COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The drama of college football has many variations, and one of the best is when a big favorite at home is in danger of losing. (If you are the big favorite, of course, change that “best” to “worst.”) You can feel the creeping terror in the stadium. The innocent young blonde is home alone, and the phone starts to ring. The fans can’t look. They have to look.
I happened to be in Columbus on Saturday for Ohio State vs. Alabama-Birmingham. I was in town to check out Ohio State, but not so much to cover the game, because it wasn’t supposed to be much of one. Ohio State was 3-0 under new coach Urban Meyer; UAB was 0-2, having lost to Troy by 10 and South Carolina by 43.
A little more than five minutes in, UAB blocked a punt and took it in for a touchdown. Ohio State blocked the extra point, but it was UAB 6-0. And the crowd of 105,019 collectively grunted: Hm.
That’s not exactly true -- 105,000 people grunted. The other 19 were UAB fans, stuck down in a corner of the lower deck, a spot of green in a scarlet sea. They would stay happy awhile.
It turned out UAB has something most other college teams lack -- a decent kicker. Ty Long made a 47-yarder to make it 9-0 early in the second, then after an Ohio State touchdown, he drilled one from 54 and UAB was up 12-7 late in the half.
It was about that time that scores from around the country started showing up on the scoreboard. UTEP 6, Wisconsin 2. Maryland 14, West Virginia 14. Central Michigan 10, Iowa 7. Big favorites, in trouble at home. And you could imagine the fans watching through their fingers in Madison and Morganton and Iowa City.
Have you checked the children?
Ohio State scored two quick touchdowns at the end of the half, and inside the stadium it felt like Earth had returned to its proper orbit. The marching band played a short tribute to one-hit wonders (“867-5309”! “Come on Eileen”!), and then the alumni band joined them to make four Script Ohios, and four sousaphone players dotted the I’s, and you could feel the old Horseshoe relax.
But UAB wouldn’t quit. Neither team scored in the third quarter, and Ty Long made another field goal early in the fourth, and it was 21-15. Ohio State went three-and-out. Somewhere in the distance you could hear a chainsaw running.
A 15-yard flag against the Buckeyes, a 23-yard pass down the sideline, and all of a sudden the Blazers were at the Ohio State 28. The drive died there, and this time Ty Long missed the field goal, and for the first time in about an hour, OSU fans weren’t breathing into paper bags. Exactly five minutes in game time later, Buckeye QB Braxton Miller ran it in from the 1, and it was 29-15 and over.
Right after that I went down on the field. (Most teams let the media do that with a few minutes left.) In the press box, the view is glassed-in and nobody cheers; it’s like showing up at an orgy in a spacesuit. But even up there, you could tell the crowd was unusually quiet. Now, with the game in hand, those 105,000 were hollering out the breath they’d held all day. Sports are designed to be cathartic -- you go to the game, or watch on TV, and let out all the emotions you can’t in your regular life. One of the most powerful of those emotions is fear. There’s nothing like being targeted for an upset and missed.
It started to rain a little, right at the end, but nobody seemed in a big hurry to get out. Up in the pressroom, waiting for Meyer to arrive, a few of us watched the end of Central Michigan-Iowa. Iowa was up 31-23 with just 45 seconds to go, but the Chippewas got a touchdown, recovered an onside kick, and nailed a field goal with three seconds left for the 32-31 win.
The Ohio State staffers in the pressroom chuckled, but it was black laughter. For a couple of hours on Saturday, they felt the same terror. It’s never worse than when the calls are coming from inside the house.