What If...The Punt Never Hits Nate Clements
A week-long re-imagining of five events that shaped the last 20 years of Ohio State football
By Tony Gerdeman
The Buckeyes were leading Michigan State 24-9 in the third quarter. Damon Moore had just returned an interception for a touchdown, and it was time for Sparty to begin their collapse.
The year was 1998. The Buckeyes, ranked #1 in the nation, weren't running away with a victory against the 4-4 Spartans, but they clearly had enough breathing room to get by.
And then Michigan State punted.
The punt bounces off of Ohio State's Nate Clements, the Spartans recover the ball, they score five plays later, and suddenly fate had pulled a rare "Reverse Sparty".
The Buckeyes would go on to turn the ball over three more times, including once on downs, and one of the darkest days in Ohio State history would end in a 28-24 loss to a stunningly mediocre Michigan State team.
But what if that punt never glances off of Clements? What if the ball simply bounces to a stop, the Buckeyes take possession, there is no momentum shift, and OSU coasts to an easy enough win?
What a world we would be living in right now.
Michigan State, disappointed with Nick Saban's 5-7 record on the season, and his overall 24-23 record after four years, fires their head coach, sending Saban into a mental breakdown that would see him leave the game almost completely.
Saban, an emotional mess, gives up his life as a coach and eventually turns it over to a local tailor, who mentors him and teaches him the art of clothery. Through this gesture of a kindness from a stranger, Saban finally finds some happiness, though the tug of the game still pulls on him.
Meanwhile, without that muffed punt, the Buckeyes go on to defeat the Spartans, and they would have continued their undefeated season into their bowl game, where they would have matched up with the #2 Tennessee Volunteers in the first ever BCS Championship Game.
Ohio State, just three years removed from being cheated by Tennessee in the 1996 Citrus Bowl when the Vols knowingly wore cleats that were longer than the rules permitted, would go on to win the BCS National Championship in convincing fashion.
Years later it would be revealed that Ohio State used illegal gloves in the game. And pepper spray. And there was unsubstantiated rumors of a possible blackjack.
With the national championship exposure, and no starting quarterback returning for the 1999 season, the Buckeyes had their pick of the litter when it came to signing quarterbacks, so they chose blue-chipper Chris Simms out of New Jersey.
Simms starts from day one in 1999, and performs admirably. Receiver Ken-Yon Rambo has a breakout season in his first year as a starter. The star of the team, however, is sophomore safety Steve Bellisari, whose range and knack for the ball are unmatched in college football.
The following season, Bellisari and sophomore Mike Doss form the greatest tandem of safeties Ohio State has ever seen. Unfortunately, the NCAA rules the duo ineligible in 2001 due to "excessive violence". Ohio State wanted to appeal the sanctions, but the evidence was overwhelming.
Doss vows to return in 2002, however, saying that he's coming back to win a national championship. With Bellisari graduated, the NCAA reinstates Doss for the 2002 season figuring he can't do too much damage on his own.
Before the 2002 season, however, John Cooper retires, telling people that he couldn't take another year of Phil Simms constant interference regarding his son Chris, who has spent the last two seasons in quarterback battles.
Ohio State's search for a head coach in 2002 goes unfilled, as nobody wants the Phil Simms headache. The Buckeyes, led by seniors Matt Wilhelm and Doss, coach themselves. It does not go well.
With Chris Simms graduated following the season, and his father gone, coaches again begin to show interest in Ohio State. A 39-year old head coach from Bowling Green named Urban Meyer sends in his résumé. It catches athletic director Andy Geiger's eye, but he privately wonders if Meyer is ready for the big time.
Geiger interviews several candidates, including Meyer and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden. Ultimately, Geiger decides to offer the job to Gruden, who accepts it. Gruden then hops on the first plane for Columbus, happy to be Ohio State's new head coach.
Geiger faxes the paperwork over to Gruden's attorney, and begins to contact assorted administrators at the University. It was then that he realized he had faxed over Gruden's contract improperly, sending Gruden's attorneys only blank pages.
Taking this as a sign from the heavens, Geiger pulls Gruden's offer, and instead offers the job to Urban Meyer, who accepts before Geiger can even finish his story of divine intervention. Eight minutes later, Meyer has a verbal commitment from Louisville, Kentucky quarterback Michael Bush.
Geiger then has to call Gruden to tell him the bad news, and as you can imagine, Gruden doesn't take it very well. "But I am already on the plane. Gruden is on the plane!" he yells. To which Geiger replies that flight does not a legally-binding document make.
Gruden returns to Tampa Bay as head coach, but never returns to his Super Bowl-winning glory. He is soon fired and eventually ends up on television as a color commentator for dubbed versions of "Ninja Warrior".
And Nick Saban? He became one of the nation's premier clothiers. However, it just wasn't enough for him. He missed football with all of his heart, and he desperately needed to be around it, but he didn't want to give up the business that he had built from nothing.
So what did he do?
He combined the best of both of his worlds, opening a menswear store in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
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