Hurricanes Rewind: 2003 BCS National Championship
By Ryan Lacey
If there ever was an equivalent to the Battle of Tours, this was certainly it. The
Caliphate Hurricanes were well on their way to conquering the known world, having won 34 straight games as the defending national champions. They ran into the Franks Buckeyes, a group down on their luck recently, but a team with a tradition of success and eager to get back to the top of the mountain. What took place on Jan. 3, 2003, changed the landscape of college football forever.
Hurricanes Nation, let’s punish ourselves by revisiting one of the darkest nights in South Florida sports history.
After running through its schedule and claiming a 12-0 season and a national title in 2001, the Hurricanes picked up right where the left off in 2002. Their second game of the year was a thorough dismantling of No. 6 Florida (41-16) in Gainesville, a victory that threw down gauntlet to the rest of the country. The Hurricanes dodged a huge bullet later in the season with one of Florida State’s infamous “wide left” moments on a late field goal, and the Hurricanes hung on to win 28-27.
The Hurricanes began the season atop the polls and never budged from that spot. Miami’s 49-7 late-season win over Syracuse clinched its third straight Big East title.
Ohio State had been in a bit of a downturn during the seasons prior to 2002 (21-15 record). Led by second-year coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes were ranked 13th to start the season. Few thought this would be the year they could contend for their first national championship since 1968.
A ferocious defense that yielded just 12.2 points per game led the Buckeyes (13-0 in the regular season). AP All-American linebacker Matt Wilhelm and Chris Gamble were the stars of the group. Gamble was a Charles Woodson prototype that was electric whenever the ball was in his hands. Gamble played corner primarily, but spent many snaps at wideout and as an ace returner.
Ohio State also had some guy named Maurice Clarett. Remember him? In 2002, he was a freshman sensation that carried the load offensively. The running back averaged 5.6 yards per carry and was an important asset to their ground-and-pound offensive style. Craig Krenzel was inept at quarterback, and Ohio State won six of its 13 games by a touchdown or less. (Clarett, whose career fell apart amid controversy and off-field trouble, is making an athletic comeback on the development team for the 2016 U.S. Olympic rugby squad.)
Miami was an 11.5-point favorites for all the above reasons, and few thought Ohio State could compete with the athleticism of one of the greatest college football teams ever assembled.
It was evident from the get-go that this was going to be a difficult game for Miami. Defenses were on top early in a feeling-out process that lasted most of the first quarter. After the teams traded punts, Ken Dorsey found Roscoe Parrish with 4:09 left for a 25-yard touchdown and the game’s first score.
The teams traded punts until midway through the second quarter. Miami faced third-and-6 from its own 34-yard line. Dorsey threw the ball and it bounced off the hands of Andre Johnson — it would have been a first down had he hung onto the ball — and into the arms of safety Mike Doss, who returned it inside the Miami 20. This was the first of many game-changing plays by the OSU defense. A few plays later, the Buckeyes found pay dirt and it was 7-7 with less than three minutes left in the second quarter.
The Hurricanes fielded the ensuing kickoff and things took a turn for the worse. On the first play of the drive, Dorsey dropped back and, with no awareness of the pocket breaking down, took a sack and lost control of the football, which bounced into the hands of an OSU linebacker. The Buckeyes were set up in the Miami red zone again and punched it home, seizing a 14-7 halftime lead.
The Buckeyes responded with their best drive of the game to that point and kicked a field goal to make it 17-7 midway through the third quarter. The teams traded punts until Miami responded with a long drive at the end of the third quarter and found the end zone to make it 17-14 after three periods.
As the Hurricanes crossed midfield, McGahee took a devastating hit and was out for the remainder of the game. Many later wondered if he'd ever play again after the diagnosis: a torn ACL, PCL and MCL. The next play, Miami missed a 54-yard field goal that would have tied the game.
The Hurricanes got the ball back after a Buckeyes' missed field goal and made yet another crucial mistake. Parrish fumbled at Ohio State's 20-yard line and the Buckeyes recovered. Of course, OSU couldn’t do anything with the ball and Miami got it back with enough time to drive down the field and kick the tying field goal.
The game was just getting started.
Miami got the ball to start overtime and struck quickly. Dorsey hit Winslow for a touchdown to reclaim the lead, 24-17.
Needing a touchdown to extend the game, Ohio State managed to tie the game.
Despite all of the miscues, turnovers, bad play calls, the gruesome McGahee injury— Miami was one play from back-to-back national championships on two separate occasions. Trailing by a touchdown in overtime, Ohio State faced a fourth-and-14 from the Miami 29-yard line, but Krenzel found a wide-open Michael Jenkins right at the sticks for a huge first down.
Four plays later, the Buckeyes had fourth-and-3 at the 5 and Krenzel threw an incomplete pass toward Jenkins.
What seemed like five years later, cornerback Glenn Sharpe incurred a pass interference penalty in the end zone. There was contact on both sides, but a call at that stage is absolutely ridiculous. You knew from this moment there was only going to be one winner.
Automatic first down. Ohio State tied the game on a third-down sneak by Krenzel.
The Buckeyes quickly punched it in to start the second overtime on a touchdown run by Clarett. Shell-shocked, Miami worked with their possession in the second overtime, which included a brief injury to Dorsey’s arm, progressing to the 2-yard line. Dorsey missed a wide-open Eric Winston on second down — probably because of the injury — and a desperation heave on fourth down fell harmlessly.
Game. Set. Match. One of the biggest upsets in the history of the BCS: complete.
The Buckeyes dared Ken Dorsey to beat them and he couldn’t. The OSU defense confused him for most of the night and there were plenty of plays where he adjusted at the line. The results were miserable.
The game plan exemplified an ideal underdog approach. Play outstanding defense, shorten the game by keeping the clock running and force key turnovers when possible.
If any one event signaled the decline of Miami football, it was this game. Its record deteriorated from this point and the Hurricanes haven’t appeared in a title game since.