By RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - It has been said that the most popular player at Ohio State is the backup quarterback: He never makes a mistake and never loses a game.
Being the starter, well, that's another matter.
Craig Krenzel led Ohio State to a win over rival Michigan last November in his first collegiate start. Now that the job is officially his -- replacing the departed and much maligned Steve Bellisari -- he will be judged by different criteria as the 13th-ranked Buckeyes prepare for their season-opener Saturday against Texas Tech in the Pigskin Classic.
"The last three years we've had the talent to get the job done and there's been a bunch of different games for a lot of different reasons that sometimes the job just didn't get done," Krenzel said.
When things don't get done at Ohio State, the onus is almost always put on the starting quarterback. For the past three years that was Bellisari -- derisively booed for much of his career even in Ohio Stadium.
Bellisari was admired for lowering his head and charging into potential tacklers. He played as if every snap -- whether a quarterback sneak or a 50-yard bomb -- could and should end up as a touchdown.
But that mindset led to forced passes and fumbles. Bellisari, and by extension the Buckeyes, seemed to gamble when there was no real need to gamble. He frequently made bad decisions, seldom completed more than half of his passes and won just a few more games as a starter than he lost.
"Steve was a competitor. He tried to make a play every play," said Krenzel, a junior. "You can't fault him for that. That was the type of person he is. For as many times as people claim that it hurt us, he made some great plays that helped us. It's a different style of quarterbacking."
Even when Bellisari had bad days, Krenzel and fellow backup Scott McMullen were seldom trusted by the coaching staff to take over the offense.
McMullen did get the call in the pivotal game against Illinois last year, but that was only because Bellisari had been arrested for drunken driving 36 hours before the kickoff. Tressel handed Bellisari an "indefinite suspension" that ended up lasting only 72 hours. Bellisari was reinstated on Monday in the wake of the Buckeyes' 34-22 loss to the Illini in which McMullen and Krenzel combined to complete 15-of-36 passes with two interceptions.
Krenzel started the next week against Michigan and completed 11-of-18 passes for 118 yards with one interception. The Buckeyes relied on big running back Jonathan Wells, so Krenzel was asked to hand off and get out of the way. On the rare occasions when he had to pass he kept it simple, threw a lot of dump passes and avoided mistakes. The result was an impressive 26-20 victory.
"We didn't throw the ball very many times because we didn't need to," said Krenzel.
Tressel said Krenzel did a "great job of knowing what needed to be done. Above all else, he had a clear picture of 'Here's what I need to do for our team to have a chance to win.'"
Yet Tressel showed a distinct lack of faith in Krenzel in Ohio State's return engagement with South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Krenzel started but got a quick hook as Bellisari almost made up for three bad quarters with one great one in a 31-28 last-second loss to the Gamecocks.
Now Bellisari has moved on to the NFL (as a defensive back) and Krenzel has held off McMullen for the starting job. Acclaimed recruit Justin Zwick is still learning the complex collegiate sets.
Krenzel doesn't hide the fact that, unlike Bellisari, he doesn't readily assume the job of stunt driver. He sees himself more as the guy behind the wheel of a Porsche 911: both hands on the wheel, keep your head, don't do anything foolish and you'll have a fun ride.
"Every situation's different," Krenzel said. "Sometimes the ball needs to be thrown away. Sometimes the ball needs to be dropped off after 5 yards and there are times you need to force that ball through a little 2-yard window."
Wells has also left for the pros and there are times when Krenzel will have to do a lot more than hand the ball off. Maybe the Buckeyes will have to throw early and often to keep up with Texas Tech's sterling quarterback, Kliff Kingsbury.
No matter what, Krenzel believes he's ready.
"The kind of quarterback who goes out and makes the smart play, the majority of time he can kind of mold himself into any offense," he said.
Asked if that description fits him, Krenzel forced a smile and said, "I think so."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)