PHOENIX - Almost 28 months ago, a raw and wide-eyed quarterback led defending national champion Texas, making just the second start of his career. As Colt McCoy stepped up to the line of scrimmage, he saw Ohio State's No. 33 staring into his soul from just a couple yards away.
After the ball was snapped, the Longhorns' quarterback took three quick steps and released a pass, but his offering was intercepted by that linebacker from Ohio State, another young player whose legend had yet to be written.
Early this evening, after the sun hides behind the White Tank Mountains and darkness puts a canopy over this desert valley, McCoy of Texas and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis, the now fabled No. 33, will reprise that stare-down in the Fiesta Bowl.
This time it is McCoy, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, facing off with Laurinaitis, a three-time All-American. In their last meeting in Austin in 2006, it was No. 1 Ohio State against No. 2 Texas, with the Buckeyes prevailing 24-7. This time, the Longhorns hold the higher ranking.
"A lot has changed for both of us," Laurinaitis said, "but this is still Ohio State and Texas. This game is about a lot more than Colt and me."
It is, indeed.
For Ohio State, freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor will need to be dynamic without being reckless. If senior Todd Boeckman is used at quarter-back at the same time Pryor is on the field, the plan will have to be effective, not just creative.
To keep McCoy off the field and the Buckeyes moving, junior running back Chris "Beanie" Wells will have to plow through, jump over and stiff arm his way around the Texas defense.
"We really want it," a determined Wells said. "Who wants it more, that plays a huge factor in the outcome of a ballgame. I think a lot of our guys are just tired of losing bowl games. Our seniors, they really want it. And the younger guys want it for the seniors."
Texas coach Mack Brown said his concerns start with the fast and powerful Wells (6-1, 230), who rushed for 1,091 yards despite missing three games with a foot injury.
"We haven't seen anybody who can run the ball like they do. We haven't seen a back like Beanie Wells," Brown said. "We've got great stats against the run, but we are in a passing league. The ability to try and slow Beanie Wells and the running game down is what we have to focus on."
Brown is equally complimentary of the Ohio State defense, which was the eighth-best in the nation.
"They'll have the best defense that we've played against all year," Brown said. "They're tough and they're physical, which is what we saw in the two other games when we played them."
The assignment for the Buckeyes' defense, a group led by the Big Ten's two-time defensive player of the year Laurinaitis, is to corral McCoy. In the many months since their first meeting, the Texas quarterback has developed into a record-setting, passing machine.
He is 31-7 as a starter, completing 70 percent of his passes over his career for 9,318 yards and 83 touchdowns. This season, McCoy leads the nation with a 77.6 percent completion rate, passing for 3,445 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also leads the Longhorns in rushing with 576 yards and has scored 10 touchdowns carrying the ball.
"When you hear about a quarterback having a great day throwing the ball, and he completes 70 percent of his passes, that's something," Laurinaitis said. "But a guy going through a complete season, against the level of competition Texas faces, and Colt McCoy's completed close to 80 percent - that is really unbelievable."
Ohio State senior defensive back Malcolm Jenkins is pretty certain Texas will ride McCoy's arm as far as it will carry the Longhorns.
"You will definitely see the pass first with Texas," Jenkins said. "That's what stands out - how they get the ball around through the air. The second thing that stands out is how patient Colt is. He is not always looking to run first, but once nothing is there, he can move around in the pocket."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel does not think the outcome will be determined by simply the Texas passing game trading shots with the Ohio State running game.
"I think every play is going to have a chance to make the difference in the game, and that's the beautiful part of football," he said.
"There will be moments when we've got to make sure we try to contain that great passing offense, absolutely. And yes, we need to do a good job of running the football. But we better throw it, too, because if we don't run it effectively, we probably won't be able to run it. The beautiful part of football is it is all tied together."
Contact Matt Markey at:
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Almost 28 months ago, a raw and wide-eyed quarterback led defending national champion Texas, making just the second start of his career. As Colt McCoy stepped up to the line of scrimmage, he saw Ohio State's No. 33 staring into his soul from just a couple yards away. After the ball was snapped, the Longhorns' quarterback took three quick steps and released a pass, but his offering was intercepted by that linebacker from Ohio State, another young player whose legend had yet to be written.