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January 1, 1999

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NEW ORLEANS – All No. 3 Ohio State can do now is wait on some help from Florida State – and hope its 24-14 victory Friday night in the Sugar Bowl was championship material.

The Buckeyes kept alive their slim hopes of sharing the national title by beating No. 8 Texas A&M in a game that began like it might be the rout they could have used, but had too many anxious moments in the end.

Joe Germaine threw for a touchdown, Joe Montgomery rushed for one and the special teams came up with a blocked punt return for a score – all in the first quarter. But that was all the touchdowns Ohio State (11-1) could muster.

It was the first time the Buckeyes beat Michigan and won a New Year’s Day bowl game in the same season since 1968, which is also the last time Ohio State won a national championship.

Whether that adds up to another one depends on No. 2 Florida State beating top-ranked Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl – and the AP voters being impressed enough with Ohio State to make them No. 1. The Fiesta winner is the automatic choice for national champion in the coaches poll.

“If it’s a sloppy game and Florida State wins, you could make an argument that the Buckeyes are as good as anybody in the country,” coach John Cooper said.

The Buckeyes had few problems against the Wrecking Crew defense of Texas A&M (11-3), but may have lacked the knockout punch they needed. Ohio State continually broke down once it crossed midfield, and Dan Stultz didn’t help the cause by missing two field goals.

“I thought we played a real good, solid game tonight,” Cooper said. “I thought we played a real good, solid team. I was a little disappointed at halftime that we didn’t score a couple of more touchdowns.”

The Aggies were making their first appearance in the Sugar Bowl since winning their only national championship 49 years ago. Coach R.C. Slocum had said the Buckeyes should have a shot at sharing the national title, and he may know best as the only coach to face Ohio State and Florida State. In the Kickoff Classic, his Aggies put a scare into the Seminoles before losing 23-14.

“We’ll play anybody head-to-head in the country,” said receiver David Boston, the Sugar Bowl MVP after catching 11 passes for 105 yards. “I’m not going to make a comment on No. 1. We’ll have to see how everything shakes out.”

Texas A&M, which came from behind in five of its victories this year, never quit. After trailing 24-7 at halftime, the Aggies closed to 24-14 on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Branndon Stewart to Leroy Hodge.

They tried for one more comeback – just like the one over Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game that put them in the Sugar Bowl – but Jerry Rudzinski tipped a lateral pass and recovered the fumble to end one drive, and the Buckeyes’ defense made enough plays to keep the lead.

The victory made it a New Year’s Day sweep for the Big 10 – and gave it a 5-0 record in bowl games for the first time in conference history.

Cooper had said he would try to score as many points as possible against the Aggies, and it showed.

Ohio State didn’t look anything like a team trying to milk the clock with a 10-point lead throughout the fourth quarter. Germaine continued to throw downfield, with mixed results, and frustration began to mount even if the points didn’t.

The Aggies, who had managed just three first downs after taking their opening drive for a touchdown, got three first downs off penalties during a 68-yard drive that culminated with Hodge’s touchdown.

Derek Ross, who blocked a punt that Kevin Griffin returned for a touchdown in the first quarter, got into a shoving match with teammate Joe Brown on the sidelines, and then the Buckeyes got a personal foul after their kickoff return.

Despite a commanding lead, Germaine wound up 21-of-38 for 222 yards. That set an Ohio State bowl record for passes attempted.

Montgomery had 96 yards on nine carries, while starter Michael Wiley had 88 yards.

The Buckeyes, who were just 2-7 in bowl games under Cooper, came out tight and Texas A&M made them pay.

After forcing a three-and-out, the Aggies steamrolled to a 7-0 lead by gaining at least six yards on all six of their plays, going ahead on Dante Hall’s 9-yard run. All-American cornerback Antoine Winfield slung his fist in disgust as Texas A&M celebrated in the end zone, and his Buckeyes took notice.

Germaine finished a 71-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Germany, and then the Buckeyes turned it over to their running game. Wiley gained 20 yards on two carries and Montgomery rumbled 29 yards up the middle to the 10, from where he scored one play later.

The special teams took over from there. Ross came around left end untouched and stuffed the ball before it even left the leg of punter Shane Lechler. Griffin, nephew of Ohio State’s two-time Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin, scooped it up and ran 16 yards for a touchdown that made it 21-7 and left the Aggies in shock.

The Buckeyes also led 21-7 in the first quarter against Michigan State, a game in which they blew a 15-point lead in the second half and wound up in the Sugar Bowl instead of the Fiesta Bowl.

They didn’t let this one get away. Whether that was enough won’t be known until Monday night after the Fiesta Bowl.

By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Sports Writer