The Epic Miami-Ohio State Fiesta Bowl Battle

The 2002 college football season built to an epic conclusion, as the Miami Hurricanes looked to seal a repeat title and the latest installment of their dynastic run that had begun back in 1983. And though it’s hard to imagine the Ohio State Buckeyes in the role of plucky underdog, that’s what they were in 2002. These two teams played a Fiesta Bowl for the ages that decided the national championship.

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Miami had produced one of the great teams in college football history in winning the 2001 national championship. The roster, stocked with future Pro Bowlers, had lost a lot to the NFL, but still sported the following names–Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Kellen Winslow Jr, Jonathan Vilma, Antrell Rolle, Vince Wolfork and Sean Taylor. You hate to think what they might have done with everybody back.

What this cast of Hurricanes did was open the season at #1, and promptly blow out sixth-ranked Florida 41-16 to open the year. The 2002 chapter of the Miami-Florida State rivalry caused more heartache for the Seminoles, as FSU missed a late field goal and Miami survived 28-27.

The ‘Canes, then playing in the Big East, got two home tests in conference play from Top 20 teams. They survived Pitt 28-21 on a Thursday night and then won a shootout with Virginia Tech, 56-45 and punched their ticket to Tempe to play for a repeat crown.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel was in his second year, and the program hadn’t won a national title since 1970. The Buckeyes had lost bowl games in 1975 and 1979 that denied them championships and under Tressel’s predecessor John Cooper, had taken crushing losses in 1995 and again in 1996 to Michigan that cost them opportunities.

Today, the Buckeye program is synonymous with “NFL pipeline”, but while they were talented in ’02, they weren’t a machine. The receivers were good, with Michael Jenkins and Chris Gamble. Freshman running back Maurice Clarett was Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Clarett’s future in Columbus would be marred by off-field problems, including arrests, but that wasn’t a factor in the 2002 season. He led his team past ninth-ranked Washington State with 194 rushing yards in the second half alone.

Craig Krenzel was the quarterback and the essence of “game-manager.” Ohio State certainly didn’t blow anyone out–wins over Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan were all nail-biters. The undefeated regular season returned the Buckeyes to prominence and got them to Tempe, but it didn’t leave anyone confident they could hang with Miami.

Yet hang with them is exactly Ohio State during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl. The score was tied 7-7 shortly before halftime when Miami’s veteran quarterback Ken Dorsey was sacked and fumbled. It set up a quick touchdown run for Clarett and with a 14-7 lead at half, the Buckeyes believed.

Krenzel came out after half and hit Gamble on a 57-yard play. Miami’s Taylor would intercept a pass, but lose it right back to Clarett on the return. It was the first of what would be several missed opportunities for the Hurricanes. Ohio State was able to get a field goal and stretch the lead to 17-7.

Early in the fourth quarter Miami pulled to within 17-14. Not long after, the entire football world was rocked when McGahee ran to the edge and then didn’t get up. The star running back had blown out his knee. We know in retrospect that he’s gone to have a nice NFL tenure, but that was certainly in doubt as he was taken off the field that night, and you do have to wonder how much explosiveness was never regained.

That drive stalled and a 54-yard field goal was missed. Ohio State missed its own chance, when they didn’t convert a 42-yard field goal. Miami came driving down the field again, in position to tie or take the lead when another turnover gave the ball back.

With the clock nearing the two-minute mark, Ohio State faced a third down. Krenzel completed a pass o Gamble that had the first down and would have enabled the Buckeyes to all but kill the clock. Gamble was ruled out of bounds. Replays showed he was in, but this was before instant replay in college football and Ohio State had to punt.

The punt nearly turned into a disaster for Tressel’s team. Roscoe Parrish fielded the kick and took it back 50 yards to the 26-yard line. Miami was already in field goal range and still had enough time to possibly win it. They went three and out, and settled for a field goal.

For the first time–and as of 2013 the only time–a college championship bowl game or NFL Super Bowl would be settled with overtime.

Miami scored a touchdown to start the first overtime. Ohio State faced a 4th-and-3 inside the 10-yard line on their own possession. Then came the play that’s forever debated–Krenzel threw to Gamble in the right corner of the end zone. The pass was incomplete. Hurricane players started to celebrate, but official Terry Porter had thrown a flag for interference. Given new life, the Buckeyes tied the game.

Ohio State scored a touchdown to open the second overtime and now the onus was on Miami, trailing 31-24. Dorsey converted his own 4th-and-3 throw and Miami had first-and-goal on the 2-yard line. It was time for one more missed opportunity. Three plays only got one yard. On fourth down, Dorsey dropped back, but Buckeye linebacker Cie Grant got to him and forced an errant incompletion. The Buckeyes were national champs.

We have to double back to Porter’s interference call at the end of the first overtime, because it’s now one of the most famous (or infamous) calls in sports history. It’s so hotly debated that even as basic a task as looking for video is fraught with bias. The YouTube version of the clip is marked with obviously pro-Miami commentary, while another posting on an Ohio State has its own set of partisan comments. I’ve included links to both at the end, so you can watch the play and decide for yourself.

Here’s my take and it has to come in two parts. The length of time Porter took to make the call has become a story unto itself. Watching this game live it seemed almost surreal at how late the flag came out. But this is also a non-issue–this was a call to decide a national title, and while it seemed odd that an official had to meditate on the play for several seconds, it was more important to get the call right.

But the problem is, I don’t believe the call was correct. You’ll have to watch the video for yourself, but I don’t even think Miami fans have to fall back on the “you don’t call this at that particular point in the game” argument. I don’t think you call this at any point in the game. If this is pass interference, we might as well just abolish defenders.

The more compelling argument Ohio State fans have is that, under today’s rules, with instant replay, the game never goes to overtime. Gamble’s third-down catch is ruled inbounds and the game ends. And Miami fans can’t overlook Dorsey’s fumble at the end of the first half, the missed chance to win the game after Parrish’s punt return and finally the goal-line stand at the end.

However you break it down, the 2002 college football season had one of the great finishes of all time, and the sheer passion that still pours out over this game eleven years later is proof.

Pro-Miami Video
Pro-Ohio State Video