Crushed dreams were the theme of 1990s Ohio State football.
Three times Michigan beat the undefeated Buckeyes. A loss or tie to the Wolverines denied OSU’s Rose Bowl bid on four occasions. Ohio State was one of the winningest teams of the decade, but heartbreak was the defining characteristic.
Perhaps no day encapsulated the Buckeyes’ tough luck like Nov. 7, 1998, and it wasn’t the maize and blue thorn in its side that did in OSU.
Michigan State, not Michigan, dealt Ohio State its most devastating defeat. Twenty years later, the Spartans’ 28-24 win endures.
“Twenty years,” Nick Saban told The Blade this week, almost incredulous. “How many games have we had since then? How many memories are there, and how much of a mind do I have to remember all that?
“There are certain games that you play, whether you’re an assistant coach or a head coach, that you always seem to remember. Obviously [Ohio State] being No. 1 in the country, our guys just kept playing and made a lot of plays and came back and won. You never forget that. That’s one that will stick with you for a long time.”
The No. 1 Buckeyes were a 28-point favorite against the Saban-led Spartans. On College GameDay, Kirk Herbstreit infamously stated 5-4 Michigan State had a zero percent chance to win the game. A 34-17 victory at No. 11 West Virginia was Ohio State’s closest margin of victory in its first eight games.
On a sunny 48-degree afternoon in Ohio Stadium, it looked like more of the same was unfolding. The Buckeyes led 17-3 in the first half and 24-9 in the third quarter until a stunning series of events transpired in the final 23 minutes, resulting in a seismic shift in the 1998 college football season and a loss that still resonates in Columbus.
“I hate that game,” former OSU receiver Dee Miller said.
Michigan State punted near its own goal line as the clock approached the eight-minute mark of the third quarter. Ohio State, leading 24-9, was going to have a short field to stretch its advantage to three possessions. But the punt hit Nate Clements and Michigan State recovered at the 49-yard line. Five plays later, quarterback Bill Burke completed a 23-yard touchdown pass to Lavelle Richardson. But the margin was nine points after a bad snap led to a missed extra point.
From there, everything went wrong for the Buckeyes. On its final six possessions, Ohio State’s high-powered offense gained 132 yards and nine first downs on 35 plays. Michigan State kicked two field goals after Ohio State fumbled deep in its own territory. The Spartans had two yards and minus-7 yards on the possessions and still managed six points. Michigan State took the lead for good, when Sedrick Irvin capped a 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter with a touchdown run.
“I remember one thing: We lost the game,” former Ohio State coach John Cooper said. “We had pretty good control of the game, then they punted the ball and hit one of our guys in the back, and they recovered and scored. And we couldn't get the momentum back after that.
“I thought we were going to win the game up until the last play, I really did. But it was a heck of a ball game, and we lost to a good football team 28-24. That’s one of the better teams we’ve had at Ohio State.”
On their last-ditch drive, the Buckeyes took over at their own 49 with 1:39 left after a 26-yard punt return by David Boston. It took Ohio State two plays to reach the red zone. With the clock showing 1:29, Michigan State took a defensive timeout that proved fatal to OSU’s potential comeback.
“That’s a good timeout,” ABC analyst Dan Fouts said on the telecast. “They need to regroup here.”
On first-and-10 from the 15, Joe Germaine threw an incomplete pass to Boston in the end zone. Michigan State blitzed on second down, causing Germaine to throw a floater in the direction of Boston that had no chance of being completed. Miller was targeted on third down, but the ball was knocked down by Renaldo Hill. On the game’s decisive play, Hill intercepted Germaine on a badly underthrown ball with 1:12 remaining.
Four plays, four passes.
“We just panicked,” Miller said. “Rewinding time, we probably could have done some different things. There were some miscommunications. We were ranked No. 1 and we just didn’t want to lose.”
Burke was one of the game’s heroes, as the Warren, Ohio, native threw for 323 yards. An unheralded receiver named Plaxico Burress had a significant height advantage against All-America cornerback Antoine Winfield, catching four passes for 125 yards.
“As a competitor, you get some fire in your belly when the home state team doesn't really show interest in you,” Burke said. “I was recruited [by Ohio State] a little bit but was never offered a scholarship. You want to go back and show the home state crowd what they missed out on. It was fun to go in there and put on a good performance. It’s always fun to be the giant killer as well.”
Two of Burke’s best friends from high school attended the game. It was the Ohio State fans’ first trip to the Horseshoe.
”The looks on their faces were just priceless because they were devastated,” said Burke, who received a kiss on the cheek from Saban. “The locker room was just ecstatic. It’s one of the best postgame locker rooms I've ever been a part of. It was really surreal in a lot ways. It’s something I've been able to carry on forever.”
The hype surrounding the 1998 Buckeyes started at the conclusion of the previous season. They were an overwhelming No. 1 all season and all 11 wins came by double digits — even Michigan. It remains one of Ohio State’s best teams, done in by another team up north.
“We always wanted to beat Michigan, but to have Michigan State just peel everything from you, it really stung,” Miller said. “It’s a game that sticks with me 20 years later.”
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