'Canes, Buckeyes seek final answers

Question marks abound as top two teams clash for national title tonight

January 03, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. - Miami left the Rose Bowl after last year's national championship victory over Nebraska a little uncertain about this season. The Hurricanes had to replace most of their offensive line, then wound up having to find a new tailback, a new tight end and an entire secondary.

Ohio State returned home after last year's loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl nearly as unclear about its future. The Buckeyes had a huge question mark at quarterback and needed the defense to play better for the team to compete for a Big Ten championship.

Tonight, when No. 1 Miami (12-0) plays No. 2 Ohio State (13-0) for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium, those doubts will have been long erased. The Hurricanes have a 34-game winning streak, and the Buckeyes have the confidence to end it.

Yet several issues remain.

Will Miami be the dominating team it was early in the season or the indifferent team that seemed to play to its potential only when absolutely necessary? Will Ohio State's smash-mouth defense smother the Hurricanes by stopping quarterback Ken Dorsey, tailback Willis McGahee and wide receiver Andre Johnson, or will it be the Buckeyes who are left looking for ice bags?

Will Maurice Clarett, the freshman tailback upon whom the Buckeyes and their legion of long-suffering fans are counting to help Ohio State win its first national championship since 1968, be able to put aside his distractions from this week to punish a defense that seems susceptible to the run?

Will Miami's Brett Romberg, the senior considered the best center - and best talker - in college football, back up the lighthearted bravado he has been spewing all week? If the Hurricanes show up, Romberg gives the 11 1/2 -point underdog Buckeyes little if any chance to pull off an upset against a team that hasn't lost since the second game of the 2000 season.

"We thought we were untouchable from the beginning, and we still feel that way," Romberg said. "A lot of people have gotten close, but still in the end, we've pulled through when we had to."

If the Hurricanes are successful, they will win Miami's sixth national championship, dating back to 1983, and mark the first time the Hurricanes have repeated. Ohio State also has won five, but those glory years under legends Woody Hayes and Paul Brown, whose 1942 team won the school's first national championship, are a distant memory in Columbus.

However, the thought of being such a heavy underdog is not daunting for the Buckeyes. "That's what the media and the bettors might think, but we know that the game is going to be on the field and not in Vegas," said free safety Will Allen.

Miami has simply reloaded since it routed Nebraska, 37-14, in Pasadena, Calif., last year. Though many of the same players are expected to lead the Hurricanes tonight - Dorsey, Romberg and Johnson on offense and junior linebacker Jonathan Vilma on defense - a few are new to this stage.

The one who could play the biggest role is McGahee, who emerged after Clinton Portis left and Frank Gore was injured in spring practice. The sophomore tailback wound up setting school records for rushing touchdowns (27) and yards gained (1,686), making Dorsey more a facilitator than a star at times this season.

"That's never been a concern," Dorsey said. "If Willis is having a great game, let's keep getting him the football if it's going to help us win."

McGahee has rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games this year and more than 200 twice, including a 205-yard, six-touchdown performance in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech. Conversely, the Buckeyes have allowed 100 yards to only one tailback, Wisconsin's Anthony Davis, this season.

"We really don't know how fast they are," McGahee said of Ohio State's defense. "They swarm to the ball pretty good. That's what I like most about them."

Unlike Nebraska last year, Ohio State presents Miami's defense with a team that is capable of passing the ball as well as running it. Though senior Craig Krenzel wasn't even expected to start this season - freshman Justin Zwick was the preseason favorite - the Buckeyes wouldn't be here without their brainy quarterback.

A molecular genetics major, Krenzel showed that he can use his arm as well as his head. Krenzel saved the Buckeyes from defeat against Purdue with a 37-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Jenkins in the final two minutes to win, 10-6. He threw a 50-yarder to Jenkins against Illinois, a game the Buckeyes won in overtime.

While the Hurricanes will try to take Clarett out of his game and make Krenzel beat them - just as the Buckeyes will do with McGahee and Dorsey - Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon doesn't underestimate the Ohio State passing game.

"If you go in thinking Clarett, Clarett, Clarett, they'll throw it over your heads," he said.

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