COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The national championship might be on the line when Arizona State meets Ohio State in the 83rd Rose Bowl on Wednesday. The Sun Devils are one of only two undefeated teams left in major college football, so a victory would put them into position to win the mythical title if Florida State loses the Sugar Bowl.
Trouble is, they'll have to get by Buckeyes cornerback Shawn Springs first.
The game likely will come down to a showdown between Arizona State's improvisational quarterback, Jake Plummer, and Ohio State's stingy defense, which means it could come down to the matchup between the flashy junior cornerback from Silver Spring and top ASU receiver Keith Poole.
Springs can't wait.
Opposing quarterbacks have been avoiding him all year. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, even though he did not have an interception. He hopes to change that -- and help end a lengthy run of postseason bad luck for Ohio State -- when he takes the field for what might be his final college game.
"I think they are going to have to come to me," Springs said yesterday, as the Buckeyes went through a light practice on a rain-soaked field at Orange Coast Community College. "I figure I'm going to get picked on."
The Sun Devils don't figure to take the road less traveled in perhaps the biggest game in the history of the Arizona State football program. If the Buckeyes can stop the run, and they have all season, then Plummer is going to have to put it up, and he isn't likely to pitch around his most productive receiver.
Poole leads Arizona State with 46 receptions and 857 receiving yards. He has caught 32 passes and scored five touchdowns in the past six games. He is a skilled receiver who finds a way to make big plays, so he presents a particular challenge to Springs, whose talent and athleticism figure to make him a high draft choice if he decides to forgo his senior season at Ohio State.
That decision can wait for another week. Springs, 20, says he will sit down with his father -- former Ohio State and Dallas Cowboys running back Ron Springs -- and decide on his future after the Rose Bowl. Right now, he's focused on getting the Buckeyes one more victory and keeping open the faint possibility that Ohio State could emerge on top of the rankings.
If the Buckeyes win and Florida State loses to Florida the next night, all the top teams will have at least one loss, but the title likely would go to Florida because it will have defeated the top-ranked team. The Buckeyes, however, would then be the only one of the top four to lose to a team that isn't currently among the top four. Still, Springs says that they should not be dismissed so easily.
"We will have won the Rose Bowl," he said. "If we beat ASU, we'll be 11-1, and anything can happen. If no other team is undefeated, I think we should be considered."
The game is too close to call. The Buckeyes will try to control the ball on offense and contain Plummer by playing his wide receivers man-to-man and pressuring him with the safeties. It is a pro-style approach that could backfire if Ohio State doesn't get terrific performances from Springs and senior cornerback Ty Howard.
"Jake Plummer can make some things happen," Springs said. "He deserves all the hype he's getting because he's a great player. He's tough. And Keith [Poole] is their leading receiver. He's got great hands."
Buckeyes coach John Cooper isn't downplaying the importance of the cornerbacks in Ohio State's defensive game plan.
"If you don't have good corners, you can't play the style of defense we play or ASU plays," Cooper said. "If you can't cover the wide receivers, you can't use your safeties to help with the running game. I think both of those guys [Springs and Howard] are outstanding college football players."
Obviously, opposing coaches have decided that Springs is more dangerous, even though Howard had an outstanding year at the other corner.
"They are either throwing away from him or they were throwing to someone else," Cooper said. "Shawn was the most valuable defensive player in the Big Ten without an interception. What does that tell you?"
No. 2 Arizona State (11-0) vs.
No. 4 Ohio State (10-1)
Site: Pasadena, Calif.
Time: 4: 30 p.m. Wednesday
TV: Chs. 2, 7
Line: Ohio State by 2 1/2
Pub Date: 12/29/96