The Ohio State Buckeyes are returning home losers of the Outback Bowl for the second straight year, but this time around they came away from the game with something they didn’t have last year – dignity.
The Buckeyes showed heart and tenacity, coming from 28 pointsdown to tie the South Carolina Gamecocks before losing on a 42-yardfield goal by Daniel Weaver that took a little Florida breezeand just sailed over the crossbar as time expired.
“(The kick) just kind of hung up there,” quarterback Steve Bellisarisaid. “I didn’t think it was going to get there, but unfortunatelyit did.”
After the game, players and coaches refused to dwell on the disappointment of a last second loss, and instead focused on the postives from their fourth Outback Bowl appearance.
“Pure heart,” tight end Darnell Sanders said. “We were down andgot up. That’s the most gratifying.”
The difficult part for first-year coach Jim Tressel was not the lastsecond field goal, or the Bellisari interception in the final minutes that put USC in position to win the game. The loss seemedlike a mere formality to Tressel after the game.
“The difficult part is we lose 12 seniors,” Tressel said. “Weknow that they’re going to walk out of this locker room veryproud of their career.”
Pride was something that didn’t follow the Buckeyes out of RaymondJames Stadium in Tampa last year. The Buckeyes took a 24-7 beatingon the chin after getting dealt a few blows from players fightingwith one another, missing class and not playing with discipline in the final game, all leading to John Cooper’s termination.
This year was different, much like the game.
The Buckeyes were down and beaten with apparently no hope of a comeback in sight, but the Buckeyes scored three touchdowns in the final quarter, erasing the misery and clumsiness that seemed inevitable.
It took Bellisari a little while to shake off the dust after not playing forsix weeks. Midway through the third quarter he started heating up, putting some life back into the Buckeyes – players and fans alike. “He was hot,” running back Jonathan Wells said.
“If there was a zone, I was in it,” Bellisari said.
Bellisari, who was benched by Tressel after being issued a DUIon Nov. 16, replaced starter Craig Krenzel midway through thesecond quarter. By the third Bellisari was in “the zone”, completing9 of 18 passes for 118 yards and ending the drive with a two-yard TD run as the third quarter ended. That made the score 28-7.
The senior quarterback picked up right where he left off on thenext Buckeye drive, taking his team 43 yards before hooking upwith Sanders for 16 yards, cutting the deficit to 28-14.
The defense made yet another stop and got the ball back in Bellisari’shands. With the ball on the Gamecocks’ 15-yard line, it seemedas if the Buckeyes would cut the lead to just a touchdown, buta fumbled the snap ended the snap with just under six minutes to go. Backup center Mike Jacobs had to play the whole game in place of All-American LeCharles Bentley, who injured his shoulder against Michigan.
On the next play, South Carolina tailback Derek Watson fumbledthe exchange from quarterback Phil Petty, giving the Buckeyesthe ball back on the Gamecock 23-yard line.
Three plays later Wells took it in from a yard out to put theBuckeyes within a touchdown.
Bellisari, 21 of 35 for 320 yards and two touchdowns, then hookedup with Sanders one more time, even though the pass was intended forMichael Jenkins, who was five yards into the endzone.
“I think the pass for me,” a smiling Sanders said.
“I don’t know who it was too,” said Jenkins, who had eight catchesfor 152 yards. “He caught it, that’s all that matters.”
It was the last pass Bellisari would complete. The next drive, which started after a Cie Grant interception, was a costly one for the Buckeyes. After a running play, Bellisari launched a deepball for Jenkins that was picked off by Gamecock cornerback Sheldon Brown, who returned it 37 yards to the Buckeye 29-yard line to setup the game-winning field goal.
“You have really two choices,” Tressel said. “You can dare togo after things or you can not. I don’t have the crystal ballto know what exactly would’ve happened in overtime.
The win put the Gamecocks record at 9-3, while the Buckeyes dropped to 7-5 on the year, Tressel’s first at the helm. But the fact that his team didn’t give up when all odds were against them down 28-0 says something about the shape of the program. There is already hope that the effort shown to end this game will help the 2002 squad.
“You just carry this over to next year,” said Grant. “This team has so much heart. (Tressel) has made us a family andwe will grow as a family to be better next year.”