ANN ARBOR - Anthony Gonzalez doesn't mind playing third fiddle in a very talented trio. If the two lead guys are off the stage, then it's his chance to make beautiful music.
Gonzalez, not normally the front man in Ohio State's gifted receiving corps, made the biggest catch of his career in the final minute yesterday against rival Michigan, setting up the winning touchdown in a 25-21 victory that gave the Buckeyes a share of the Big Ten championship.
"My role is, when everyone else is covered - which isn't too often - to try and make a difference," Gonzalez said.
Trailing 21-19, No. 9 Ohio State charged down the field and toyed with the clock along the way. Quarterback Troy Smith sidestepped the Michigan pressure and, with his usual primary receivers Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. not in his view, desperately needed another option.
Gonzalez, who had completed his route near the sideline but then improvised and curled back toward the middle of the field as Smith rolled out, went high above Michigan defensive back Grant Mason to collect Smith's pass.
The play gained 26 yards and put the Buckeyes at the Michigan 4-yard line with 37 seconds left in the game. Two plays later, as Ohio State tried to position the ball for a winning field goal, tailback Antonio Pittman ran it in from three yards out for a touchdown and the lead.
The Buckeyes missed a two-point conversion try, but held off the Wolverines for the victory to give Ohio State a very good shot at a BCS bowl bid.
"It was really a broken play," said Gonzalez, a sophomore from Cleveland. "I just saw a ball, threw my arms up, and it hit me right there. I knew I was going to hang onto it, but I wasn't even sure what part of the field I was on."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who beat Michigan for a fourth time in five tries, needed two long touchdown drives in the final seven minutes to win yesterday. Tressel said Gonzalez's role in the stunning comeback did not surprise him.
"Anthony really studies the game," Tressel said. "Every time I turn around, he's in there looking at film. And he studies it during the game - he came up with a couple of things during this game. When you have unselfish people like that, good things happen."
For a good part of the afternoon, it did not look like the Buckeyes would be talking at all about good things happening. After taking a 9-0 lead following a four-yard touchdown run by Smith on the game's opening possession and a 47-yard field goal by Josh Huston, Ohio State short-circuited.
The Buckeyes, who lost standout senior linebacker Bobby Carpenter on the first defensive play of the game, had freshman running back Maurice Wells fumble the ball away at the OSU 40 with about nine minutes left in the first half.
That set No. 17 Michigan up for a touchdown on a short lob pass from Chad Henne to Jason Avant that cut the lead to 9-7. A 25-yard Huston field goal made it a 12-7 Ohio State lead at the half, but the normally dangerous Ginn became self-destructive by fumbling the first two punts of the second half and pinning his team deep in its own end.
"The ball was rolling around the wrong way for us, but our guys kept playing," Tressel said. "There were a bunch of big plays, and sometimes as a coach, you only remember those bad ones."
Another OSU blunder - an 18-yard punt into the wind by A.J. Trapasso, gave Michigan field position at the Ohio State 37, and the Wolverines scored quickly on a two yard run by Kevin Grady. When Henne ran for the two-point conversion, Michigan led 18-12 late in the third period.
After a miss by Huston from 47 yards out, Michigan's Garrett Rivas put the Buckeyes down by two scores, 21-12, with a 19-yard field goal with less than eight minutes left in the game.
"We kept plugging away," Smith said. "We understand that throughout a whole football game, things are not always going to go Ohio State's way. We just kept believing, and kept playing."
Smith marched the Buckeyes 67 yards in five plays to get within 21-19, hitting Holmes for a 26-yard touchdown. A Rivas pooch punt stuck Ohio State way back at the 12 with four minutes to play, but Smith, who hit nine of 12 passes for 130 yards in the final two drives, connected with Ginn and Holmes three times each and mixed in a couple of runs to get to the Michigan 30, where he hooked up with Gonzalez.
"In the end, Troy Smith made too many plays," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "He scrambled out of there when we thought we had him sacked, and he made the pass."
After the acrobatic catch by Gonzalez, Tressel hoped to spend most of the clock and put the ball in the center of the field for Huston and a game-winning kick, but Pittman had other plans.
"The play was set up to just line the ball up for a field goal, but I was thinking about punching it in," Pittman said. "I hit the line and found a little space and went in. Nobody is going to argue with getting a touchdown."
Michigan, which failed to put Ohio State in a third-down situation on the game-winning drive, was stunned by the turn of events.
"They got a couple of big plays on us, and we just didn't get enough pressure on them, and that hurt," Michigan linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "When you have a nine-point lead, it's the defense's job to make sure the other team doesn't score. We didn't hold up our end."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.42.28188 -83.74848