy.
“Chris Gamble is a smart player. There’s a lot of talented guys in this world, but they don’t have a feel for the game. He just has a feel for the game,” Tressel said.
“You could line him up at tailback, and he’d read the blocks, you could line quarterback, and he’s read the coverages,” Tressel said.
“Chris Gamble is one of those extraordinary young men because he’s been blessed with talent but also because he pays very close attention,” he added.
For his part, Gamble seems almost surprised by the attention his two-way act and penchant for making plays is garnering. His attitude is not nonchalant, but he just doesn’t seem to see any big deal in his performance.
“When I got the interception I just thought about scoring. I just followed all the blocks. I saw Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey block and I just ran behind them and tried to score, make a big play,” he said in a calm voice describing his return for the game winning touchdown.
Earlier in the game, Gamble made another huge play when he ran down and tackled Penn State safety Anwar Phillips after Phillips had picked up Craig Krenzel’s fumble and was returning it for what looked like could be a touchdown. The play was huge because the Buckeye defense then came up with a turnover of their own to keep Penn State off the board despite their great field position.
“Chris Gamble did a great job of coming up with the tackle,” said Tressel.
“It looked like it was going to be a 98 yarder. That’s what effort is all about. Guys like Chris Gamble just play and play and play, and when it’s time to go home they do that,” Tressel said.
Gamble may not have been overly impressed with his own accomplishments in Saturday, but OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio is definitely impressed with Gamble.
“We wanted to make him a two-way starter, and that’s what we did,” said Dantonio.
“We didn’t expect to play him as much as we did, but things happen. He was playing well. We kept asking him if he needed a break and he said no,” Dantonio said.
Will the Gamble at corner experiment continue?
“We’ll use him when we can. It doesn’t mean he’ll be playing next week,” Dantonio said cryptically.
The other new face in the crowd in the OSU starting defense was freshman linebacker A. J. Hawk who got the call filling in for injured linebacker Cie Grant.
“A. J. Hawk is a guy that stepped up,” said Tressel.
“He’s a true freshman. A.J. Hawk pays attention. He’s a bright football player, very well schooled in high school, came out of a program that was well coached and very technique conscious, and he loves the game. He did a good job stepping in. He’s just a playmaker,” Tressel said.
“A. J., you know he’s a 100 mph guy,” added Dantonio. “A very intelligent player with great toughness who practices like he plays. It was a great thing for him to go in there and get that kind of experience under these conditions,” Dantonio said.
Like Gamble, Hawk does not seem to be overly impressed with himself. His goal is to play well, help his team, and try not to embarrass himself along the way despite his youth and inexperience.
“You try not to (feel like a freshman). I try to not look like a freshman. Hopefully if someone didn’t know, they wouldn’t think I’m a freshman,” he said.
Hawk looked like anything but a freshman in his starting debut. Ironically, he credits the man he replaced, Cie Grant, for taking him under his wing and helping him develop so rapidly this fall.
“He’s been like that all year to me. I’ve heard a lot of freshmen say that since we came into camp. Some upper classmen on other teams could have tried not to help guys as much, but it’s unbelievable how much our upperclassmen help us. I didn’t realize that when I was in high school, how much that would actually help. The guys that are veterans, they can really help you out when you’re young. Cie has certainly done that for me,” said Hawk.