Who would have thought? You have a team with a somewhat unheralded quarterback coming out of high school, who has his sights set on medical school upon graduation. A freshman tailback having an immediate impact on an offense playing above his experience level, and a defense that includes an All-American linebacker. Combined they sneak out wins against opponents to remain undefeated. Sound familiar? It should, because I just described the 2002 National Championship Ohio State Buckeyes. Oh, and before I forget, there was a coach by the name of Mark Dantonio, who had a subtle influence on that team as well.
There were a lot of doubters, and nay-sayers during that magical 2002 season. Here was a team winning games, barely, while the national media kept wondering, waiting for them to stumble. How could a potential BCS team struggle to win games by such small margins as 23-19, 27-16, 19-14, 13-7, 10-6, 23-16 and 14-9? BCS caliber teams are supposed to win by a minimum of double-digits, with the games decided by halftime, and not late in the fourth quarter on a final drive, or heaven forbid, overtime. But that is in fact what the 2002 Buckeyes did with their wins over Cincinnati, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois (OT), and Michigan.
Quarterback Craig Krenzel, a native of Utica, Michigan who headed south to play football as well as pursue a degree in molecular genetics, was probably one of the least athletically gifted of any of the Buckeye quarterbacks in the last fifteen or twenty years. Still he had a quality about him. He wasn’t going to be flashy or put up huge numbers, but what he was going to do was allow his team an opportunity to win every game by playing smart football and not making mistakes. Again, does this sound like someone Spartan fans may have a quaint familiarity with?
The OSU headliner or should I say head case, was of course freshman Maurice Clarett. Clarett was self assured, cocky and bragadocious, but he repeatedly backed it up on the playing field every Saturday. Now please understand I am not comparing personalities between Clarett and Bell, just their on field performance. Though Bell isn’t the starter for this year’s Spartan football team, his impact and contribution in the running game was a complete surprise to most. He has several memorable runs that if not made would have probably resulted in MSU defeats. Bell didn’t come to MSU with the fanfare that Clarett garnered when he stepped onto the OSU campus, but he has certainly made a name for himself and plays a significant role in this offense.
A.J. Hawk, unlike Greg Jones, was a true freshman on the 2002 Buckeye team who would eventually win the 2005 Lombardi Award and Jack Lambert Trophy for his outstanding linebacker play his senior year. Hawk wasn’t a starter on that 2002 Buckeye team. He backed up Cie Grant who was the starting WILL linebacker that season. Hawk saw most of his time that first season on special team duty and those limited occasions when he gave Grant a breather.
The only difference between then and now with regards to Mark Dantonio is that he holds the title of head coach and not defensive coordinator, but his influence on this 2010 Spartan team is as evident as it was for the Buckeye’s in 2002. In both cases the no nonsense, quiet confidence, and determination he projects remains, and is often times exhibited by his players. In 2002 OSU won seven games decided by eleven points or less. They didn’t always win pretty, but the fact remained they won. That is what I believe Mark Dantonio sees in this his 2010 Michigan State squad, 2002 revisited.