Team of destiny?
How could the Buckeyes' 2002 season not be defined in any other manner?
For openers, few, if anyone projected the Scarlet & Gray to be playing for the ultimate prize as the '02 campaign kicked off Aug. 24 in Ohio Stadium.
To be sure, behind savvy quarterback Craig Krenzel, defensive back standout Mike Doss and highly-touted running back recruit Maurice Clarett, the Bucks figured to win their share of games and qualify for a high-profile postseason bowl appearance.
Buckeye Nation, however, was about to be subjected to a season unlike any before it in school history. This 2002 campaign would be filled with dramatic plays and memorable moments resulting in one of college football's greatest championship games staged Jan. 3, 2003 at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Az.
Under highly-popular head coach Jim Tressel, the 2002 Buckeyes unexpectedly ran the table, winning all 14 of their games, capped by the unforgettable 31-24 double-overtime victory over heavily-favored Miami (Fla.) in the desert.
By all accounts, however, the '02 Buckeyes were anything but a dominant ballclub. In fact, seven of their 14 outcomes were decided by a touchdown or less, including OSU's initial road test of the season, a Sept. 21 encounter vs. in-state rival Cincinnati.
At Paul Brown Stadium, the Buckeyes discovered themselves in a down-to-the-wire thriller, the first of many for Tressel's troops.
In fact, Ohio State trailed UC a majority of the way before rallying from a 19-14 deficit after three quarters.
It was Krenzel's six-yard TD scramble with under four minutes remaining which provided the winning points. The Bearcats. though, were not finished.
Driving towards what could have been a stunning, game-winning score in the final ticks, UC would be turned back when Buckeye DB Will Allen secured a game-clinching interception in the end zone with but 32 seconds remaining.
One month later, Ohio State traveled to Madison, Wisc., opposing the Badgers in front of 80-plus thousand in the not-so-friendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium.
OSU entered the final 15 minutes trailing UW, 14-13. Krenzel engineered a comeback, first completing a 45-yard pass to wideout Michael Jenkins before finding tight end Ben Hartsock on a short TD toss for a 19-14 Buckeye lead. Though a two-point conversion attempt failed, the five-point lighting held up after versatile Chris Gamble intercepted a Badgers' pass in the end zone.
A return to Ohio Stadium the following week saw over 105,000 greet Joe Paterno and his Penn State Nittany Lions.
The two teams slugged it out during a first half that saw Penn State take a 7-3 lead to the lockerroom. Gamble, who was to participate in an amazing 89 plays (51 defense, 31 offense, 7 special teams) accounted for the game-winning points, returning a Lions' pass 40 yards to the house in what eventually culminated in a 13-7 Buckeye win.
After experiencing an open date, OSU traveled west to Purdue for a Nov. 9 Big Ten battle. It was yet another victory dominated by Scarlet & Gray defenders.
Involved in a 3-3 deadlock after three periods, the Buckeyes needed a Krenzel-to-Jenkins TD connection to pull out a 10-6 triumph. OSU had once again escaped with its perfect ledger in tact.
OSU's final road test of the regular season became all of that and more when the 4-6 Fighting Illini forced the Buckeyes into overtime with the two teams locked up at 16 following 60 minutes of regulation.
Playing without an injured Clarett, Bucks' running back Maurice Hall high-tailed his way eight yards for a touchdown to begin overtime. OSU would, in turn, deny Illinois a possible tying TD and had preserved a 23-16 victory.
At 12-0, the stage had been set for Ohio State's regular season-ending showdown against storied bitter rival Michigan.
A then-Ohio Stadium record turnout of 105,539 were treated to a four-quarter knockdown, dragout defensive masterpiece.
Michigan entered 9-2 and 6-1 in the Big Ten, ranked ninth nationally in the USA Today poll. The Wolves were 12th among AP pollsters.
Not surprisingly, Ohio State was forced to rally from behind after trailing the Maize and Blue 9-7 at halftime.
The fourth quarter clock read 8:30 when Krenzel and the offense went to work on what proved a game-winning drive.
Along the way, Krenzel needed a drive-saving fourth down keeper to move the sticks. An ensuing swing pass connection to Clarett resulted in a first down at the Michigan six-yard line.
Two snaps later, Hall took an option pitch from Krenzel and bolted into the end zone from two yards out with 4:55 to play.
Naturally, Michigan staged a late threat, driving into Buckeye territory in the final ticks before a John Navarre pass was short-circuited by Allen in OSU's end zone setting off a mammoth celebration. The Bucks had prevailed, 14-9.
Forty-one days following OSU's decision over Michigan, the Buckeyes and Miami's Hurricanes squared off in Tempe.
Frankly, a majority of experts projected a relatively easy Canes' victory. After all, Miami was defending national champs and had returned several integral components from its 2001 title-winning unit.
Miami was to take a 7-0 lead after one quarter before a Sun Devil Stadium crowd of 77,502, the vast majority of which were decked out in Scarlet & Gray.
It appeared imperative Ohio State's defense would have to perform above and beyond the call to counter Miami's superior offensive attack.
Perhaps on cue, OSU forced a pair of second quarter turnovers, both of which Krenzel and the offense turned into points.
A Doss INT led to Krenzel's game-tying touchdown run. Later, Canes' QB Ken Dorsey lost connections and OSU was back in business from Miami's 14-yard line.
Clarett made the Hurricanes pay with a short TD scamper, allowing Ohio State to race off the field at halftime leading by 14-7.
Yet another OSU takeaway led to a third quarter field goal as OSU opened a surprising 17-7 upperhand.
Miami's all-American running back Willis McGahee rallied the Canes with a third quarter TD, reducing Ohio State's lead to 17-14.
The two teams proceeded to exchange a series of fourth quarter punts leading to late dramatics from Miami.
The Hurricanes staged a late drive into Buckeye territory before the drive stalled. From OSU's 23-yard line, U of M's Todd Sievers set up for a potential game-tying 40-yard field goal.
A Buckeyes time-out failed to ice Sievers whose ensuing kick was down the middle resulting in a 17-17 lockup after regulation.
The Bucks immediately fell behind in the extra session after Dorsey and tight end Kellen Winslow clicked on a seven-yard TD connection.
What followed was a Buckeye offensive series for the ages.
Facing a do-or-die fourth and 14 situation, Krenzel fired a sideline strike to Jenkins who barely worked his way past the first down marker.
Moments later, the Bucks' season was again on the line on a fourth and three play.
Krenzel's end zone pass for Jenkins fell incomplete. For a fleeting second, Miami players began to rush the field in celebration.
A late penalty flag, however, appeared. Official Terry Porter signaled pass interference, breathing new life into Buckeye hopes and infuriating Hurricane players and their fans.
With first and goal, it took three snaps for Krenzel to execute a QB sneak and again deadlock the count at 24.
Ohio State gained possession for the second OT and Clarett slanted five yards for six points and a 31-24 Buckeye lead.
Miami came right back, aided by a pass interference call which gave the Canes first and goal at the two-yard line.
What followed was one of the most dramatic goal line stands in Buckeye history.
With McGahee on the sidelines after suffering a serious knee injury, three successive running attempts were denied by OSU.
On fourth down, Dorsey dropped back under an all-out blitz. His hurried throw fell incomplete ending the game as thousands of Buckeye fans both in attendance and viewing the action back home celebrated the program's most unlikely national championship in school history.
Joining Krenzel (MVP), Doss, Clarett, Allen, Hartsock, Smith, Jenkins and Gamble on the postgame podium were such Scarlet & Gray heroes as linebackers Matt Wilhelm, Robert Reynolds and Cie Grant; defensive backs Donnie Nickey and Dustin Fox; defensive linemen Darrion Scott, Tim Anderson, and Kenny Peterson; offensive linemen Alex Stepanovich, Shane Olivia, Adrien Clarke, and Bryce Bishop; fullback Brandon Joe, punter Andy Groom, and placekicker Mike Nugent.