The-Ozone Rewind: Players and Coaches Still Smarting After Sparty, 1998

Ohio State Buckeyes Michigan State 1998

[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.]

November 11, 1998 | Ohio State’s inexplicable loss to Michigan State in 1998 is so painful to Buckeye fans that some have protected themselves by joking that that game doesn’t actually exist. In other words, Ohio State and Michigan State never played in 1998 and any references to the game are met with confusion and a quick change of the subject.

The Buckeyes went into that game as the No. 1 team in the nation and headed to a national championship. Everybody knew it. Michigan State was 4-4 overall, 2-2 in conference play, and an afterthought. And yet they walked out with a 28-24 win over the Buckeyes.

After the game, OSU head coach John Cooper eschewed any hope that the loss would be forgiven by the BCS voters and computers because, back then, late losses were usually fatal. “Realistically, I don’t think we have a chance of winning the national championship,” Coop said. It was a painful loss for fans of the Ohio State football team, but it was even more painful for the players who experienced it. This story comes from John Porentas a few days after the MSU loss when players and coaches had enough time to reflect on what the hell had just happened. — TG

If you read the O-Zone game report on the MSU loss, you know that we are not going to second guess that game. What’s done is done. There are, however, lingering questions and memories that haunt OSU fans about that game. Most of them center around the question of what, exactly, went wrong.

Replay the game in your mind, and lots of plays will stand out as back breakers. A punt that hit a blocker and was recovered by MSU. Three other fumbles. Joe Montgomery getting stopped on 4th and 1 on a promising drive late in the game. Four shots at the end zone from the 15 as the clock ran down. Name your poison. These and any one of dozens of other plays could be pointed to as the “big play” that unraveled the OSU undefeated season.

A guy who has a pretty good opinion on just what happened is OSU head coach John Cooper. Looking back, Coop saw signs of trouble early in the game.

“I think we started to lose the ball game in the second quarter when we had the ball first down on their 21 yard line with a 17-9 lead. We went backward and ended up having to punt the ball at that point,” said Cooper.

Coop said that series was indicative of what ailed the Buckeyes for the entire game.

“We had a couple of situations where we either didn’t block a guy or we didn’t adjust our route and took negative yardage. Joe took two long sacks and we ended up punting the football. I think that’s when we started to lose control of the football game.”

What seems to rankle Coop is that despite the rash of bad plays and bad breaks, the Bucks still had a chance, but didn’t pull it out.

“The punt that hit us, that was a key play. When Joe fumbled right after that, that was a key play. When they stopped us on fourth down was a key play. In spite of all that we still had an opportunity to win the football game,” said Cooper.

Coop felt until the bitter end that OSU would pull it out.

“We had an opportunity late in the game with the ball on the 15-yard line with a minute-and-half left in the game with four downs to put it in the end zone. I’d take my chances on that any day of the week, but we didn’t get the job done.”

Coop saw OSU’s failure to complete that drive as the result of mistakes by the offense as well as one great play by MSU.

“We ran some horsecrap routes, and threw some bad passes, that’s all, and their guy on the first one made a great play. That ball was inches from being a touchdown pass, but the kid made a great play,” said Coop.

According to Cooper, he never gave up hope until that final drive failed.

“I think we all felt like we were going to come back and win the game. Until the final pass fell incomplete I thought we were going to win the ball game.”

Cooper felt that the Bucks were close to winning it earlier in the quarter as well.

“I thought we were going to take the next-to-last drive down and score when we were running the ball, and when we did hold them and used our last time out and got the ball back at the 50-yard line I thought we were still going to win”

In the end, the Buckeyes had their big guns blazing, but could not hit the target.

“If you had told me that we were going to have four cracks at it, and they were going to rush and play man coverage in the secondary with David Boston and Dee Miller, I would have thought we were going to score. But we didn’t. We didn’t get it done.”

It was a nightmare for OSU fans and players. For OSU head coach John Cooper it meant sleepless nights and self questioning.

“I got up Sunday morning and went to the office. When you lose, you can’t sleep. You want to get over and look at film and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Cooper.

Apparently Coop was not the only one on the coaching staff that lost sleep over the loss.

I was there by 7:30 AM or so, and some of the assistant coaches were already in there,” said Cooper.

OSU defensive coordinator Fred Pagac is another member of the coaching staff that is searching for answers.

“It hurts bad. I’m sure the players are hurting even more than I do, and I was to the point to where I wanted to throw up,” said Pagac.

“I think the players are hurting right now, the coaches are hurting right now, but we’ve just got to forget about it and get ready to play the next game. We’ve got two games left and hopefully a major bowl game,” added Pagac.

The coaching staff, it seems, is taking the loss as hard or maybe even harder than the players. According to Coop, being young helps to cope with the sick feelings associated with losing.

“Kids are more resilient than coaches. They bounce back. This will last only as long as you let it,” said Cooper. “The younger guys, the players that are students have a lot to do do, to occupy their mind this week. The week will pass a lot quicker for those guys this week than it will the older coaches.”

Joe Montgomery said that the team is definitely feeling the pain of the loss.

“It’s hard. It’s very hard, especially when you look at film and see a lot of the stupid things that were done, it’s very hard. But we’re a great team and we’re going to bounce back from it,” said Joe, seemingly confirming Coop’s faith in the resiliency of players.

Like Cooper, offensive lineman Rob Murphy spent the days after the Michigan State game wondering what could have been.

“That’s all it is for me, a bunch of what ifs. What if we did this, what if we did that, you just question every facet of the game,” said Murphy.

“I’ve watched the tape three times now. You start looking at everything. I don’t claim to know a lot about defense, but you start looking at the defensive side of the ball, the special teams, just everything. It’s a big what if?”

Often you hear about team chemistry as a means to success, but one of the aspects of team unity that is often overlooked is that of supporting one another when dealing with failure.

“It’s everybody’s job. It’s the captain’s job, it’s my job, the trainer, the doctor, the strength coach, another player, a teammate, a parent, the worst thing you can do is hang your head and feel sorry for yourself,” said Coop.

According to Coop, the best tonic for the upset blues is to get back into action and exorcise the demon with a win.

“I’d like to play a game this afternoon. You’d like to go play as soon as you can and beat somebody and put the last game behind you.”

Joe Montgomery echoed that sentiment as well.

“I would like to play a ballgame today, especially after a loss like that,” said Joe. “The test of character of a team, of an individual, is how they bounce back,” he added.

The Buckeyes seem to be focusing on just that.

“We’re looking real, real hard at Iowa, I would say. We’ll try to play our best ball game when we play those guys, be very physical and very aggressive,” added Joe.

Rodney Bailey agreed.

“Our season’s not over, so we have to stay focused to play against Iowa.”

Na’il Diggs says the Buckeyes have a lot of emotion pent up that will have to be vented somewhere, and hopes it will be on the field over the next two weeks.

“I’m angry. I’m not so angry that you could tell if you see me on the street, but I’ve got a little fire inside. I’m going to hold it in until the time to let it out on the field,” said Diggs.

So just what will the Buckeye coaching staff do to pick up the team? In the old days, coaches would handle a loss by practicing the same day of the game, scrimmaging all week, and making life generally miserable for the players. According to Cooper, those days are over.

“I think the worst thing you can do in a situation like this is to yell and scream and berate your players and undress them. They feel as bad as you do,” said Cooper.

According to Coop, the task now is to re-establish goals and stay after them in the context of the reality of having taken a loss.

“Our goal initially was to win the national championship. If you can’t reach that goal, what’s the next best thing. If you can’t finish number 1, then try to finish 2, if you can’t finish 2 then try to finish 3. You try to win your games. That’s the main goal you have. You win all your football games,” said Coop.

“It would be foolish to think we still can’t have a great year. About the only thing we can’t do is go undefeated,” added the coach.

So the Buckeyes will refocus, and shoot for new goals, but the sting of the loss to MSU will linger, no matter what happens the rest of the season.

“If we go 11-1, in the off season I’ll remember the 1, not the 11,” said Rob Murphy.

According to Murphy, that is the way it has been with previous one loss seasons.

“I remember going out with the guys on the team after the Rose Bowl and we were very happy, obviously we had won a great game, but we talked about what if, what if we had beat Michigan and there was a national championship for us, so in order to have a great team or great program, I think you have to concentrate on the negatives more than the positives to get better,” said Murphy.

Tyson Walter agreed that that one loss, no matter what happens the rest of the season, will leave the Buckeyes with a sense of failure this season, but quickly adds there are still good things to shoot for.

“We’ve said all year that we want to win the national championship and anything short of that is failure, so if we go to the Rose Bowl, yes it’s failure, but at the same time it’s still a great bowl and we’ll be happy to got there and do our best to try to win it because we can still make a strong showing in the final polls, and it will be a lot of fun.”

Walter said that the loss is hard to take, but the loss of the national championship bid is the real killer. He went as far as to say that he could stomach the loss if somehow the Bucks could get back into the National Championship hunt.

“If we’re 11-1 and national champs, I’ll be very happy. If we’re 11-1 and 3, 2, 4 in the country, it will be very disappointing. It’s just something we have to live with now. What’s done is done and it’s time to take it like a man.”

[Header photo courtesy]

7 Responses

  1. Worst loss in OSU history. This was our best team ever.

    Our D gave up an average of 2.5 pts in the entire 2nd half to the other 11 teams, and we were up 24-9 with 10 min to go in the 3rd Q. That’s when MSU punted from their own 15 yd line, and it was such a horrible kick that it hit a blocker in the back as he ran downfield to block.

    After two more OSU fumbles, and after their kicker went 5 for 5 including ones from 42, 43 & 49 yds, and after Burress made a 40-yd catch between his legs while falling on his back between two defenders, MSU went up 28-24.

    9 min to go in the 4th Q, and Cooper calls 12 straight running plays and burns 6 min off the clock. This was with the best passing offense in OSU history (prior to the Urban years). It was pure torture to watch him waste the clock.

    Of course the BCS chose a mediocre 1-loss FSU team to play unbeaten Tennessee instead of the much superior Buckeyes. End of story.

  2. Look at the bright side! If they had won that game and gone into the Michigan game undefeated, Michigan would have played spoiler yet again.

  3. Best fiction I’ve ever read. What’s next; winning a natty w/ a 3rd string QB who almost tweeted himself out the door?

  4. Not sure if staff has decided to no longer promote OSU football. This is one memory that should have been left locked in a dusty closet somewhere.

  5. Besides any scum game loss this was easily my least favorite Ohio State loss ever…Was unbelievable

  6. Painfully, I remember as well. Typical of Coop’s teams, they just didn’t see to have the drive to overcome deficits. That team was destined to be National champ and beat even MI soundly, but sadly, they fell at #3 before the title game, that team was the only major conf. team to have both its O and D in the National top 5 in stats. Saban had ways to pull upsets and did all they had to do to win that one and they were a much better team than their record indicated. For OSU fans, MI teams ruined our seasons; in 95, 96, 97 and 98.

Comments are closed.