The BCS wins after all
It was the first overtime game ever in BCS history. The Ohio State Buckeyes, a longtime football powerhouse, had not won a national championship since 1968. The Miami Hurricanes were on a 34-game winning streak. Quarterback Ken Dorsey had lost one game as a starter. Many of the Miami players had never lost a college game, since Miami’s last loss was 34-29 against the Washington Huskies, on September 9, 2000.
The ‘canes were favored by 11.5 points over the Buckeyes, who needed several close fourth quarters and one overtime game to finish an undefeated Big 10 season. There was supposed to be no contest. The ‘canes were unstoppable. They had too many weapons. They couldn’t be hurt. Shutting down one aspect of the game would only break open the others. They had two Heisman Trophy candidates, for pete’s sake.
And yet Miami led the game only twice: 7-0 until about two minutes left in the first half, and 24-17 at the end of their first overtime possession. Ohio State came back to tie the game shortly before halftime at 7-7, and then converted a Miami turnover to end the half ahead 14-7. A later OSU field goal made it 17-7. Miami reversed the story in the fourth quarter, coming back to 17-14 with 2:11 left in the third quarter, and tying the game on the last play of regulation with a kick that squeaked through the uprights with no more margin than many Florida State kicks were outside them.
(I know, that’s some interesting grammar there.)
For reasons unknown to mortals, Ohio State won the overtime coin toss but picked defense. It was all but assured Miami would score a touchdown, and they did, meaning OSU had to duplicate it or end the game. And it looked like the game ended with an incomplete end zone toss on fourth down, until two beats later, the field judge threw the flag for pass interference. More on that later.
Ohio State scored and went to a second overtime. The order switches in second overtime, so the Buckeyes got the ball first and scored again, making it 31-24. Miami got the ball on the 25 yard line and scored a first down, maybe two (I’m not sure I was breathing correctly at this point), but eventually failed on three attempts to get in the end zone on first and goal. On fourth and goal at the one, as ESPN puts it, “Cie Grant blitzed and forced Dorsey to heave a desperation pass that linebacker Matt Wilhelm batted to the ground.” The game was over, and the Buckeyes are national champions. Miami goes home with a loss, ending “the streak.”
And the sports writers can’t stand it.
The apologetics began almost instantly, focusing on “the call,” the pass interference penalty in the end zone against Miami that gave Ohio State first and goal at the two yard line in the first overtime when otherwise the game would be over. ABC commentators Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts, who had been trying their level best to give the game to Miami from the first quarter, couldn’t believe it. ESPN’s story on it does its best to make it look like a bad call:
“I really thought that game was over,” says UM secondary coach Mark Stoops. “Just like everybody else. And there’s not another official in the history of the game that would make that call.”
In the last two years, the Big 12 has issued at least two known letters of apology after games where Porter has made controversial calls.
Sharpe said he didn’t think he interfered. He was only being aggressive. Just like Stoops instructed him to do. “We were blitzing,” Stoops explained. “I didn’t want them to catch a little slant or a little hitch. I told ‘em to get in the receiver’s face because there’s not an official that’s gonna make that call.
“They’d been letting us play all day, so let us play. A couple of plays before, they pushed off to create some separation so if you’re gonna let us play, well, let us play.
“I wanna see the replay and if that’s as bad a call as I think it was, something ought to be done. That was a joke. That’s all I can really say.”
Put on your hip waders for this, because it’s already pretty thick.
First, no one seems to want to admit that it was pass interference. ESPN’s game recap and the other story cover it. Field judge Terry Porter said, “I saw the guy holding the guy prior to the ball being in the air. He was still holding him, pulling him down while the ball was in the air. I gave the signal for holding. Then I realized it should be pass interference because the ball was in the air.” He said he delayed the call because he replayed it in his mind: “I wanted to make double sure it was the right call.”
Wide receiver Chris Gamble said, “He was holding me. He was in my facemask and my shoulder pads. I was waiting for the flag, but he kind of hesitated. I didn’t see him going for the flag, and I thought, ‘He ain’t going to throw it.’ Luckily, he did, and I’m like, ‘whew.’”
Second, Porter’s calls were apparently so controversial that there’s not a single story anywhere on the Web mentioning them - until today. There are plenty of stories mentioning his name as part of a box score, because he’s been a Big 12 referee for a long time. In fact, he was the side judge at the OU-Oklahoma State game in 2001 when the Aggies beat the Sooners 16-13 in Norman. There are also a lot of stories mentioning veteran NBA guard Terry Porter, but I skimmed through them on Google to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. This link narrows it down a bit but still provides absolutely no details about any “controversial” calls.
You know why? Because Big 12 referees do really bad things, but none of the sports writers care because it’s the Big 12. More than a year ago, I complained about the quality of Big XII officiating that I had seen, even though it pained me to do so because “it’s the ref’s fault” is a standard and hoary Oklahoma fan excuse. But when a bad call gives Nebraska a touchdown to beat Oklahoma, there’s no outcry from ESPN because they expected Oklahoma to lose. When an official gives Texas A&M a touchdown it didn’t deserve, no one complains because they expect Oklahoma’s offense to fumble (everyone knows it’s Oklahoma’s defense that wins games, silly).
You know what I said back then? “Officials are human, they blow calls. These just seem to be pretty big ones. Why can’t these guys go work Miami games?”
Heh heh heh heh heh.
I’ve said again and again that the best teams have to win through bad calls. When OU doesn’t win through bad calls, it’s OU’s fault. When Miami doesn’t, of course, it’s the officials’ fault. And the officiating was not great throughout the game. In the first quarter, an OSU receiver was double-teamed by two Miami defenders on a long pass, and one of the Miami defenders absolutely mugged the receiver, pushing him to the ground while leaping for the ball. That defender tipped the ball into the other one’s hands for Miami’s first interception. No call, no mention in the game write-ups, not a peep out of Keith Jackson or Dan Fouts.
Third, no one seems to be giving much credence that Miami’s defensive backs coach told his cornerback to get physical, as he admitted above, believing an official wouldn’t call interference for “getting in his face.” That coach, by the way, has a familiar name: his older brother Bob Stoops is OU’s head coach, and middle brother Mike Stoops is OU’s co-defensive coordinator. I can’t wait for the conspiracy theories saying Mark Stoops told Miami to interfere to keep OU’s streak intact for his older brothers.
If it wasn’t for sportswriter butt-kissing, though, Miami would have no constituency at all outside South Florida. They don’t send fans to bowl games, and the team has a horrible reputation for partying and trashing remote venues. Miami’s team and band behaved so badly at the 1987 Fiesta Bowl (after the 1986 season) that the story went around that the school had been specifically invited not to attend future Fiesta Bowls, a notion that went away with the BCS. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Rose Bowl’s initial antipathy towards inviting Oklahoma came from bad Miami team and fan experiences last year.
It’s not too surprising that Miami are poor losers, because they don’t do it much anymore. Kellen Winslow II gets lots of press because he’s the son of NFL great Kellen Winslow and because his father pressured him to go to a school with more minority coaching commitment. Winslow Sr. wanted his son to go to Michigan State because of its black head coach Bobby Williams; Winslow II wanted to go to Washington. They compromised on Miami because it had a diverse assistant coaching staff. So how did Winslow II react to this loss?
They didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves. We’re the best team in the country. They’re not. We just beat ourselves. We didn’t execute.
Note to Winslow II: you’re not the best team in the country, because you lost. This seems like a good time to look at Miami’s “amazing” 34-game winning streak. Since that loss in September 2000, here’s who the ‘canes have beaten:
- West Virginia*
- Florida State
- Louisiana Tech
- Virginia Tech*
- Boston College*
- Florida (2001 Sugar Bowl)
- Penn State (start of 2001 season)
- Troy State
- Florida State
- West Virginia*
- Boston College*
- Virginia Tech*
- Nebraska (2002 Rose Bowl)
- Florida A&M (start of 2002 season)
- Boston College*
- Florida State
- West Virginia*
- Virginia Tech*
Those teams with a “*” are Big East opponents that Miami plays every year. In case you don’t want to add that up, 12 of Miami’s 34 wins were against Rutgers, Temple, Syracuse, or Boston College—Big East conference teams that never threaten anyone but each other, though BC did threaten Miami this year. Another 4 went against powderpuffs that Miami scheduled to boost its rankings: Lousiana Tech, Troy State, Florida A&M (a division II school, for pete’s sake), and Connecticut. That’s 16 of the 34 games. The remaining 18 were against traditional opponents like Florida and Florida State, or semi-significant conference games like those against Pittsburgh or West Virginia, but games any top ten team could have won.
Try wrapping your brain around this: since Miami’s loss on September 9, 2000, the team has played exactly 5 teams that were ranked in the BCS Top 25 for that season:
- Florida State (2000.10.02, #2)
- Virginia Tech (2000.11.04, #5)
- Florida (2001 Sugar Bowl, #7)
- Florida State again (2001.10.13, #22)
- Syracuse (2001.11.17, #17)
- Washington (2001.11.24, #15)
- Virginia Tech again (2001.12.01, #21)
- Nebraska (2002 Rose Bowl, #2 but controversial)
- Florida (2002.09.07, #17)
- Florida State yet again (2002.10.12, #14, winning by one point and a last-second wide-left FG)
- West Virginia (2002.10.26, #16)
- Tennessee (2002.11.09, #25)
- Virginia Tech yet again (2002.12.07, #22)
Thirteen out of thirty-four games against ranked opponents, and only four of those against top ten teams, counting two bowl games in that. And don’t forget that the loss before the streak started was to #4 Washington. I’m getting this data from CollegeBCS.com, but I don’t think that the rankings are consistent: I think the 2001 ranks are at the time of the game, but the 2000 and 2002 ranks are at the end of the BCS season, so this may be slightly off.
By the same measure, Oklahoma played six top-25 opponents in 2000, three in 2001 (though I think both Kansas State and Texas A&M were top-25 when OU beat them that year), and four this year, counting Colorado twice. Not all of OU’s non-conference games are walks: OU beat Alabama this year, and the University of South Florida finished 23rd in the final BCS rankings, believe it or not (9-2, losing only to Arkansas and Oklahoma).
The difference is in conferences. On any given Saturday, Texas A&M or Oklahoma State or Texas Tech can come back and knock off an OU or TU because they’re tough regional rivalries that bring out the best in players. On any given Saturday, a Rutgers or Boston College can almost knock off Miami because they’re overranked. No one but Miami or West Virginia ever reaches the top ten in the Big East. OU, Texas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Nebraska have all been there in the past three years in the Big XII, with Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Missouri also ranked sometimes.
Miami has about four guaranteed conference wins each year. Oklahoma only has about one: Baylor. The other one that should be is Oklahoma State, and we all know how that’s turned out. But at least Big XII players usually lose with dignity, not crying that they should have won and that the other team wasn’t better.
Miami, by the way, is poor at winning, too. OU went to the 1988 Orange Bowl to play Miami for the national championship, one purchased for them by the Orange Bowl Committee. OU was #1, and Miami was #2, but the Orange People knew they’d be screwing their city out of tens of millions of dollars in tourist revenue by inviting the hometown team. They did it anyway, knowing that since the Orange Bowl Stadium is where Miami plays its home games (and that’s where the bowl game was played back then), it would be a huge advantage against a tough OU team. It was a complete home game for Miami, and they won the game. Afterwards, their fans threw beer bottles and food at OU players and band members. And remember, they won.
No one likes Miami but sportswriters and fans in South Florida. When they’re on national television, the people who watch all want to see them lose, except for the comment-taters. Everyone knows their streak was a sham, and no one outside their tiny fan base is at all sorry to see it end.
This isn’t to say Miami isn’t a talented team that deserved to be in the top ten or even the top five. They obviously are. The team has done very well for itself, won several big games (though often not by much), and come through when it counted. It just hasn’t been tested that often. Miami’s conference prohibits lots of regular season big games, so the school has to schedule much harder non-conference games. OU can get away with regional matchups like UTEP and Tulsa because it has a tough conference. Miami needs to schedule more big teams other than Florida and Florida State, the perennially overranked twins.
Next year, OU’s non-conference schedule inclues Alabama (there) and UCLA (here), as well as North Texas and often-ranked Fresno State. Miami’s include Florida, Florida State, East Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana Tech. In 2004, though schedules aren’t yet set, Miami will play non-conference opponents Florida State, Missouri, Lousiana Tech, and Houston. Wow.
The other thing that no one is saying, and that someone should, is that there’s a lot to admire in the game Ohio State played. This team was not intimidated by Miami. Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts fretted all night that OSU went for a fake field goal in the first quarter and failed, “giving up” three points that might have prevented overtime. But I thought it was a great call: it showed Miami right from the start that its reputation would not intimidate the Buckeyes. Similarly, also in the first half, OSU went for fourth and goal on the one yard line instead of taking an “easy” field goal.
Now, all night long, Jackson and Fouts praised OSU’s kicker for having a strong leg and great aim, and that’s true, so they felt OSU had easy points. But OSU sent a message to Miami: “We’re not going to settle for field goals. We’re going to come at you all the time, every time, and you can’t take anything for granted.”
Ohio State kept up the running game when other teams might have panicked and gone pass-wacky. The defense played good coverage without going blitz-happy, and kept hitting Miami all night long with good clean hits. It is unfortunate that one of these tore Willis McGahee’s left ACL, and that even Ken Dorsey was knocked out for one play, but Miami has long admitted that it has been lucky to avoid injury (the 2001 Sooners were the same way, and that’s when the injuries started), but they were valid tackles from a defense stronger than any Miami saw all year.
Ohio State played a solid game that wasn’t designed to excite, just to wear down Miami, and it won. And at the end of the game, Coach Jim Tressel held up the trophy and said, “We’ve always had the best damn band in the land. Now we have the best damn team in the land.” I gave up on holding my breath for Bob Stoops to thank the Pride of Oklahoma, but maybe he’ll learn.
There’s a lot to like about this OSU victory, in one of the great bowl games of all time. The apologetics will continue, and within a few days I wouldn’t be surprised if the game had turned into a 14-point Miami victory clearly stolen by vicious Big 12 officials and an unworthy Big 10 team. The BCS is happy because this game couldn’t have happened otherwise. The Big 10 is ecstatic, having gotten two teams in BCS bowls and won a national championship that Ohio State would never, never have won without the BCS. Miami would have played a lower-ranked team, and if it won, Ohio State could never have passed them in the polls.
After all, the Hurricanes are unbeatable. Right?