Buckeye fans were chomping at the bit for the 2003 season to get underway. After an offseason basking in the glow of the miraculous national title run of ’02, the Bucks had another round of 8 home games, and with 17 starters returning, including all 11 on offense, everyone was ready to saddle up for another run to the summit.
Ohio State opened with a dominant 28-9 win over Washington under the lights in Ohio Stadium and all seemed well. But the next week OSU barely escaped San Diego State 16-13 without scoring an offensive touchdown. The next Saturday the Bucks blew a 24-7 lead over North Carolina State before prevailing 44-38 in Ohio Stadium’s first overtime game ever. Quarterback Craig Krenzel hurt his elbow in the NC State contest so backup Scott McMullen gained two valuable starts as OSU held off Bowling Green 24-17 and blanked Northwestern 20-0. After a bye week, the Bucks traveled to Madison for their road opener and saw their 19-game winning streak snapped 17-10. Back in Columbus the next week OSU knocked off Iowa in a much anticipated matchup 19-10, then steamrolled Indiana 35-6 in Bloomington. As OSU’s 3:30 kickoff with Penn State rolled around on November 1st, the Big Ten standings looked like this:
Even with the Wisconsin loss, the Bucks were still 6th in the BCS, and the post-Penn State schedule told the story- home vs. Michigan State, home vs. Purdue and at Ann Arbor, the three teams they were looking up at in the standings. Ohio State’s destiny was still in its’ own hands, but first they had to get a win at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions were only 2-6, had yet to win in the conference and were riding a four-game losing streak. Although the Buckeyes had rolled up 35 points on Indiana, it was still Indiana after all. And having all those starters back on offense hadn’t produced the fireworks that fans expected. Suspended tailback Maurice Clarett’s absence had stymied the running game on the field, and the circus surrounding Clarett was affecting the team both on and off. Lydell Ross had picked up Big 10 Offensive Player Of The Week honors for his 167-yard effort at Indiana, so Buckeye Nation was hoping the improved running game would carry over into the stretch run.
Ohio State came out of the gate firing in Happy Valley. Lydell Ross broke the second play of the game for 31 yards, and ABC color man Ed Cunningham not only pointed out that the Buckeyes had run that play 20 times against Penn State the previous year in Columbus, but that Ross had gotten a huge chuck of his yardage against Indiana the week before on that play. The Lions had come into the game with the best pass defense in the nation (only 128 yards per game), but why throw when you could run all over JoePa? The Blue and White were giving up 216 yards a game on the ground, which was 107th in the country.
Penn State answered, moving 80 yards in 12 plays to tie the game. Quarterback Zack Mills scrambled for 10 on a 2nd-and-8 play to put the ball at midfield, then hit Terence Phillips for a big 28-yard hookup to the OSU 22. On 2nd-and-9 from the 21 Penn State reached into their bag of tricks and a shovel pass to fullback Sean McHugh gained 18 to the Buckeye 3. On second-and-goal Bobby Carpenter blitzed and grabbed Mills, but Mills’ knee never touched the ground as he used his free right hand to stay up and heave the ball out of bounds to save a sack. The effort paid off on the next play as Mills danced to his left and found McHugh for a 3-yard touchdown to make it 7-all after one quarter.
The teams traded punts on their initial second quarter series’, then Lydell Ross got revved up again. Beginning from Ohio State’s 40, Lydell carried 5 straight times for 30 yards, bringing up a 3rd-and-2 call from the PSU 30. The young Lion D-line, helmed by sophomores Tamba Hali and Matt Rice and redshirt freshman Jay Alford (who would become vital cogs on Penn State’s 2005 Orange Bowl team), were being manhandled by the Buckeye offensive front. But on this 3rd-and-short OSU outsmarted itself. Krenzel tried to hit Michael Jenkins on an outcut but corner Alan Zemaitis jumped the route, picking off the pass and taking it 78 yards for a touchdown to give Penn State a 14-7 lead. Remarkably, it was the sixth consecutive OSU/Penn State game that had featured a defensive touchdown. Jerry Rudzinski and Gary Berry had fallen on Lion fumbles in the end zone in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Buckeye defensive tackle Mike Collins had scooted 11 yards for a score with a fumble in 2000. Derek Ross had given the Bucks what seemed to be a commanding lead in 2001 with a 45-yard interception return before the Buckeyes caved, and Chris Gamble’s 40-yard pick-six was the lone TD in OSU’s 13-6 win in 2002.
The Lions added to the lead on their next possession, driving to the Buckeye 25 where it was 3rd-and-1. Tony Hunt got the call but was stuffed by A.J. Hawk. David Kimball, a senior who had become the first-string kicker just the week prior, came on and nailed a 42-yard field goal that would’ve been good from 60. With 4:10 left in the half Penn State now led 17-7.
OSU’s fortunes took a turn for the worse on the next series. On a 3rd-and-7 play, Lion linebacker Deryck Toles blitzed and buried his helmet right in Craig Krenzel’s chest, lifting the Buckeye QB off his feet as the pass went incomplete. Krenzel was helped to the sideline, and as the game went to the half with Penn State up by 10 it was unclear whether Craig could continue. That question was answered as the teams came back out for the second half- Krenzel was minus shoulder pads. It was “Scotty Mac’s” game, and immediately he went to work. After sneaking for a first down at his own 31, McMullen and Santonio
Mills and Co. began the ensuing drive from their own 13. A 19-yard reception by Terence Phillips on a 3rd-and 14 play, combined with a roughing-the-passer call on A.J. Hawk, gave PSU a first down at the Ohio State 44. Perhaps to help Mills clear the cobwebs, Penn State burned a timeout, which would prove costly at game’s end. OSU’s defense forced a 3rd-and-15 but A.J. Hawk’s rough afternoon continued with an interference penalty, giving the Blue and White a first down at the Buckeye 42. Two plays later, though, Mills threw behind Phillips and cornerback Dustin Fox picked it off to halt the march. Both teams went 3-and-out on their next drives and the game moved to the fourth period with the Lions holding on to their 17-14 lead.
Ohio State, which had come into the game with the #1 rushing defense in the country (51.5 yards per game), was holding the Penn State ground game in check, but Mills continued to hurt them through the air. Passes of 17 and 8 to Terence Phillips and a 14-yard screen to Sean McHugh gave the Lions a first down at OSU’s 32. On 3rd-and-9 from the 31, Mills’ pass was incomplete, and Penn State utilized their second timeout. They decided on another field goal, and Kimball was true again from 48 yards away. With 10:09 left it was now 20-14, Lions.
Neither team could do anything on their next possessions, so after Jeremy Kapinos’ punt was downed at the Buckeye 28, Ohio State had 5:55 left to avoid another unhappy trip to Happy Valley. Lydell Ross picked up 6 on a swing pass but was kneed in the head by safety Chris Harrell and had to go off. Scott McMullen ran for 6 and a first down at the OSU 40. “Mac” then found tight end Ben Hartsock for 3 and Michael Jenkins for 11 and a first down in Penn State territory. McMullen scrambled for 7,and when backup tailback Maurice Hall was dropped for no gain, it was 3rd-and-3 at the Lion 39. The Buckeyes then got a HUGE break as Ben Hartsock was credited with a 4-yard reception on a pass that replay showed he clearly dropped.
Gamble. Humphrey picked up 5 and got out of bounds with :02 seconds left. David Kimball was sent on to attempt a 60-yard field goal to win it, and no one in the stands or watching on TV had forgotten how much leg his previous two field goals had. After Jim Tressel called both of OSU’s remaining timeouts, Kimball got his chance, but his kick was to the right and just short. For only the second time since Penn State had joined the Big Ten in 1993, the Buckeyes were able to go into Beaver Stadium and come out with a win.
With Krenzel back at the helm, the Buckeyes were able to knock off Michigan State and Purdue to set up a winner-take-all showdown with TBGUN, but Jim Tressel would suffer his first (and, to date, only) loss to the Maize and Blue 35-21, and would take heat after the game for not sticking with Scott McMullen who had replaced an injured Krenzel and sparked the OSU offense. “Scotty Mac” had gained the confidence of Buckeye Nation with his heroics in Happy Valley, a victory that kept Ohio State in contention, and that ironically led to that Michigan game being as big as it was.