January 3, 2002 at 11:46 PM EST - Updated July 1 at 8:40 AM
By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Steve Bellisari pondered his Ohio State legacy and put it best: "If this is the last thing people remember, it's a good thing."
Bellisari had just led a startling four-touchdown comeback after an atrocious three quarters, only to see the Buckeyes lose to South Carolina 31-28 Tuesday in the Outback Bowl on Daniel Weaver's 42-yard field goal as time expired.
The three-year starter at quarterback had his finest hour in his final hour, passing for 320 yards and two touchdowns and running for another.
His critics would say it wouldn't be difficult to pinpoint his best game. His career at Ohio State was marked by as many blown plays as big plays. He had a 19-12 record as a starter. Off the field, DUI charges cost him starts in the final two Ohio State games.
Now the Buckeyes will find out what life without Bellisari is like. Will it be paradise, or will his absence mean a rocky transition to Craig Krenzel -- or maybe to a kid who hasn't graduated from high school yet?
Bellisari and the rest of the starting backfield, tailback Jonathan Wells and fullback Jamar Martin, all played their last game in an Ohio State uniform. Same goes for offensive linemen LeCharles Bentley and Tyson Walter, defensive linemen Mike Collins and Tim Cheatwood and linebackers Joe Cooper and Courtland Bullard.
It is also unlikely that strong safety Mike Doss will return, passing up his senior season just as cornerback Derek Ross did a month ago. There are rumors that tight end Darnell Sanders might also join them.
If so, the 2002 Buckeyes will be dramatically different from this year's 7-5 version.
Krenzel would figure to have the inside track to replace Bellisari, with Scott McMullen -- the season-long No. 2 -- also in the running. The radio talk show experts will have six months to wonder if first-year coach Jim Tressel doesn't trust Krenzel, who led the team to a rare victory at Michigan, but then got a quick hook in the bowl game.
"I'm sure he'll use that experience to his advantage," said Tressel upon the team's return on Wednesday night.
A longshot to start is incoming freshman Justin Zwick, the runner-up (to fellow Buckeye recruit Maurice Clarett, a running back) in the Mr. Football voting. One of the school's most prized quarterback signees since Art Schlichter in 1979, Zwick will have to hit the ground running -- physically and mentally -- if he hopes to climb past the four upperclassmen ahead of him on the depth chart.
Whoever takes the first snap from the replacement for the All-Big Ten Bentley won't be required to carry the brunt of the offense.
Michael Jenkins, Chris Vance and Chris Gamble all established themselves as quality receiving targets. Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall showed much promise as freshmen running backs, and the line should be deeper and as good as the one it replaces.
On defense, Darrion Scott, Simon Fraser, Tim Anderson, Will Smith and Kenny Peterson give the Buckeyes a solid front wall. Matt Wilhelm will call the defensive plays from his middle linebacker spot. The secondary will have holes -- with or without Doss -- but none that can't be patched.
Tressel was hired after John Cooper's 13-year tenure was severed after a loss to South Carolina in the 2001 Outback Bowl. He now knows his players and they know him. The comfort level for each should go up, as should the expectations.
"We made progress," Tressel said of his first Ohio State team. "I'd like to have been better than 7-5, absolutely."
It may be simplistic, but in both of the Outback Bowls the Buckeyes fell behind early. Under Cooper, they folded up like an old card table.
"A year ago we would have quit -- you know that and I know that," Wells said after the big comeback fell just short. "We stayed in there, and that's due to coach Tressel and the coaching staff."
The 2002 schedule provides many land mines. For the first time in history, Ohio State probably will play 13 regular season games, hosting the Pigskin Classic in late August and adding a fourth non-conference opponent as allowed by a new NCAA rule.
The Pigskin Classic opponent may be Colorado, Kansas or Kansas State, Tressel said. Ohio State most likely would host the game, giving the Buckeyes a record eight home games.
Tressel said that he and his staff would soon begin looking at their options.
"This is a quiet period for recruiting, so we'll take a look at everyone in the program," he said in the chill outside the team's practice facility. "Now is when you roll things around in your head."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)