Navy nearly killed the Ohio State-USC hype before the week began. A two-point conversion separated the Midshipmen and Buckeyes with two minutes remaining, but it was OSU that came away with those coveted points en route to a nerve-racking 31-27 victory before an opening-day record 105,092 fans at Ohio Stadium.
With OSU leading 29-27, linebacker Brian Rolle intercepted Ricky Dobbs’ pass and returned it the length of the field for two points, as the stunned crowd let out a collective sigh of relief. A Navy conversion would have tied the game, an almost unthinkable turn of events after the Midshipmen trailed by 15 midway through the fourth quarter.
“We were nervous for maybe a second,” Rolle admitted. “Then we realized there was no reason to panic now. We knew we just needed to step up and make a play.”
Dobbs, a junior quarterback who set career highs with eight completions for 156 yards, said that Rolle’s pick, coupled with an earlier interception by Kurt Coleman, spelled doom for Navy.
“I tried to squeeze it in there by throwing it low, but [Rolle] just made a great break on it,” Dobbs said. “I take full responsibility for this one. We have no chance to win with turnovers.”
The Buckeyes didn’t allow Navy to make things interesting until the fourth quarter. Leading 29-14, coach Jim Tressel elected to send out his offense instead of kicking a field goal on fourth down. Navy stopped Dan “Boom” Herron one yard short of the first down, turning the ball back over to the Midshipmen.
Dobbs capitalized on the opportunity, slinging an 85-yard touchdown strike to receiver Marcus Curry, cutting the lead to eight.
“I certainly should have kicked a field goal on fourth and one, which was a huge mistake in my mind,” Tressel said. “Of course, we didn’t make the fourth and one and made it a bigger mistake.”
The touchdown pass- the third-longest in Navy history- accounted for more than half of the team’s total yards through the air. The Midshipmen have led the nation in rushing for each of the past four seasons, but relied on their passing attack more often than usual against the Bucks.
“They threw the ball a lot more than we thought,” senior cornerback Andre Amos said. “The corners today really didn’t have a chance but to be on their toes. We just tried to stay focused, knowing that in certain situations, they would have to throw the ball.”
OSU regained possession of the football with a 29-21 advantage, but sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor tossed an interception with four minutes left, leaving Navy in position to tie the game. Pryor tipped his cap to the Buckeyes’ adversary, praising their effort even when trailing.
“We saw today why they’re the best in the world at what they do,” he said. “They never give up. They’re fighters.”
Aside from the interception, Pryor totaled 174 passing yards with two scores. The first came on a 38-yard strike to Dane Sanzenbacher on the opening drive of the game. The other, a 2-yard bootleg to the outside, pushed the Buckeyes’ lead to 17-7 midway through the second quarter.
OSU contained Navy’s triple option rushing attack for the most part. The Midshipmen rushed for 186 yards on 44 carries, well below their average of 292 yards per game from last season.
With a rematch against USC looming, Ohio State players guaranteed that they weren’t overlooking a talented Navy squad that finished 8-5 a year ago.
“We knew Navy was tough,” said freshman receiver Duron Carter, son of former Buckeye legend Cris Carter. “No one mentioned USC all week. We knew we needed to prepare hard to get a victory.”
Carter, listed as the team’s No. 4 receiver, saw plenty of action in his first career game at OSU. He finished with three catches for 21 yards, and contributed after top wideout DeVier Posey left with an ankle injury.
Although the Buckeyes claimed they weren’t looking past the Midshipmen, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo embraced the opportunity to challenge the Buckeyes the week before such a heavyweight bout.
“We felt like if Ohio State came dialed in and totally focused, we had no chance,” the second-year coach said. “We kind of had the perfect storm situation with USC coming up. We knew that if they separated any of their preparation time, then we had a chance to win.”
Even after giving the Buckeyes an unexpected scare, Niumatalolo said Navy didn’t achieve its central goal.
“We came here to win, that was our goal for the past eight months,” he said. “We didn’t come here to experience the atmosphere, we came here to win. Our kids are down.”
Ohio State led at halftime, 20-7. Former Ohio Senator and astronaut John Glenn dotted the “I” during intermission.
Before the game, Ohio State displayed its respect for the Naval Academy with a video tribute and several honorary awards. The teams broke customary tradition by entering the field at the same time and running down the field together.
Ohio State’s last home-opening loss came in 1978, when the Buckeyes were underdogs against Penn State.
To avoid another trouncing at the hands of Southern Cal, Tressel knows his team must work hard to improve this week.
“We know the team coming in next week is a great football team. Our task is to get better and make sure we’re up for the challenge.”