Originally created 08/29/98

Lions' ground game last year still grates Buckeyes



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the scoreboard, it was a four-point squeaker.

But in the minds of Ohio State's defensive players, last year's 31-27 loss to Penn State was a laughable embarrassment that isn't easily forgotten heading into Saturday's rematch between the top-ranked Buckeyes and seventh-ranked Nittany Lions.

"It wasn't that they beat us with tricks or confusing us," Ohio State safety Damon Moore said. "We knew where they were going with the ball and that's where they ran it. And we couldn't stop them. That's what really hurts, when you know what a team's going to do and you still can't prevent them from gaining first downs."

Ohio State prided itself on its defense to that point, on being a swaggering, hard-hitting bunch that wouldn't and couldn't be intimidated.

Yet Penn State piled up 316 yards rushing while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. Curtis Enis, a former Mr. Football in Ohio, haunted the Buckeyes with 211 yards on 23 carries.

With Ohio State leading 27-17 in the third quarter, Penn State fullback Aaron Harris, who totaled 96 yards, swung the game with 51-yard burst on which three potential tacklers bounced off him.

So far this season, Ohio State (3-0) has gotten much of that swagger back, routing three opponents by an average score of 39-10 while limiting them to 125 yards rushing.

But the Nittany Lions (3-0) come in averaging 219 yards a game. Enis has moved on to the Chicago Bears, and Harris is only now coming around from knee surgery to repair a ligament torn last season.

"Curtis was all-world the day we played them," Ohio State coach John Cooper said Monday. "The big play of the game -- there's absolutely no question about it -- was Harris' run. At that point, we're up by 10 and if we stop them, we would have had a pretty good chance of winning that ballgame. But we didn't slow them down from that point on. The disappointing thing was being on the sideline knowing we could play better defense than we did in that game."

Cooper certainly wasn't alone.

"It was very disappointing on defense to give up that kind of yardage," linebacker Jerry Rudzinski said. "The Big Ten is a physical conference. You take pride in playing in the conference and stopping smash-mouth football and we did not stop it that day."

After the game, Ohio State regrouped and recommitted itself on defense. Granted, as Cooper pointed out, the Buckeyes didn't have to face Enis or Harris again, but they never gave up even half as many rushing yards the rest of the season.

"After getting embarrassed defensively in that game, our defense recovered and played real well from that point on," Cooper said.

"It does humble you," Moore said. "It puts you back at the drawing board and makes you rethink where you're at. Are you really as good as you think you are? By our showing last year, it was evident that we weren't. We had to go back to practice, reevaluate some things and every person -- including myself -- had to look at themselves in the mirror."

With the memory of Enis and Harris tearing off big chunks of yardage still taunting the Buckeyes, a new cast of Penn State backs will test them again.

Cordell Mitchell is averaging 86.3 yards, Eric McCoo 41.3, Omar Easy 40.3 and Mike Cerimele 34.3 for the Nittany Lions. In his first appearance since his injury, Harris had 13 yards on three carries in Penn State's 20-13 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 19.

The Buckeyes say they've learned from the debacle in Happy Valley, but expect a similar test.

"We're going to have our hands full," Moore said. "If we're the No. 1-ranked team and one of the best defenses in the country, we've got to step up to the challenge. We'll know how good we are."