It's fascinating how a quarterback parable of almost catastrophic proportions led to a contradictory development Saturday in Michigan Stadium, greatly influencing a game, a season, and maybe even a series.
When Ohio State senior quarterback and co-captain Steve Bellisari was arrested and charged with drunk driving 34 hours before the Buckeyes were to play Illinois just over a week ago, the entire Buckeye football nation teetered on its already fragile moorings. The aftershock and subsequent pangs of withdrawal seemed certain to carry over to the Michigan game.
The Bellisari topic last week held precedence, the first 45 minutes of OSU coach Jim Tressel's weekly press conference consumed by his quarterback situation. There was nary a mention of Michigan Week or The Game.
But the entire episode might have interrupted what has been a stifling obsession with trying to defeat the dreaded Wolverines and made it into just a very workable passion.
Tressel was forced to insert third-year sophomore quarterback Craig Krenzel, making his first collegiate start. Krenzel's instructions were simple: You don't have to lead us to victory, you just have to avoid making any mistakes that could give Michigan the upper hand.
The Buckeyes used the situation as a rallying point. Jonathan Wells, who has matured into the best tailback in the Big Ten, rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as OSU jumped out to a 23-0 lead. Krenzel followed his script perfectly, the defense kept Michigan's insufficient rushing attack sufficiently sequestered and now No. 23 Ohio State had its first victory over the Wolverines in Michigan Stadium in 14 years, 26-20.
“As far as the running game, I definitely wanted to come out there and take some of the pressure off him (Krenzel),” Wells said. “I put the pressure on myself, not on a sophomore quarterback. Everybody in the huddle felt that.”
When Ohio State went up 14-0 early in the second quarter, it greatly helped relieve, even more, the pressure on the seemingly unflappable, extremely intelligent and appreciably talented Krenzel.
“That was huge for us because I think the worst thing we could have done was said, `Hey, Craig, you're going to come up here and you're going to throw 37 times and we're going to expect you to win it for us,'” Tressel said. “This isn't one of those types of games. Plus, we felt we could run the football, play good defense and we thought on this particular day against this particular matchup, that was the best way we could approach it.”
It was probably the only way.
The Buckeyes now have to be enthused about their future with Krenzel, a third-stringer most of the season, primarily because of a severely bruised knee that occurred on the second day of fall practice. It kept him from sharing the snaps with Bellisari and Scott McMullen, neither of whom played Saturday.
We now turn our attention to the other sideline and find that Michigan's sophomore quarterback hope for the future, John Navarre, has spiraled into a swoon that might have initiated his swan song as the starter.
In his defense, he had no help from his running game, which has been totally ineffective, unimaginative, and ambling with the use of converted fullback B.J. Askew over the more talented Chris Perry. Without Perry, UM has no detonation at tailback.
Navarre has also been held back by what has become a stoic game plan that gave him no flexibility to throw over the middle against the Buckeyes. When he did it on two occasions in the third quarter, flanker Marquise Walker caught the first one for a 21-yard touchdown and dropped the next one in the end zone, a perfectly thrown ball that would have allowed Michigan to close to 23-14 much earlier.
But Navarre was, for the most part, totally ineffective. He threw four interceptions, giving him a total of 10 in the last five games, and fumbled once. He continued to lock in on Walker with no Plan B.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who has defended his young quarterback, was surprisingly agitated by Navarre's performance Saturday, stating after the game, “I don't know that it's confidence, and it may be, but he made some bad decisions. When you're young and you make bad decisions, you press.”
Navarre was lustily booed early in the second quarter following still another bad pass, just as Bellisari has been booed on many occasions in Columbus.
As the Buckeyes had defeated Michigan only twice in the previous 13 years, the fact was that OSU almost always got beat at the quarterback position.
But as we gaze into the near future, all of a sudden we see the Bucks sitting contently with Krenzel following what could have been a catastrophe. Meanwhile, the Wolverines are now totally perplexed at the position, following what could have been a share of the Big Ten championship and a berth in a BCS bowl.
It could well be what finally turns this rivalry in favor of the kids from Columbus.