Legendary Cincinnati Bengals coach and founder Paul Brown, who was also the head coach of Ohio State’s first national championship team (1942), was just 13 years old the last time the Buckeyes lost to an opponent from the state of Ohio, a 7-6 defeat at the hands of Oberlin College on Oct. 8, 1921.
It’s been 93 years and 39 victories since then, and—with the exception of tiny Wooster College’s 7-7 draw with OSU in 1924—the University of Cincinnati’s 2002 team holds the frustrating distinction of coming the closest of any Ohio school to dethroning the Buckeyes during their improbable streak. That UC squad, which lost 23-19 at Paul Brown Stadium, remains the only team from Ohio in the last 93 seasons to carry a lead into the fourth quarter against OSU, and they did so against a Buckeyes squad that went on to win the national championship.
Led by talented but often erratic quarterback Gino Guidugli (22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 2002), the Bearcats jumped out to a 9-point lead in the first quarter after a 1-yard DeMarco McCleskey touchdown run and a 44-yard Jonathan Ruffin field goal on their first two drives of the game. Ruffin, who entered the game with a nation-leading streak of 65 consecutive PAT conversions, missed his attempt after McCleskey’s touchdown run, which would haunt the Bearcats on their final drive.
UC led 19-17 with possession in the fourth quarter, before a Guidugli fumble gave OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel—the poster child for succeeding in sports without any athletic ability—a chance to take the lead, a chance he didn’t waste. Still, trailing 23-19, Guidugli and company had a chance (two chances, actually) to win the game after quickly advancing to the OSU 15-yard line. But UC receivers Jon Olinger and George Murray dropped sure touchdowns on back-to-back plays.
“I knew it was coming my way, and I had it the whole way,” Murray told the AP after the game. “When I hit the ground, I curled up, and I thought I had it. Then I patted my chest, and I didn’t feel it. That’s when my world came tumbling down.”
On the next play—4th and 10 from the OSU 15-yard line—Guidugli’s final pass attempt was tipped and intercepted in the endzone by Will Allen. The few thousand people who cared about UC football back then (and the many recent fans who claim that they did) still curse OSU All-American safety Mike Doss to this day for what they believe was pass interference on the play. Regardless, had Ruffin not missed the PAT after UC’s opening score, the Bearcats would’ve been a simple 25-yard field goal away from overtime.
Guidugli, who is now the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Central Michigan, did not respond to a request to be interviewed, but his post-game quote sums up 93 years’ worth of frustration for every other team in Ohio: “It sucks. It sucks so bad. You take nothing from a loss—not a damn thing. It hurts—hurts so bad. We had the No. 6 team in the country on the ropes, and we couldn’t knock them out.”
Twelve years, four coaches, four conference championships, and two BCS Bowl berths later, UC enters Saturday’s game at OSU with more perceived chance of winning than any other Ohio team in the last 93 years. They are, however, still a clear longshot in the eyes of most—Vegas has the Bearcats as a 14-point underdog.
“[OSU] is a team that at the beginning of the year was picked to have an opportunity to possibly be in the top four teams,” UC head coach Tommy Tuberville said this week. “We would like to think we are there, and who knows. So it’s a measuring stick for us to see where we are.”
With the ninth best record in all of college football since 2007 (68-25), UC is arguably the best football team in the country currently playing outside of a Power Five Conference. But for now, the Bearcats have to prove they belong.
“I was surprised they weren’t invited into a Power Five,” said OSU head coach Urban Meyer, a former UC player and assistant coach, during his Monday press conference. “I think we certainly respect them as if they are. We’re watching film—they’re as good as a lot of the other teams that we have gone up against.”
Obviously, UC no longer enters games against OSU and other powers as an underestimated team, as they surely did when they nearly shocked the Buckeyes in 2002. The Bearcats are no longer playing with nothing to lose, either—especially in this case. Saturday’s game not only represents the Bearcats only chance for a marquee victory this season, it also presents a rare opportunity to upstage the team that dominates recruiting in the state of Ohio. Despite being separated by less than 100 miles, UC and Ohio State have played just 10 times since 1900.
But for UC players, the game is far more simple. It’s a battle for respect, media attention and fan support that they fight for every day, even in Cincinnati, where allegiances seem to be divided between UC, OSU, and Notre dame.
“It’s a battle of Ohio for us,” says UC senior wideout Shaq Washington. “Any opportunity we get to go out there and showcase to the world what we’re capable of, we have to take advantage.”
Junior defensive end Silverberry Mouhon took it a step farther. “We just want to show that we’re the best team in the state of Ohio, so it is that type of battle,” he says.
But in that battle, what does this UC team realistically bring to the table?
Well, through two games they certainly don’t bring a defense that looks anything like being able to stop an Ohio State offense with elite talent, speed and depth at every skill position. UC’s defense has been tormented by mental errors in the secondary and inconsistency against the run so far this season, ranking a putrid 109th in the nation in total yards allowed per game.
Of course, Tuberville and several defenders stated that UC’s defensive woes were easily correctable mental errors. “Everything is fixable, that’s why we practice,” says Mouhon. “So we just need to go out there (practice) and get all the little knicks and knacks out and go into Ohio State perfect, flawless.” But with OSU coming off of a 66-point performance a couple weeks ago, albeit against an irrelevant Kent State team, UC’s disappointing defensive showings against Toledo and Miami become all the more worrisome.
If there’s an aspect of the game defensively where the Bearcats can cause problems for OSU, it’s at the point of attack with Mouhon (Lombardi Award Finalist) and senior linebacker Jeff Luc, who leads the nation with 15 tackles per game. They’ll be in the trenches against an offensive line that gave up eight sacks against Virginia Tech and is still struggling to find the proper starting group. That bodes well for UC’s defense, which currently leads the nation with 5.5 sacks per game.
Offensively, UC boasts the deepest and most talented group of receivers in program history. Led by emerging All-American candidate MeKale McKay (12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns), UC has eight receivers that see legitimate first-team action. In need of no introduction is the man throwing them the ball: Gunner Kiel, who threw a school-record six touchdowns and looked like the second coming of Jesus H. Christ in the Bearcats 58-34 win against Toledo, and was impressive but far more human in UC’s surprisingly close call against the Miami Redhawks. Kiel’s 689 yards to go along with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions makes UC the ninth-rated passing attack in the country, and Saturday they face an OSU secondary that was lackluster all of last season and exploited several times in their loss to Virginia Tech a few weeks ago.
With Kiel at the helm and so many targets to distribute the ball to, the Bearcats are confident they can score enough to stay in any game, against any opponent. “We feel like we can have a shootout with anybody,” says Washington.
Saturday, they can’t afford to be off their aim.