The buildup for Ohio State’s 2005 football season had been even more off the chart than usual. 18 of the 22 starters who had led the 2004 unit to a 5-1 stretch run were back, including the entire defensive back seven. “Tresselball” had evolved into a more lethal offense in ’04 with several key midseason moves- Troy Smith had taken the reins at quarterback, T.J. Downing and Kirk Barton had helped solidify the “O” line and Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez found the field. Buckeye Nation couldn’t wait to see how the offense would look with an offseason of fine-tuning. OSU would begin the year as the #6 team in the AP poll, but with home meetings within the first four games with #2 Texas and defending Big Ten co-champion Iowa, the path towards a national title was right in front of them. To top it all off, the September 10th matchup with the Longhorns would be in prime time, and you had to go back to Notre Dame’s 1995 visit to Columbus to find a non-conference tilt at the ‘Shoe with the kind of hype that built all summer long for Ohio State’s first-ever get-together with Texas. The season hadn’t even begun and the college football world was already calling it the game of the year.
All of the pieces seemed to be in place, but the scary thing is that one dark cloud was keeping preseason anticipation from soaring even higher. In Ohio State’s embarrassing 33-7 loss in Iowa on October 16, 2004, Troy Smith had taken over at quarterback after Justin Zwick had been injured. The Bucks were 3-3 and in danger of not even becoming bowl-eligible. Fans had underestimated the impact that the losses of Will Smith, Darrion Scott, Tim Anderson, Robert Reynolds, Will Allen and Chris Gamble had on the defense, and when corner Dustin Fox had gone down in the Marshall game, it put even more pressure on Zwick and the offense. After the Iowa game, the “D” slowly began to jell, and Tressel opened up the offensive attack with Smith at the controls. When the Buckeyes throttled Michigan 37-21 behind 386 yards of total offense from Troy, the Cleveland sophomore was the toast of Columbus. But just prior to the team’s departure for San Antonio and an Alamo Bowl matchup with Oklahoma State, it was learned that Troy had accepted $500 from an OSU booster. Smith was suspended for two games- the Alamo Bowl and the 2005 opener. The football program, which had been raked over the coals for two years thanks to Maurice Clarett, got barbecued even more nationally, memorably during ESPN’s Alamo Bowl broadcast when former quarterback and captain Kirk Herbstreit stood silently as Mike Tirico took a huge chunk of time while the game was going on to recite the litany of evils that had brewed around Ohio State football.
Zwick would get the start against Miami in the ’05 lid lifter, but whether or not Troy would start against Texas and how he would perform with the layoff consumed coverage of the team. After a pedestrian win over the Redhawks, Heisman candidate Vince Young led Texas into Ohio Stadium and walked out with a 25-22 victory that jumpstarted the Longhorns’ run to the national title. The Bucks had a season’s worth of missed opportunities, could never get the two-score lead that would have put the contest away, and as a result suffered the first-ever night game loss in the ‘Shoe.
Jim Tressel’s revolving door of quarterbacks against Texas played a huge part in the outcome, so heading into the next game with San Diego State, the coach made a pre-emptive strike against all the heat coming his way for the personnel decisions. The Ohio State Football Radio Network’s “Buckeye Roundtable” show, which airs on Monday nights during the season, received an unprecedented phone call from Tressel following the Texas game, with the coach stating that Troy Smith would receive most of the first-team work in the upcoming week of practice. The Bucks survived an 80-yard touchdown by the Aztecs on their opening play to win 28-6, although the Texas “hangover” was pretty evident. By the next Saturday, though, it looked like the Troy of old was back as the Buckeyes avenged the 2004 beating in Iowa City with a 31-6 trouncing of the Hawkeyes, a score which should have been much more lopsided. With the team that many felt would challenge OSU for Big Ten supremacy brushed aside, the Bucks traveled to Penn State and ran into a buzz saw.
The Lions had only gone 4-7 in 2004 as the call for Joe Paterno to pack it in reached feverish heights. What had gone somewhat unnoticed was that the Penn State defense had ten starters back from a unit that had only allowed Boston College and the Buckeyes to score as many as 21 points despite the less-than-stellar record. The signing of Derrick Williams, the top recruit in the nation, and a talented class got plenty of attention, but there were three keys to Penn State’s success in ’05. Michael Robinson finally got the QB position all to himself and became the heart and soul of the team, Williams and other freshmen got to actually play instead of sitting and rusting, and Paterno got out of the way and let his coaches coach and his players play. When Ohio State came calling, the Lions were 5-0, and with the game moved to primetime, the call went out for everyone to wear white to Beaver Stadium, so as to “White Out The Night”.
Coming off the thumping of Iowa, it seemed as if the Bucks were in gear, but the game turned into a low-scoring brawl. The Buckeye defense held its own, but a conservative offense and key turnovers doomed OSU’s chances in front of a hostile crowd. The Lions held on for a 17-10 win and took sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. The next Saturday the Buckeyes hosted Michigan State and found themselves trailing 17-7 when Ashton Youboty returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown just before halftime, a play that would help to turn the season around. A 12-sack performance by the defense and the overdue arrival of big plays from the offense resulted in a 35-24 win, which kicked off a winning streak that exists to this very moment. Ohio State rang up 40+ points in each of their next four contests, so heading into the 102nd edition of “THE GAME” in Ann Arbor, the team was on the proverbial “roll”.
As usual, the Buckeye/Wolverine tussle would help decide the Big Ten championship. Michigan had lost to Wisconsin and Minnesota and trailed Penn State 25-21 with one second left in Ann Arbor on October 15th, but Chad Henne found Mario Manningham on a slant for the winning score, dealing Penn State their only conference defeat and touching off a four-game win streak. The Lions and Buckeyes were tied for first at 6-1, while the Wolves stood at 5-2. Penn State was set to face Michigan State in East Lansing, needing only a victory to earn the league’s automatic BCS bid.
OSU could gain a share of the Big Ten crown with a win over TBGUN even if Penn State won, plus they would be in strong position for one of the BCS’ two at-large berths. A combo of Buckeye and Spartan wins would give Ohio State an outright conference title, while Michigan needed to knock off OSU and hope their in-state neighbors took down JoePa, which would earn UM a BCS spot and a piece of the Big Ten championship.
There were plenty of intriguing storylines to be sure, which put ABC in a bit of a quandary. The network only had one slot for football on November 19th- 1PM in the afternoon since they had committed to golf’s Skins Game at 4:30. “THE GAME” had always been a fixture on either ABC or CBS clear back into the late ‘60’s, but supposedly ABC was enamored enough with the Joe Paterno “comeback” and Penn State’s potential outright Big Ten title to consider showing the Lion/Spartan matchup at 1 while relegating OSU/UM to ESPN at 4PM. In the end, the network stuck with the Bucks and Wolves, which they would thank themselves for by day’s end.
Things didn’t look good for the Buckeyes right at the outset. Antonio Pittman lost 4 on the first play of the game and then after an incompletion, OSU was already looking at 3rd-and-14. But Troy Smith delivered as he found Santonio Holmes open down the left side for 15 and a first down. Ted Ginn, Jr.’s first option carry of the year gained 8 but a hold wiped it out. No problem- it was Smith-to-Ginn for 12 and Pittman’s 10-yard burst gained a first down. From there the Bucks marched to the Michigan 21, where it was 3rd-and-1. This time it was Smith to Roy Hall for 11 and 1st-and-goal at the Wolverine 10. Two plays later Smith rolled right on the option for a 4-yard touchdown- Smith’s 11th rushing score of the year- and the Bucks were up 6-0, which is where it stayed at Josh Huston missed his first point-after kick of the year, touching off a terrible afternoon for special teams.
On Michigan’s first play Bobby Carpenter got his leg twisted under him and sustained a fracture as UM tackle Jake Long buried him. One couldn’t help remember the 2001 contest in Ann Arbor when Shane Olivea broke his ankle in the first half yet Ohio State was able to hold on and win the ballgame. Chad Henne was able to get the air game cranked up as Mario Manningham and Tim Massaquoi made key 3rd-down receptions to help move the Wolverines to the Buckeye 37. OSU forced a 4th-and-1 situation and Henne’s throw to Jason Avant was off the mark, enabling the Bucks to take possession.
Starting from the 28, the offense continued to click along and as the first quarter ended the Buckeyes were up 6-0 and had the ball on Michigan’s 40. Troy Smith had already scored on the ground and was 9 out of 10 passing to SIX different receivers for 88 yards.
The Bucks gained a first down at the UM 35 but faced a 3rd-and-9 moments later. Tight end Marcel Frost made a super one-handed catch and although the play only went for four yards, it may have meant the difference between a field goal and a punt. Coach Jim Tressel called on Josh Huston and he responded with a 47-yard effort, matching his career best and increasing the OSU lead to 9-0 at the 12:49 mark.
Michigan found itself in a hole on their next possession as a holding call had them facing 3rd-and-16 at their own 24. Henne connected with Michael Hart on a screen pass but A.J. Hawk sniffed it out right now and decked Hart for a loss of 4. In yet another example of A.J.’s football smarts, he didn’t dance or showboat as so many athletes do these days but instead immediately went to the official to ensure he had seen Michael Hart catch the ball since Hart was campaigning that he had “dropped” the pass. The loss stood and the Buckeyes set up shop in great shape at their own 40 after UM’s punt. At this point Antonio Pittman had carried 8 times for 35 yards, which must have left him terribly winded as backup tailback Maurice Wells entered the game. Wolverine DT Gabe Watson immediately stripped the ball from Wells and recovered the fumble at the Buckeye 36, completely turning the game around. On third down the play clock was clearly at zero to everybody but the officials, and Henne took advantage with a 7-yard pass to Steve Breaston for a big first down. Michigan moved to OSU’s five but faced a 3rd-and-1. Henne missed Jason Avant on a slant but Ashton Youboty was flagged for interference and the Maize and Blue were now first-and-goal at the 2. On the next play Henne tossed a beautiful fade pass to Avant who got both feet in for the score, narrowing the Buckeye lead to 9-7. At this stage Chad Henne was 13 of 15 passing for 83 yards and, like his counterpart Troy Smith, had completed throws to six different players.
Ted Ginn, Jr. fumbled the ensuing punt and the Bucks lost 10 yards of field position after Antonio Smith’s recovery. On third down Lamarr Woodley blew right between Doug Datish and Rob Sims to force Troy Smith to fumble. Alan Branch shoved Datish and Sims out of the way and fell on the football at OSU’s 20. Chad Henne immediately hit Tim Massaquoi for 13 and the Wolves were 1st-and-goal at the 7. Two runs netted two, and then Michigan was hit with a delay of game despite Lloyd Carr’s insistence that they had called time. Henne overthrew tight end Tyler Ecker in the back of the endzone so Garrett Rivas knocked through a 27-yard field goal to narrow the Buckeye lead to 12-10.
The teams then exchanged punts, with OSU’s being its first of the day. On Michigan’s punt, Ginn fumbled again and Santonio Holmes recovered after an 18-yard loss back to the Buckeye 13. The offense couldn’t get anywhere, and to make matters worse A.J. Trapasso’s punt got caught up in the wind and only traveled 18 yards. UM quickly moved from OSU’s 37 to the 15, where Tyler Everett was called for interference on Jason Avant to give the Maize and Blue a first-and-goal at the 2. Michigan hurried to the line of scrimmage while the Buckeye defense was still lining up and freshman tailback Kevin Grady breezed in for the touchdown, giving UM their first lead all day at 16-12. Chad Henne ran in for a 2-pt. conversion to extend the lead to 18-12.
As Ohio State had done on other occasions in 2005, their ensuing drive was all running plays as they moved from their own 26 to Michigan’s 36. Smith’s first pass of the drive was knocked down, then on 3rd-and-9 a swing pass to Pittman only gained 7. Josh Huston came in for a 46-yard field goal try but missed it to the right and with 12:02 to go it remained 18-12, UM.
Chad Henne ran a quarterback sneak for 2 yards on a 4th-and-1 play to extend Michigan’s next drive. Then when it appeared Ohio State had held on a 3rd-down incompletion, Anthony Schlegel, who was having a monster game picking up the slack for Bobby Carpenter, was called for holding to give the Wolverines a first down on OSU’s 47. Henne immediately hit his longest pass of the day- a 38-yarder to Mario Manningham to put Michigan at the Buckeye 9. The defense rose to the challenge and forced a 19-yard Rivas field goal, which he drilled to make it 21-12 with 7:49 left.
It looked for a fleeting moment as if the penalty wouldn’t matter as upback Will Paul fumbled the kickoff return after being stripped by Nick Patterson. But Steve Breaston fell on the football and UM took over at their own 48. After Breaston converted one first down, Michigan was called for a hold on a 2nd-and-12 play but the Buckeyes gambled and declined it. On third down Breaston only picked up 8 to the OSU 34, and Rivas, from field goal formation, pooch punted out of bounds at the Buckeye 12. With 4:18 to play, the stage was set for one of the finest hours in Buckeye annals.
Ted Ginn, Jr. lit the fuse with a juggling 9-yard catch, and a Pittman run got the first down. On 2nd-and-10 from the OSU 23, Smith did a 360 to avoid Pierre Woods and once again found Ginn who backstepped out of bounds for a first down at the Buckeye 34. Teddy picked up 6 more by making a dynamite one-handed catch on the next play, and when Smith hit Holmes at the left sideline for 7 the Bucks had a first down at their 47. It was Smith-to-Holmes again for 11, then Troy scrambled for 4. On 2nd-and-6 from Michigan’s 38, Smith double-pumped before firing to Holmes for 12- a pass that just eluded Grant Mason and where Santonio lost his balance or he would’ve scored. Tressel called OSU’s second timeout with :47 to go and Josh Huston began to loosen up on the sideline.
house standing up for a 25-21 Ohio State lead. After failing in last-ditch efforts against Texas and Penn State, Troy Smith and Company had finally snatched victory from defeat, and against the hated Wolverines to boot.
OSU tried for two after Pittman’s gamer but the pass was incomplete, leaving Michigan just 24 seconds to navigate 80 yards with no timeouts. Henne picked up 22 on a pass to Jason Avant, but on the next play Tyler Ecker caught a pass at the sideline and came back into the field of play where he was dropped by Tyler Everett and James Laurinaitis. In yet another heady move, Everett ripped the ball away from Ecker and although the official was signaling that Ecker was down, Everett-and the football- were way upfield and the clock ran out on Ohio State’s 39th win over the Maize and Blue.
Penn State toppled Michigan State 31-22 later that afternoon, so the Buckeyes shared the conference crown with the Lions. Paterno’s troops would be off to Miami to face Florida State in a battle of the two winningest coaches in college football history- JoePa and Bobby Bowden- in the Orange Bowl. Ohio State headed southwest for the third time in four years to face Notre Dame, recipient of the other BCS at-large bid, in the Fiesta Bowl. While a lot of the pregame hype centered around the “genius” of Irish head coach Charlie Weis, it was Jim Tressel who played the role of professor in Tempe. The Buckeyes rolled up 617 yards of total offense, had four scoring plays of 56 yards or more and demonstrated to “Charlie Genius” his embarrassing lack of team speed as they beat up on the Domers 34-20 in a game that shouldn’t have been that close.
Ohio State finished 10-2 and ranked #4 in the nation, while Jim Tressel ran his Michigan and bowl records combined to 8-2. And in a far cry from the previous year’s bowl game, Troy Smith was being touted as a serious 2006 Heisman Trophy candidate. He had helped lead OSU’s offense to places that absolutely NO ONE would have ever imagined with Jim Tressel calling the shots, and most importantly in the eyes of Buckeye fans, he was 2-0 against TBGUN, with his stamp all over the epic final drive in Ann Arbor. In the aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl, the college football know-it-alls in the media obviously figured the OSU offense would be a force in 2006, but could they really challenge for the national title having to replace nine starters from that great defense?