Safety Will Allen returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown and Mike Nugent connected on three field goal attempts. That was about the only positives in Ohio State’s 16-13 victory over San Diego State Sept. 6, 2003, at Ohio Stadium.
A week after dominating Washington in a primetime season opener, the Buckeyes looked like a completely different team. Quarterback Craig Krenzel was intercepted on the field play from scrimmage and completed only 5 of 20 pass attempts for a meager 76 yards. The running game did not fare much better, and the Buckeyes had only 10 first downs and 196 total yards of offense.
“In the passing game, we had some guys open and I didn’t get them the ball,” Krenzel told BSB after the game. “We definitely were not consistent enough in anything we did today - run game, pass game, protection. We just didn’t seem to be on the same page.”
Head coach Jim Tressel echoed that sentiment.
“I can’t know for sure exactly what went wrong on each play, but as Craig mentioned, we all had a hand in this,” Tressel said. “Maybe it started with calling some things into some looks that maybe weren’t the best.
“Then the guys up front didn’t do exactly what they needed to do, and the guys in back maybe didn’t stay with the hole. The guys out wide maybe didn’t get to the proper spot route-wise. There’s enough (blame) to go around.”
The Aztecs took an early 7-0 lead on a touchdown drive stemming from Krenzel’s first interception. Krenzel tried to find Michael Jenkins on a corner route and had his pass picked off by SDSU’s Jacob Elimimian. The cornerback returned it to the Ohio State 23, and four plays later San Diego State had a lead. Matt Dlugolecki, making his first start at quarterback for the Aztecs, found Wesley Williams for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
Ohio State responded with its longest drive of the game - 30 yards. However, that was good enough to set up Nugent for a 38-yard field goal to cut the SDSU lead to 7-3. The Buckeyes eventually took the lead, but not until Dlugolecki drove the Aztecs 76 yards on six plays during the ensuing drive. That is when the OSU defense made the play of the game. On first-and-goal from the Ohio State 1, Dlugolecki went for a slant pass, but OSU corner Chris Gamble stepped in front of it and tipped it into the air. Allen caught the ball at the goal line and went the other way. He received big blocks from defensive tackle Darrion Scott and linebacker A.J. Hawk and returned the interception for a touchdown.
“It all started with the (pass) rush,” Allen said. “Those guys got pressure on the quarterback. Chris had great coverage and made a great play by tipping the ball. I just grabbed it out of the air and went. We practice that every day.”
The Buckeyes missed a chance to put the game essentially out of reach after the Allen interception return. On the ensuing drive, Dlugolecki had another pass intercepted - this time by linebacker Robert Reynolds. Ohio State’s offense was stalled, however, and was forced to settle for a 32-yard Nugent field goal. The Buckeyes went into halftime with a 13-7 lead.
After intermission, the Aztecs cut into the lead thanks to a Krenzel fumble when he was sacked. The Buckeye defense tightened and forced SDSU to settle for a 47-yard field goal by J.C. Mejia that cut the lead to 13-10. Nugent later matched that field goal with one of his own early in the fourth quarter, but not before pushing a 28-yard attempt wide right in the third quarter and ending his string of 17 consecutive made field goals at the Horseshoe.
“I’ve been pushing some to the right all week, but that’s no excuse,” Nugent said. “I should have been able to kick that one left-footed.”
San Diego State scored the game’s final points when Mejia drilled a 46-yard field goal through the uprights with 10:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. The game’s outcome was still in doubt in the final minutes until Krenzel connected with Jenkins for a 14-yard gain on a third-and-6 play with 1:54 remaining - the first and only time Ohio State converted on third down.
The offensive bright spot for the Buckeyes came from Maurice Hall, who rushed for 91 yard on 19 carries. Lydell Ross was limited to 16 yards on seven carries and was slowed by an ongoing foot injury that had bothered him since fall camp. The running game was also without Maurice Clarett again, who was still under suspension.
The victory was similar to several of the Buckeyes’ close calls during its national title run in 2002. The Buckeyes could have also been looking past the Aztecs and ahead to a game vs. N.C. State a week later.
“It was reminiscent of a lot of games last year,” Allen said with a sigh. “We’re happy with the win but definitely satisfied.”