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OSU win too close for No. 1?

If John Cooper planned to plead the case that Ohio State deserved serious consideration as national champion, his Buckeyes pretty much threw it out of court Friday night.

Don't expect an appeal.

Oh, Ohio State won the Sugar Bowl. But beating Texas A&M 24-14 was not the way to convince poll voters that Monday night's matchup of No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl should be called anything but the game for the championship.

The third-ranked Buckeyes needed to decimate the Aggies, then hope that FSU beat the Volunteers in unimpressive fashion.

Instead, Ohio State won in a less-than-stellar performance.

The Buckeyes took a two-touchdown lead, then got sloppy and let the Aggies creep into contention. And when the Buckeyes had the chance to put more room between them and A&M, Dan Stultz missed a pair of field goals.

"It all depends on what happens Monday night in the Fiesta Bowl," Ohio State coach John Cooper said. "I think if Tennessee wins and runs the table and is undefeated, I don't have an argument.

"Or if it's a sloppy game and Florida State wins, I think you could make a strong argument that the Buckeyes are as strong as anybody in the country. I don't think we're any worse than No. 2 in the country."

The Aggies' offense struggled in the first half under Ohio State's strong rush while Buckeye tailbacks Joe Montgomery and Michael Wiley zigged through and around the weary Aggies. Linebacker Dat Nguyen, the Lombardi Trophy winner who was less than 100 percent because of a bruised big toe, was rarely a major factor, although he did have one punishing fourth-quarter sack of Joe Germaine that at least gave the Aggies hope.

The Aggies made it look easy the first time they got the ball, at their 41 after OSU went three and out with the opening kickoff.

On the second snap, running back Dante Hall broke loose for 25 yards to the Buckeyes 27. Three successive 6-yard gains set up Hall, who bounced out to the right side and bulled into the end zone. It took Texas A&M 2:26 to score.

Germaine, with one incomplete screen pass and one sack on Ohio State's first possession, started the second possession with a pair of misses before hooking up with flanker Dee Miller for 28 yards to rouse Buckeye fans and put the ball just across midfield.

Fourteen yards by tailback Michael Wiley on two carries and a 22-yard Germaine-to-David Boston pass and Germaine got the rest of it, and a tie score, finding split end Reggie Germany in the right rear of the end zone, a step ahead of defender Sedrick Curry.

Then it was A&M's turn to go three and out, and in barely four minutes the Buckeyes had the lead. Tailback Joe Montgomery covered 39 of the 71 yards with a 29-yard burst up the middle for first-and-goal and the rest of it on the next play, bowling over free safety Brandon Jennings at the 2.

Again the Aggies went nowhere, and this time the Buckeyes made them pay even more dearly. On fourth and 2 at their 28, Derek Ross roared around Rich Coady in the A&M backfield and blocked Shane Lechler's attempted punt before his foot touched the ball. Kevin Griffin picked it up and sprinted 16 yards in for the 21-7 lead.

Ohio State widened its lead to 17 points with 16 seconds left in the half on Stultz's 31-yard field goal, ending a drive helped along by center Kevin Murphy's recovery of Germaine's fumble and a pass-interference flag against cornerback Jason Webster. Stultz' 50-yard attempt on OSU's first possession of the third quarter sailed wide to the left.

The Aggies then drove to their second score, Branndon Stewart's 7-yard pass to flanker Leroy Hodge. The Buckeye defense was as much a part of the march as the A&M offense, hit with successive pass-interference penalties and, on third and 21, a holding ball against Damon Moore.

Texas A&M pushed to the OSU 33 on its next possession, but a pair of incompletions, a motion penalty and a monstrous sack of Stewart by linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer forced a punt and enabled the Buckeyes to hold the 24-14 lead going into the fourth quarter.

With Germaine hitting Wiley with a series of short passes, then connecting with Boston for 10 and 20 yards in succession, the Buckeyes gave Stultz a chance for a 47-yarder. The ball hit the right upright. The lead remained 10.

Stewart gave OSU another chance to pad its lead when his backward lateral sailed over Toombs' head and was recovered by linebacker Jerry Rudzinski. Nguyen then made his presence felt in a big way for the first time, sacking Germaine on third down. But A&M never mounted another serious threat.