COLUMBUS, Ohio - An annual rite of passion finally became a rite of passage again yesterday for the Ohio State football team.
Playing before a record Ohio Stadium crowd of 105,539, the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes came from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat archrival Michigan, 14-9, completing their regular season at 13-0 (8-0 Big Ten) and earning an invitation to play for the national championship Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State will play No. 1 Miami in Tempe, Ariz., if the Hurricanes win their last two games.
The Buckeyes haven't won a national championship since 1968. In 1993, '95 and '96 they went into the Michigan game undefeated and lost.
"The only thing we do with history is try to learn from it," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "We don't worry too much about what happened in the past. Our focus needed to be, `What does it take for us to be successful today?'
"Anyone who thought this was going to be anything less than a game decided at the end hasn't been around the Ohio State-Michigan game very often."
And, in fact, the game came down to the final second. Ohio State free safety Will Allen made a goal-line interception of John Navarre's pass after the Wolverines had driven from their 20-yard line to the Buckeyes' 24.
"There was some miscommunication," Navarre said. "We wanted to get it to Braylon Edwards, and Allen stepped in front and made a great play."
The interception was only the second turnover of the game. Both were by the Wolverines, and both were devastating.
The first came on a Michigan drive after what proved to be the winning touchdown run by Maurice Hall with 4:55 remaining. The Wolverines drove to the Ohio State 30-yard line, but on first down and 10, defensive end Darrion Scott sacked Navarre, forcing a fumble that Will Smith recovered for the Buckeyes with 2:02 on the clock.
"I was just stepping up in the pocket and looking downfield," Navarre said. "Their guy got his hand on the ball and just knocked it loose."
The Wolverines, who ended the regular season 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten, went into the fourth quarter leading 9-7, mainly because of Navarre's passing, Edwards' receiving, Chris Perry's running and Adam Finley's field goals of 36, 35 and 22 yards.
All of those points were scored in the first half. A 2-yard run by freshman Maurice Clarett and Mike Nugent's extra point had given the Buckeyes a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter, but from then until late in the game, they were outplayed by Michigan.
The eight-play drive for the winning touchdown covered 57 yards. Quarterback Craig Krenzel and Clarett collaborated on the big play, a 26-yard sideline pass that put the ball on Michigan's 6-yard line.
"Two quarters earlier, Maurice told me, `You'd better call that play. They can't check me,' " Tressel said. "We waited until the opportune time."
On the next play, Clarett ran the ball to the Michigan 3-yard line, one of his 20 carries for 119 yards.
Then, an option play produced the touchdown. Krenzel froze the defense for a split second before giving the ball to Hall, who raced around right end.
"That was the first time [this season] that we ran the option," Hall said. "We felt like it was going to be a good play on the goal line because it would keep them off balance, and it worked."
But to put the finishing touches on their perfect regular season, the Buckeyes urgently needed the defensive plays made by Scott, Smith and Allen in the next 4 minutes, 55 seconds.
"Ohio State did what they had to do to win the football game," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "They are a great defensive football team. We had our opportunities in the second half but just couldn't get it done.
"It was a great game. Our guys played as hard as they could. I'm tremendously disappointed for our guys. It was a heartbreaking loss."
Neil Milbert is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.