ORLANDO, Fla. For a moment, the ball seemed to hang there against the blue Florida sky, long enough for all the world to see that BYU had at last run out of miracle finishes.
With time running out in the 40th Florida Citrus Bowl, BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco had just flung a soft, arching pass into the end zone, but to whom? His receivers were nowhere to be seen, unless of course you count an OSU defensive back or two, and who could tell the difference on this day?
And so once again, OSU's Terry White, standing flat-footed in the back of the end zone, let the ball settle into his arms.
Victory was in hand.
Score it Ohio State 10, BYU 7, offensive fireworks, zippo.
This was supposed to be an offensive showdown, matching up the top two pre-season Heisman candidates, Bosco and OSU's Keith Byars. Instead it turned into a macho socko defensive struggle. Let's Get Physical, starring Kurt Gouveia, Pepper Johnson, Rob Ledenko, Larry Kolic and those types. The only touchdowns of the day were scored by a noseguard on an interception return and by a reserve wide receiver on a broken play straight off the sandlot.
Byars brooded on the bench, nursing his brittle right foot again, and Bosco and Co., as they have been wont to do, self-destructed. Bosco threw four interceptions two in the end zone and halfback Vai Sikahema fumbled twice deep in OSU territory, once at the goal line.
Still, BYU might have won the game. Trailing 10-7, the Cougars mounted three serious drives in the fourth quarter, only to come up short each time. First they drove 60 yards to the OSU 36, where Johnson sacked Bosco for a 9-yard loss to kill the drive; then they drove 50 yards to the OSU 37, but White wrestled a pass away from wide receiver Scott Norberg in the end zone for an interception; and then, with 56 seconds left, BYU got the ball back at the 20 for one last try.
The Cougars seemed up to the task. After all, this is the team that had pulled out last-minute victories in each of the past two Holiday Bowls. The stage was certainly set for another one after Bosco marched the Cougars 50 yards to the OSU 30. With 10 seconds left and one remaining timeout, at worst the Cougars would surely get a chance to tie with a 47-yard field goal attempt.
"We were going to take one more shot at it and then we probably would have tried a field goal," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards.
BYU's last shot called for Mark Bellini and David Miles, both lined up on the right side, to crisscross, then run at OSU's deep back, White hoping to force him to cover one while leaving the other open. But White never came up. He hung back. Miles broke free underneath, but even before he reached the end zone, Bosco lofted his fateful pass into the end zone for White to intercept. All that was left was for OSU to fall on the ball.
So just who were you throwing to, Robbie? That's what everybody wanted to know after the game, including Miles. "To you," he told Miles. Then he paused, "Aw, it was all screwed up."
Later, Bosco told a reporter, "It was not a good call for the defense they were in."
Standing outside the locker room, a sullen Edwards was left to explain his team's performance. "It would have been nice to have played our normal game, but we didn't," he said.
"The difference in the game was turnovers," said OSU coach Earle Bruce. "BYU had six and we had two."
The Cougars, 11-3 and ranked No. 9, will surely fall out of the top 10 in the final rankings for the first time in three years. For their part, the Buckeyes, ranked 16th, finished with a 9-3 record for the sixth straight year and were glad to have it. "We'll have a better winter now," said Bruce.
The Cougars can spend the winter contemplating interceptions and the dangerous art of passing. On Saturday, Bosco completed 26 of 50 passes for 261 yards and those four interceptions. What's more, he could have had two more (he also hit Kolic in the chest with another pass and had still another interception in the end zone nullified by a penalty).
One of his interceptions proved to be the game-winner. Early in the third quarter, with the Cougars pinned on the 11-yard line, the Buckeyes pulled a masterful changeup in their defense. Kolic lined up as noseguard, but at the snap he dropped back into coverage. Bosco never saw him. He threw a pass into the middle, intended for Sikahema, but Kolic snagged it and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown.
"I don't think he ever saw me," said Kolic. "I never saw the ball coming till the last second. I was lucky I turned around in time."
That was the last time anybody would score. The BYU defense never did allow the Buckeyes anything save a second-quarter 47-yard field goal by Rich Spangler.
"Our goal was to shut them out," said defensive end Jason Buck. "We really thought we could after watching films."
Buck and friends were even more determined after listening to the Buckeyes during their weeklong stay in Orlando. "They said we couldn't match up with them physically," said Buck. "They said they were going to blow us off the line." That was certainly the case the last time these teams met, in 1982's 47-17 Holiday Bowl rout, but not this time. "I think they went back with an attitude adjustment," said Buck.
The Cougars held OSU to 329 yards total offense. Ledenko, Cary Whittingham and Steve Sanders had at least 10 tackles apiece. Buck, Shawn Knight and Gouveia spend the afternoon harassing OSU quarterback Jim Karsatos. The nation's fifth-rated passer completed just 19 of 35 passes for 196 yards. On one occasion, Karsatos cursed at Buck, who answered, "Yeah, let's see you get a first down."
All day long the defense bought time for the offense back to you, guys but to no avail. Early in the first half, Sikahema returned a punt 38 yards, then lost a fumble on the next play at the OSU 16. Midway through the second quarter, Sikahema ran six yards and was falling into the end zone when he fumbled again. OSU recovered in the end zone.
The Cougars finally scored with less than a minute remaining in the half. Bosco rolled left intending to throw left. Finding no one open, he stopped, looked right and spotted Miles, a seldom-used sophomore, drifting casually across the middle.
"When I saw him hesitate, I turned around," Miles said.
Miles caught the ball over his right shoulder heading for the right corner of the end zone of a 38-yard scoring play and a 7-3 halftime lead.
If the Cougars now had things going their way, all that quickly changed. Only moments after Kolic's interception return to start the third quarter, Bosco was blindsided just as he released a pass. The ball popped in the air and was picked off by Kolic again.
Bosco would be baffled by the OSU defense the rest of the game. At halftime, the Buckeyes decided to drop more people into pass coverage, gambling that Bosco wouldn't hurt anyone with his scrambling.
"It's dangerous because they can put five guys in pass patterns," said OSU linebacker Chris Spielman, "but (Bosco's) the type of quarterback who doesn't like to run. When he does, he goes down in a slide."
Bosco later compared it to UTEP's drop-9 defense. "We weren't prepared for it against UTEP, but we've worked on it since then, and we should've been ready for it," said Bosco.
With BYU apparently shut down, the Buckeyes seemed about to wrap up the game late in the third quarter. They had been forced to go to the air since losing Byars early in the first quarter after he reaggravated his old foot injury. They drove steadily downfield with short dumpoff passes until they reached the BYU 5-yard line. There on fourth-and-one, running back John Wooldridge ran into Sanders, David Futrell and Knight for no gain. Back to you, offense.
That started the Cougars off on the first of their three fourth-quarter drives. But Bosco's 27th and 28th interceptions of the season ended matters. It was a disappointing finish for Bosco and for Byars. At least the latter had a victory for consolation. "I couldn't play even though I wanted to badly," said Byars. Then, after a pause, "But I'm still glad I came."