Greatest national title game ever?

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Ken Dorsey was sacked by Will Smith on Miami's first play of the Fiesta Bowl, there was a sense something special was about to unfold.

The Hurricanes' quick-strike offense suddenly didn't look so quick, and Ohio State's swarming defense looked even better than advertised.

This was going to be close. This was going to be good. This was going to be a game, not the Miami rout nearly everyone expected. This wasn't going to be like Miami's blowout of Nebraska in last year's Rose Bowl after all.

It was better than anyone could have ever imagined.

Four hours, two overtimes and a game-changing pass interference call later, Ohio State beat Miami 31-24 on Friday night for its first national championship in 34 years.

Let's just call this Fiesta Bowl the best national championship game ever played.

''This one's got to rank right up there,'' Buckeyes quarterback Craig Krenzel said.

It's the topper, Craig.

There have been dramatic moments in title games before, but never has the national championship hung in the balance for play after play after play.

Thanks to overtime, games can take on their own afterlife at the end of regulation, but this is the first time it's happened in the five-year existence of the Bowl Championship Series.

Of course, there are still some classics that at one time or another have been called the best, the greatest or the most exciting games ever. The top games, though, are usually remembered by one play:

--In the '87 Fiesta Bowl, Penn State sealed its 14-10 upset of Miami when Pete Giftopoulos intercepted Vinny Testaverde's pass on the goal line.

--In the '84 Orange Bowl, Miami won 31-30 when Nebraska failed on a 2-point conversion try with 48 seconds left.

--Alabama beat Penn State 14-7 in the '78 Sugar Bowl on Barry Krauss' fourth-down stop of Mike Guman just shy of the goal line.

The Fiesta Bowl had plays everywhere. In all, 32 plays could have been the final snap. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel doesn't even want to guess which one was most important.

''There were a lot of great plays,'' Tressel said Saturday. ''We'll all be able to sit back and talk about which one turned the tide most.''

And that's why this Fiesta Bowl ranks as the best of all title games. It was nerve-racking all night as it became apparent neither team wanted to finish No. 2.

One play, though, captured the emotionally charged atmosphere of the evening -- the delayed fourth-down interference call that gave Ohio State another chance.

Trailing 24-17, Ohio State faced fourth-and-3 at the 5. Krenzel threw to the right corner of the end zone for Chris Gamble, who was being covered by Glenn Sharpe.

As Gamble reached back for the ball, he got his hands on it but couldn't hold on.

For 3 1/2 seconds, Miami had its 35th straight victory and second straight title. And Ohio State had failed yet again to win its first national crown since 1968.

Then everything changed. Field judge Terry Porter's penalty flag came flying, the game continued and the Buckeyes finally won in the second overtime.

The game ended like it started for Miami -- with Dorsey on the ground. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Cie Grant blitzed and Dorsey's desperation heave was batted down by the Buckeyes' Matt Wilhelm.

''It was extraordinary,'' Tressel said. ''How hard they played was amazing. This was great for college football.''

Make that the greatest.

Richard Rosenblatt is the national college football writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrosenblatt@ap.org



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