Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday Mass (Gathering)

In honor of today's Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game, I reflect upon a September trip to Columbus for my alma mater's contest against the Buckeyes...

What's your religion?

If you ask most Ohio residents that question on a fall Saturday, you may likely hear "Buckeye" among the responses. For at least a dozen weekends each year, the Ohio State University football team becomes the center of their universe.

The final Saturday of the summer in Columbus, Ohio proved to be no different. The Ohio University Bobcats made the roughly 75-mile trip northwest from Athens for their contest with Ohio State. The odds were against Ohio: a 1-1 record coming into the game, and they were 30-point underdogs against the #2 nationally-ranked Buckeyes, who entered the game with a 2-0 record. Despite the apparent mismatch, both Ohio and Ohio State fans converged upon Ohio Stadium in force.

The party atmosphere in Columbus is evident hours before kickoff. Over three hours before the game, the highway exit ramps leading to "The Horseshoe" are jammed for roughly a mile. The smoke from barbecues in the many surrounding parking lots waft into the sky on an otherwise cloudless morning. Tents, many in Ohio State's familiar scarlet-and-gray color scheme, have sprung up en masse. On sidewalks near the stadium, vendors sell various wares -- including jerseys, anti-Michigan t-shirts, and "buckeye" necklaces. The nearby bars have entrance lines stretching out the door. A stone's throw away from Ohio Stadium is RiverJam -- a free-to-enter event near the Olentangy River, featuring cover bands and a video screen with pre-game coverage, along with food and drinks for sale. Meanwhile, the Ohio State marching band gives a free pre-game performance at nearby St. John Arena.

The interaction is friendly between Bobcats' and Buckeyes' fans. The Ohio fans come dressed in green-and-white, providing a stark visual contrast to their Ohio State counterparts. Ohio fans know what to expect, although they hope for the best -- a competitive game that proves the prognosticators wrong. They want to beat the Buckeyes, but more realistically, they want to scare them. Moral victories can be important for a football program seeking greater regional and national exposure.

As the noon gametime approaches, it's time to walk to venerable Ohio Stadium. If you need any further religion/football connotations, look no further than The 'Shoe. Constructed in 1922, Ohio Stadium is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of the cathedrals of college football. The rotunda entrance -- which reportedly was designed to mimic the dome at Rome's Pantheon -- includes three-dimensional flowers on the ceiling, and stained glass windows -- which include logos and significant moments in Ohio State football history.

Upon approaching the seats, you find that the on-field action actually begins before the game starts. The Ohio State band comes onto the field before the teams make their entrances, performing "Script Ohio," a breathtaking example of human movement and formation. The band spells "Ohio" in cursive lettering, leaving only the dot of the "i" unfinished. When the formation is complete, a drum major and sousaphone player dance onto the field, and the crowd reacts like a touchdown has just been scored. Once the "i" has been dotted, the sousaphone player takes a celebratory bow, while the stadium erupts in approving cheers.

It's now time for the opening kickoff! Ohio will get the ball first -- looking to catch Ohio State off-guard. Such hopes were only a pipe dream on this day, however. On the 2nd play of the game, quarterback Phil Bates threw a pass toward the left sideline, which was deflected and intercepted by the Buckeyes' Tyler Moeller at the Bobcats' 31-yard-line! To win -- or even stand a chance -- Ohio had to play perfect football. Such a start foreshadowed what was in store for the Green-and-White.

After surrendering a 1st down, the Ohio defense stepped up and limited the Buckeyes to a field goal. The Bobcats, despite turning the ball over on their side of the field in the opening minute, only trailed 3-0. There is plenty of time for the team to compose themselves and start all over.

On the ensuing Ohio State kickoff, Bobcat returner Julian Posey -- whose brother, DeVier, plays for the Buckeyes -- received the ball at his own 1-yard-line, and found an opening in the kick coverage. Posey raced down the left sideline, almost untouched, to the opposite end zone for an apparent touchdown! The Ohio fans in attendance were screaming with delight -- but they did not notice the yellow penalty flag on the field. An illegal block in the back was ruled by the officials -- and instead of Ohio potentially taking a 7-3 lead over the #2 team in the country, it was still 3-0. To add insult to injury, the Bobcats were now starting the offensive drive at their own 9-yard-line.

Those two plays -- the interception and the touchdown-nullifying penalty -- set the tone on a warm September afternoon in Columbus. The Ohio State players, coaches and fans were all relieved by the game's early events -- and any chance of a major upset was suddenly in dire jeopardy.

Looking around The 'Shoe, you encounter a mass of humanity. The Bobcats were well-represented by their fans, with Ohio selling its entire visiting team ticket allotment in the closed end of the structure, coupled with other random specks of green appearing throughout the stadium. It could be estimated that about 6,000 to 7,000 Bobcat fans were there. Still, despite the strong showing, Ohio fans were severely outnumbered by those in scarlet-and-gray -- mostly scarlet. The announced attendance was 105,075. For a three-and-a-half hour period, Ohio Stadium could have qualified as the 7th largest city in the entire state!

Following the penalty during the kickoff return, Ohio's drive immediately stalled, resulting in a punt. The Buckeyes' offense then went to work, driving 55 yards in 8 plays, ending with a Terrelle Pryor touchdown pass to running back Brandon Saine. With 5:53 remaining in the 1st quarter, Ohio State led 10-0 -- and as the band played the "Buckeye Battle Cry" following the score, the Ohio coaching staff knew that they were already reaching a critical juncture of the game.

On their next possession, the Bobcats' offense went backwards, losing 11 yards in three downs. Following Ohio's 2nd punt of the game, the Buckeyes immediately moved up the field. Pryor, a junior quarterback whose name has been included in Heisman Trophy talk, led Ohio State into opposition territory. The drive concluded with Pryor scrambling 13 yards into the end zone! There is still 3:11 remaining in the game's opening stanza -- and with Ohio State enjoying a 17-0 lead, it is already shaping up to be a blowout.

The score would remain the same into the 2nd quarter, when the Buckeyes would again drive into Bobcats' territory. Ohio State would settle for Devin Barclay's 2nd field goal of the game, and it was now 20-0.

The budding rout would not end there. Ohio fumbled on the 2nd play of its next possession...and Pryor followed that by finding tight end Jake Stoneburner for another TD pass, making it 27-0. On the next drive, the Bobcats fumbled again! This time, Dan "Boom" Herron capped the Ohio State possession with a 1-yard TD run. Midway through the 2nd quarter, the nation's 2nd-ranked team led 34-0 over a shell-shocked Ohio team. How much worse can it possibly get for the Bobcats?

Almost miraculously, the 1st half would conclude with no more scoring. It was now time for the 105,000+ in attendance to enjoy two of the top marching bands in the country.

Marching bands make the college football experience what it is. Whether it's the fight songs, the in-game pieces, or their performances of contemporary music, the bands play a crucial part in entertaining the fans -- as well as encouraging fan interaction. It is so much different from an NFL game, where music and sound effects are constantly blasted through a stadium's speakers. While the college game is not immune to such theatrics, the bands add a sense of purity to the game that makes it ultimately unique.

Despite its one-sided nature, very few people had exited Ohio Stadium as the 3rd quarter got underway. The Bobcats and Buckeyes exchanged numerous scoreless possessions, which included 2 Ohio turnovers and 1 by Ohio State. After the Bobcats intercepted a Pryor pass near the end zone, the Buckeyes tackled Ohio running back Vince Davidson in his own end zone for a safety! It was now 36-0, Ohio State, with 6:09 left in the 3rd quarter. Ohio then free-kicked to the Buckeyes, and what emerged was a 10-play, 55-yard drive that iced the game once-and-for-all. Herron finished the drive with his 2nd TD run of the game, and as the 3rd quarter drew to a close, Ohio State held a comfortable 43-0 lead.

With the OSU band playing "Hang On, Sloopy" in the background, the Ohio offense attempted to salvage some dignity from this contest. They embarked on a 9-play, 61-yard drive, ending with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Boo Jackson to Terrence McCrae. Ohio was finally on the board! Those in green-and-white who stuck around finally had something to cheer about. The Ohio State shutout bid was broken.

The final 6:14 ticked off the clock without any more scoring, and the remaining OSU fans celebrated a 43-7 victory over their in-state opponent, as the two teams shook hands at midfield. The Ohio State band followed with its alma mater, "Carmen Ohio," while Buckeyes players, coaches and fans participated by singing along.

The Saturday service was now complete, and the remaining attendants filed out of the cathedral known as Ohio Stadium. For several hours, Buckeyes' fans had dedicated themselves to Ohio State football, while thousands more did the same by watching on television, or listening on the radio. They will do the same on at least a dozen other occasions during the course of the season.

In some parts of the country, college football is not just a sport -- it is a way of life. Columbus, Ohio and its surrounding environs is one of those areas. Legendary former coach Woody Hayes is deified by Buckeyes fans everywhere, with some of his quotes serving as commandments for the Ohio State football program. When visiting this area, however, just don't say you're a University of Michigan fan -- or you might be considered an atheist.

The Buckeye State battle begins -- Ohio vs. Ohio State

No comments:

Post a Comment