This is part of a series looking at crucial moments, games, and decisions in Ohio State football history, and how things may have played out if they had gone a different way.
It was, is, and forever will be one of the most inexplicable losses in Buckeye football history.
John Cooper’s best team, absolutely loaded with veteran stars across the board, somehow blew a 24-9 lead midway through the third quarter. It happened at home against a Michigan State team that was thoroughly unimpressive for the rest of the year.
But for about an hour late in the third quarter through the end of the game, they totally dominated the Buckeyes. That 24-9 deficit turned into a 28-24 Spartan win as OSU completely imploded following one critical moment.
That was enough to keep the Buckeyes out of the BCS championship game, forcing one of the greatest teams in program history to share the Big Ten title and play a middling Texas A&M team in the Sugar Bowl.
If you are a Buckeye fan born anytime in the mid-1980s or before, you already know. Please try to stop screaming while we explain to those under 30 years of age.
The 1998 Ohio State team was one of the most dominant ever seen in Columbus. They won their first eight games by at least 17 points each. The closest of those wins was on the road at No. 10 West Virginia, and was 34-10 before the Mountaineers scored a garbage-time touchdown with 0:13 left in the game.
OSU had started the season ranked No. 1 and never wavered. There was no Big Ten Championship Game, so entering November all the Buckeyes had to do to earn a spot in the BCS title game was beat a four-touchdown underdog MSU at home, beat an absolutely putrid Iowa team on the road, and then knock off a Michigan team that already had two losses.
Only the last of these was considered a serious threat. This was the John Cooper era. Everyone in scarlet and gray knew exactly where the banana peel was on the schedule. The two games before that were just a formality.
The Buckeyes jumped out to a 17-3 lead after the first quarter against MSU. The Spartans kicked a pair of field goals to cut it to 17-9 at the half, but Damon Moore picked off MSU’s Bill Burke and ran it back for a 73-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to make it 24-9.
On the ensuing drive, the Spartans went 3-and-out and had to punt it away from their own 15. OSU was about to get the ball back at midfield with a 15-point lead and less than 10 minutes to play in the third quarter. And then…
The punt was short, it hit OSU’s Nate Clements on the leg, and Michigan State recovered.
At this point, Ohio State was still in control. They were still up by 15 in the second half against a team that hadn’t done anything consistently on offense all day.
But for some reason, the Buckeyes just completely melted down. A defense that hadn’t given up a touchdown all day gave up two in the span of three drives.
The offense, which featured stars like Joe Germaine, Michael Wiley, and David Boston suddenly couldn’t get out of its own way. The final six OSU drives ended: fumble, punt, punt, fumble, downs, interception.
Three of those drives reached MSU territory, including ones that ended on the 26 and 15. They scored zero points.
OSU won its last two games, and very nearly got enough help to make it to the national title game. In a miraculous string of upsets, Texas A&M shocked No. 2 Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship. Miami stunned No. 3 UCLA in a game being made up following a September cancellation due to a hurricane.
But No. 1 Tennessee pulled off a pair of late escapes to keep the Buckeyes out of the title game. First, Arkansas had a 24-22 lead and the ball near midfield with 1:47 left against the Vols. Razorbacks quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped and fumbled the ball away to blow what looked like a sure Razorbacks win.
Then, in the SEC Championship Game, an 8-3 Mississippi State team held a 14-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter before giving up a pair of late scores.
Just like that, the best Buckeye team of the 1990s missed out on reaching the first BCS national championship game. But it all started with that punt.
What Could Have Happened
With a 24-9 lead and poised to get the ball back near midfield, the Buckeyes play it safe. Returner David Boston sees the punt falling well short of him and yells, “POISON! POISON!” to warn his teammates to get away. Clements hears it, breaks off for the sideline and the punt rolls dead at the 50.
The Buckeyes don’t do much with it, but with a 15-point lead, the clock is on their side.
After an exchange of punts, OSU adds a field goal late in the third quarter to stretch the lead to three scores a 27-9.
The Spartans are forced to turn one-dimensional, and a couple late Burke interceptions lead to a late touchdown for a 34-9 final score.
The following week, OSU thumps 3-6 Iowa, setting up a “win and you’re in” showdown against archrival Michigan.
It’s a position the Buckeyes have been in before. The Wolverines upset OSU in 1993 and 1995 to deny them the Rose Bowl in each season. In 1996, with the Rose Bowl already clinched, a 13-9 home loss cost the Buckeyes a national title.
This year, the OSU team is simply too talented to let that happen again.
The defense locks down the Michigan running game, putting the outcome in the hands of Wolverine quarterback Tom Brady. Never known as a big-game performer in college, Brady throws for more than 300 yards, but the Wolverines can’t finish drives and settle for field goals.
OSU plays tight, but wins 24-16, setting up a national title showdown with Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield locks down Tennessee WR Peerless Price, taking away one of the Vols’ biggest weapons. With RB Travis Henry carrying a lot of the load, Tennessee is only able to mount a couple extended drives all night.
In a big spot, the OSU coaching staff plays very conservatively, limiting the impact of big-play receiver David Boston. But in the end, the Buckeyes’ talent advantage wins out in a 20-10 final score.
It’s the school’s first national title since 1968.
The Buckeyes take a step back in 1999 after losing a boatload of talent to the NFL, but the goodwill from the national title keeps Cooper in everyone’s good graces.
He coaches for three more seasons, becoming the first OSU coach in decades to go out on his own terms when he retires following a 10-3 mark in 2002.
Who takes over for Cooper after 2002? The candidates are probably similar to the list from the job search that OSU conducted in 2000. So unless Jim Tressel jumped at the Notre Dame job following the 2001 season, it’s entirely possible he ends up at OSU in 2003. But by the time the 2002 season ended, Walt Harris had turned Pitt into a 9-win program, so it’s entirely possible he would have landed the job instead.
With a win over Tennessee in the first BCS championship, a lot of the “S-E-C! S-E-C!” narrative of the mid-2000s is probably tamped down some. It certainly neuters the “Ohio State can’t beat the SEC” talk.
Without Tressel in Columbus in 2002, Larry Coker probably owns back-to-back national championships at Miami.
Oh, and remember that 1998 Michigan State team? Their coach had gone 6-5-1, 6-6, and 7-5 in his previous three seasons. With a loss to the Buckeyes in 1998, he wouldn’t have had his big resume-building win and would have finished 5-7 in 1998. That could have left him on the hot seat in 1999. Instead the win over OSU was a massive boost to his reputation. When the Spartans improved to 9-2 the following fall, he bolted for a higher-profile job. The name of that coach, who could have been on the hot seat and who might never have gotten a bigger head coaching gig if the punt missed Clements?
(Extremely Paul Harvey voice) You might know him as Nick Saban.