The No. 3 Texas Longhorns edged the No.10 Ohio State Buckeyes 24-21 in the 38th Annual Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last night in Glendale, Ariz., in a thrilling contest that provided one of the most exciting bowl game endings of the decade. Collegefootballnews.com had ranked the game as the second most intriguing match-up of the 2008-09 bowl season — behind only the Florida-Oklahoma BCS title game — and the dual in the desert more than lived up to its billing.
The game's electrifying atmosphere also demonstrated once again why college football is the greatest sport in the world. Only in a major bowl game (and the occasional mid-season neutral site game) can you get a stadium equally filled with fans from both teams, with the energy flowing back and forth as dictated by play on the field. One side was Texas burnt orange, while the other was Ohio State scarlet and grey. During the game's frantic final quarter, the opposing sides took turns going wild while watching the other side's fans fall silent. There's nothing else in spectator sports quite like it.
The 2009 Fiesta Bowl's fantastic finish was foreshadowed by the game tickets, which had a motif paying homage to cliffhanger films of yore, reading “The Sound and the Fury — Four Sensational Quarters — The Greatest Games in History!” The game's sluggish first half fortunately turned out to be a red herring, as both teams squandered major scoring opportunities and neither found the end zone.
Ohio State wasted a scoring chance on the game's first play, when one-time senior starter and now part-time QB Todd Boeckman failed to see wide-open receiver Brian Hartline streaking down the middle of the field for what would have been an easy touchdown, and instead merely completed a pass for a first down. Texas meanwhile missed an opportunity to seize momentum right before halftime when star junior QB Colt McCoy was intercepted at the one-yard line, as the Buckeyes held on to a 6-3 lead headed into the break.
Both bands delivered stellar halftime shows, with Ohio State's “Best Damn Band in the Land” featuring the Lone Ranger theme and fireworks, followed by Texas' “Showband of the Southwest” delivering a Led Zeppelin medley. The Texas-dominated third quarter gave Buckeye fans flashbacks to their team's embarrassing losses in the past two BCS title games, as it looked like the Longhorns would pull away for an easy victory. But the Bucks came back from the dead in the fourth quarter and almost stole the game, rallying from a 17-6 deficit to stun the Texas fans and take a 21-17 lead with just 2:05 left in the game. Alas, the Buckeyes left McCoy too much time as he led his team down the field on a 79-yard drive to score the winning touchdown with just 16 seconds left.
Some said it recalled John Elway's legendary 98-yard drive for the Denver Broncos in the 1987 AFC Championship game that still breaks the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere. But that was a five-minute drive that only tied the game. For Buckeye fans, it was more like the 1997 Rose Bowl in reverse, when Arizona State went ahead with around two minutes to play, only to see the Buckeyes rally for a winning touchdown with under 30 seconds left.
Texas ran their record to 12-1 and solidified their case that they should be in the BCS title game, rather than the Oklahoma team they vanquished 45-35 in October. For Ohio State, it was the type of game filled with what-if moments to ponder during the off-season. What if star running back Chris “Beanie” Wells hadn't suffered a concussion early in the second half after gaining 96-yards in the first half? What if they hadn't committed so many penalties and dropped passes? What if the spot on the crucial fourth-down-and-three play on the final drive had been a few inches shorter?
The Bucks thought they had stopped the Longhorns short on the play, which would have effectively ended the game. “The one ref on that side spotted it short, the other ref had it up further along because he had a better view,” said OSU's three-time All-American middle linebacker James “Little Animal” Laurinaitis, who played his final collegiate contest. “But regardless we're not making any excuses. We've got to be able to regroup and make the play on the next one.”
An instant replay review of the spot gave the Longhorns the critical first down, and in the end, it's the budding legend of Colt McCoy that the nation will most remember from the instant classic game. The classy McCoy congratulated several Buckeyes on a great effort afterward and praised the Ohio State defense.
"Those guys are big, strong and physical," McCoy said afterward. "They are the best defense we have faced all year. They were coming after us. I can't explain the feeling that we have right now because to have the faith and confidence in each other like we do, man, that was awesome."
It was a reversal of fortune for McCoy, who didn't play so well as a freshman against Ohio State in 2006 when the Buckeyes defeated the Longhorns 24-7 behind senior QB Troy Smith, who went on to win the Heisman.
Having now met for three classic games in the past four seasons, there's a budding but friendly rivalry blooming between Ohio State and Texas that exemplifies an ideal sportsmanship that is often all too lacking in American athletics. “Ohio State played a beautiful game,” said the Longhorns' most well-known fan - actor Matthew McConaughey - to Bucknuts.com after the game. “They're a tough team to beat every time. We've got a nice little rivalry going with those guys.”
This friendly flavor was on display before the game as fans from both teams mingled in Glendale's Westgate shopping center, a new development by the University of Phoenix Stadium that provided a huge step up in pre-game atmosphere from two years ago, when the Fiesta Bowl had first moved from Tempe to Glendale and was played amidst a desolate scene that lacked the festivities a major bowl game is supposed to have.
Numerous Buckeye fans agreed that they had never been treated better at a road game than when Ohio State visited Austin in 2006 for that early-season No.1 versus No.2 showdown that was closer than the 24-7 score indicated. Texas fans meanwhile had seen one of their program's most memorable wins at Ohio Stadium the year before, when QB Vince Young led the Longhorns on a late scoring drive for a 25-22 win that launched Texas toward its national title. While some Texas fans sitting too close to the Ohio State student section did not receive as kind treatment as they gave a year later, most came away impressed with the unique atmosphere at Ohio Stadium, arguably the most magnificent cathedral in American sports.
The Fiesta Bowl atmosphere was nothing but friendly before, during and after the hard-fought contest. Despite ultimately falling in heartbreaking fashion, Ohio State's valiant comeback against such a strong Texas team won the program back much of the national respect it had lost in BCS blowouts to Florida and LSU. Texas meanwhile showed the heart of a champion in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
McCoy was able to pick apart Ohio State's soft coverage for much of the game, yet the Buckeyes tackled with ferocity and limited McCoy from hitting big plays downfield for most of the night. But on the game-winning play, Buckeye defensive back Anderson Russell missed a tackle that enabled Longhorn receiver Quan Cosby to break free for the 26-yard score that won the game. After completing 41 of 59 passes for 414 yards and leading his team to victory when their backs were against the proverbial wall, McCoy demonstrated that he should have been the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner. If McCoy maintains his stated intention to return for his senior year, Texas will almost surely start the 2009 season as either the first or second ranked team in the nation.
Ohio State loses much of their defense, but with freshman phenom QB Terrelle Pryor coming back with a year of experience under his belt and memories of such a hard fought Fiesta Bowl in mind, it's likely the Buckeyes will also be ranked in the Top 10 to start the 2009 season. It's therefore not unfathomable to imagine that Texas and Ohio State could conceivably meet again in next year's BCS title game in the Rose Bowl (if Ohio State can get past an early season rematch with the USC team that thumped them 35-3 in September.) Pryor brought visions of Texas legend Vince Young to mind, when he smoothly scrambled for several huge first downs in the fourth quarter. Pryor then provided one of the bowl season's most memorable moments when he caught a touchdown pass from Boeckman that brought Ohio State to within 17-15.
Pryor's passing needs some serious work, as he completed just 5 of 14 throws for 66 yards and showed he clearly needs to attend Peyton Manning's quarterback camp this summer (or some similar pro training regimen.) But Pryor is well ahead of where Young was at the same age — Young red-shirted his first season and played only sporadically in his second year. Pryor was 8-1 as a starter for Ohio State this regular season, and almost helped win the Fiesta Bowl, only to see his defense unable to hold the late lead.
In some respects, Ohio State was lucky to get back in the game at all against a Texas team that severely outplayed and outcoached the Buckeyes in the third quarter. The pivotal play that set the stage for the late-game drama came when Boeckman was inserted back at QB on a third-down-and-long play and threw a jump ball up for grabs that senior wideout Brian Robiskie made a spectacular diving grab of for a big gain. The Buckeyes would go on to score a field goal on the possession to make it a potential one-possession game at 17-9.
The budding rivalry between the two schools was perhaps best summed up after the game when one Ohio State fan was heard telling some Texas fans that he wished the Big 10 could trade Michigan to the Big 12 for Texas so that the Buckeyes and Longhorns could play every year. This could conceivably be the ultimate sign of respect and camaraderie for what are two of college football's biggest, most successful and tradition-laden programs.