Ohio State stayed on the ground long enough Thursday night to defeat Brigham Young, 28-21, in the Holiday Bowl before 52,108 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
But just barely.
Despite a career night by tailback Raymont Harris, who had 235 yards and three touchdowns in 39 carries, it was left to the Buckeye defense to hold off BYU’s potent passing attack in the final minute.
“These kind of finishes . . . we generally put them away and win it,” said Coach LaVell Edwards.
But not against Ohio State (10-1-1), the Big Ten co-champion. Although entering the game as a big favorite, the Buckeyes had to rely on a pressure defense and two dropped passes in the end zone to defeat the Cougars.
For a team that wanted to show the country it was better than its regular-season finale, a 28-0 loss to Michigan, Ohio State got lucky.
Behind sophomore quarterback John Walsh, BYU had ample opportunity to score in a dramatic finish that slipped through its fingers.
Ohio State appeared to have the game won until it was forced to punt with less than a minute left. Starting at their 42, the Cougars (6-6) sprung a blitzing attack that stunned the Buckeyes.
On the first play, Walsh and Eric Drage teamed for a 52-yard pass play to the six.
Four chances to score.
This was an offense that could do it.
Then the BYU passing game unraveled.
Walsh threw four times into the end zone, but either his receivers dropped the ball or his passes were overthrown.
On third down, Tim Nowatzke dropped a pass that hit him in the hands. Walsh’s last-gasp effort with 13 seconds left found Drage open in the left end of the end zone but sailed through his outstretched hands.
Walsh, a sophomore from Torrance, experienced a similar fate two minutes earlier when three incompletions ended a drive at Ohio State’s 22.
Those passes will overshadow Walsh’s solid performance. He completed 25 of 44 passes for 389 yards and three touchdowns and one interception.
“That cost us the game,” Walsh said.
Still, he did not make it easy on John Cooper, the Ohio State coach who all but guaranteed his team would win in San Diego.
What was he thinking on BYU’s last-ditch effort?
“If we don’t win what a stupid fool I’m going to look like,” he said. “I feel like I’m about 100 years old. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again.”
The No. 11 Buckeyes started off as if they would waltz to victory by overpowering BYU’s weak defense. The plan was to run on the Cougars until they stopped it.
It did not seem that BYU could.
Although Ohio State failed to score on its first possession, Harris ran untouched up field. And when a Cougar did get a hand on him, he didn’t go down easily. As he ran through the porous defense, the game’s tone was cemented.
Still, it took Tim Patillo’s blocked punt/touchdown return with 11:04 left in the first quarter to get the Buckeyes’ first score.
And then BYU’s Walsh struck back, directing a five-play, 65-yard drive that ended when Jamal Willis caught a 27-yard pass to score.
Harris had 101 yards rushing by the end of the quarter and Ohio State led, 14-7, although he scored on the first play of the second quarter for a 21-7 lead.
The way the Buckeyes were running, it seemed they would score on every possession.
Harris said the explosive Buckeye linemen cleared holes that called for a decision.
“I had to choose which hole to go through,” he said.
Ohio State gained 330 yards rushing, 61 passing. BYU had 389 passing, 50 rushing.
And that passing helped bring BYU back when it appeared Ohio State would make it a route. Walsh directed two second-quarter drives to help give the Cougars a 21-21 halftime tie.