Ohio State keeps finding ways to win

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 4, 2003

COLUMBUS - Somehow, Ohio State keeps piling up wins.

The Buckeyes aren't intimidating anyone and don't have superstars dotting the lineup. The defense is good, the offense is struggling and the highest compliment paid to the quarterback is that he doesn't do anything to cost his team games.

Despite that - and the absence of suspended running back Maurice Clarett - Ohio State has won 19 games in a row.

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''Probably the thing we're doing best is scoring enough points to win the games,'' coach Jim Tressel said.

Despite going 14-0 and beating Miami 31-24 in double-overtime in last season's Fiesta Bowl to capture their first national title in 34 years, the Buckeyes have been just a hair better than the other team throughout their winning streak.

Ten times during the streak they have played a game decided by seven points or less - and they've won every one. Some see that as a sign of character, while others think the Buckeyes are lucky.

''Nobody on the team wants to win in the way we have been,'' tight end Ben Hartsock said. ''Everybody wants to go out and become a much more dominant team. We haven't done that. The only good thing is that we've been able to fight our ways out of these corners that we've backed ourselves into.''

Several Ohio State's players think the team is maligned because it hasn't steamrolled teams.

''People talk about, 'Well, you only won by a couple of points or so,''' defensive tackle Tim Anderson said, his voice rising in anger. ''I'll be honest with you, the last time I checked whether you win by one point or 50 points, it's still a win. It doesn't really matter how many we win by.''

Maybe it does. Despite the exposure of finishing No. 1, no Buckeyes players went in the first round of the NFL draft. Ohio State returned every starter on offense and most of its defense - yet opened the 2003 season at No. 2 in the rankings to Oklahoma. The Buckeyes then won their first four games - and dropped three more spots in the rankings.

The personality of this Ohio State team revolves around a nasty defense - and an offense that has appeared lost most of the year without Clarett.

Clarett was suspended for the season for accepting money from a family friend and for lying about it to NCAA and university investigators. He has since sued the NFL for early entry, although he is attending classes at Ohio State.

''Maurice Clarett brought a dynamic to the team. It's hard to deny that,'' Hartsock said. ''He often times could take a play that wasn't blocked perfectly and maybe take it for a little bit longer.''

Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and scored 18 touchdowns - both freshman school records - for the Buckeyes last season. Without him, they are last in the Big Ten in total offense (298 yards per game).

''Maurice was an outstanding running back, no question about it,'' Tressel said. ''This is the situation that we're in. We don't have Maurice. We don't usually spend too much time thinking about what we don't have.''

Without Clarett's knack for breaking tackles, defenses have shown a decided lack of respect for Ohio State's other running backs, Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall. As a result, quarterback Craig Krenzel has felt more pressure and taken more jarring hits than he took all last season. He's also thrown as many interceptions in three games (4) than he threw in nine games a year ago.

''In an ideal world, we'd be scoring 50 points a game,'' Krenzel said. ''But it's not an ideal world.''

Krenzel, MVP of the Fiesta Bowl, missed the Buckeyes' last two games with a hyperextended elbow after he was sandwiched between two North Carolina State tacklers.

It was another example of how Ohio State's front wall has been porous.

''I don't think by any stretch of the imagination we've been dominating up front, whereas we have shown signs of that defensively,'' Tressel said.

The Buckeyes defense is led by an active and aggressive front line that leads the nation in stopping the run - giving up just 43 yards a game.

Linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant left for the NFL, but Ohio State hasn't skipped a beat with sophomore A.J. Hawk blooming into a star along with classmates Bobby Carpenter and Mike D'Andrea. Hawk was all over the field with 13 tackles in a 20-0 victory over Northwestern on Saturday, the Buckeyes' first shutout in five years.

The Buckeyes also lost a pair of three-year starters at safety but have prospered with Will Allen and Nate Salley on the job.

Allen returned an interception 100 yards for the only touchdown in Ohio State's 16-13 win over 32-point underdog San Diego State, made the game-ending tackle just inches shy of the goal line in a triple-overtime win over North Carolina State and then intercepted a pass on the final play of the game of another narrow win against Bowling Green.

When asked questions about the ineffective offense or Clarett, the players often respond by saying Ohio State is still unbeaten.

How much longer the Buckeyes can remain unbeaten is another question.

''We found a way to win,'' Krenzel said after the nail-biter against San Diego State. ''Great teams have to find a way to win - and win ugly sometimes.''

The Buckeyes are proving that time and time again.