TAMPA, Fla. - A simple boast. That is how Ohio State outside linebacker Joe Cooper should be remembered this season.
I'm positive no one came right out and asked Cooper whether Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, could take a hit before the Buckeyes played Purdue in late October. Cooper spoke his mind anyway.
Cooper said Brees could be intimidated. Cooper attacked Brees's manhood when he told reporters Brees couldn't take the punishment the Buckeyes were going to dish out.
Like Joe Namath guaranteeing victory before Super Bowl III, Cooper lost himself in the emotion of the moment. Unlike Broadway Joe, Cooper failed to deliver.
Brees stuck it to Cooper and the Buckeyes, passing for 455 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-27 comeback victory. In the aftermath, Purdue is playing in the Rose Bowl while Ohio State settled for the Outback Bowl.
Cooper's boast backfired but his pro wrestling mentality (Cooper is a big WWF fan) wasn't lost on the Buckeyes. The senior co-captain from Independence High School in Columbus was voted OSU's most inspirational player by his teammates. Cooper's coaches named him the team's most outstanding linebacker.
“I grew up in Columbus, I grew up a Buckeye fan. I always loved Ohio State and it was always a dream of mine to come to Ohio State,” said Cooper, a 6-0, 225-pounder.
Cooper, who was named to the coaches All-Big Ten team for the first time this year, was the Buckeyes' second-leading tackler this season and had his best game against Michigan with 10 stops. Moreover, Cooper, who has a reputation for playing his best in big games, had seven tackles and one sack against Purdue.
For Cooper and the Buckeyes, there is no bigger game than tomorrow's matchup against South Carolina. A win against the Gamecocks gives Ohio State a 9-3 record following a disappointing 6-6 finish last year.
Cooper is the same confident player who wrote a check with his mouth and couldn't cover it two months ago. He's also smarter and wiser from the experience. When asked to make a prediction on the outcome of the South Carolina game, Cooper refused to nibble.
“They have a great attack,” Cooper said. “They're not going to beat themselves. We have to beat them because they are not going to help us at all.”
Personally, Cooper doesn't need too much help. Perpetual motion on the football field, he roams sideline to sideline, fights though blocks and springs right back to his feet after getting knocked down. He never gives up on a play.
Last season Cooper, who was just starting to get comfortable at outside linebacker, volunteered to play middle linebacker after several players were injured. Cooper's unselfish attitude carried over to not missing a game in 1999 despite playing on a knee that required off-season surgery.
In a win over Iowa last year, Cooper, sick and weakened with a throat and ear infection that sent him to the locker room minutes before kickoff, forced an interception following a hit on the quarterback and later recorded his first career interception in the end zone.
“You can't ever go out there and look hurt,” said Cooper, who has played in all 35 games at Ohio State.
What would prevent Cooper from playing?
“Maybe if I couldn't walk,” he said.
The boast is back.
John Harris is a Blade sports writer.
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