For nearly three quarters of play, Ohio State football fans across the country must have thought it was deja vu.
Just like the previous year, OSU was heavily-favored going into its game against archrival Michigan. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, however, the Wolverines were once again matching them step for step. With 7:41 left in the third quarter, Michigan tied the game at 21 following a 12-play, 75-yard drive. The Wolverines had already scored on drives of 80 and 95 yards in the first half, leaving a record Ohio Stadium crowd virtually quiet.
Enter Michael Bennett.
The senior defensive lineman and co-captain gave a speech to the entire Buckeye defense after the score, he said, and the unit then forced the Wolverines into two straight punts and a fumble, allowing the offense to take the lead back in what would become a 42-28 OSU victory.
OSU allowed just 129 yards in the game following the speech, and after the game redshirt-freshman Darron Lee credited Bennett with the improved caliber of play.
“Second half, yeah — credit that to Mike Bennett for getting into us in the third quarter. He’s a vocal leader, a vocal force when we’re not doing our job,” Lee said. “He’s a great captain for that. We all needed that for our defense and it showed.”
Bennett took similar action during halftime of OSU’s game against Minnesota on Nov. 15. At that point the Buckeyes only led by three, and this time around Bennett said the message was simple.
“When you gotta say something, you gotta say something. I felt like that was the best time. I think they had just scored, and it didn’t feel right, they way they were scoring,” he said after The Game. “We expected them to do a bunch of screens and draws and all this stuff, but they just straight up ran the ball down our field and scored, and that’s not all right.”
The Centerville, Ohio, native finished with three solo tackles and one sack, as did his linemate, junior Adolphus Washington. Washington noted after the game that Bennett’s interventions in the games against Minnesota, and now Michigan, have been important to the defense’s play.
“Guys definitely respond better to peers than they do to a coach, so Mike’s been showing a lot of leadership these past couple weeks,” he said. “And I think that’s been helping us a lot in this second half.”
But before addressing his teammates, Bennett and Buckeyes were just hanging on against Michigan’s redshirt-senior quarterback Devin Gardner. In the meeting between the two team’s last season, Gardner threw for 351 yards and four touchdowns. This year he had 129 yards in the first half, and helped the Wolverines convert on four of six third-down attempts in the opening 30 minutes.
Washington credited the competitive nature of the rivalry as the reason why the Wolverines — who ranked last in scoring offense in the Big Ten entering Saturday’s game — put together long drives and 21 points through three-and-a-half quarters.
“They always got a game plan for us, they always have something up their sleeve for us. Like you said, they were coming right at us and was we were making mistakes on little things and they were just capitalizing on it,” he said. “But once we went in there the second half and we talked about it, we got it covered.”
Despite the defense finding its collective footing and the offense doing similar, perhaps the biggest play of the game came on the first play of the fourth quarter. With OSU driving, redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was tackled after a short game. But he didn’t get back up. The potential Heisman Trophy candidate had to be carted off the field, and an OSU official said after the game that Barrett suffered a fractured right ankle on the play, meaning his season is over.
Lee said he approached Barrett after the play to reassure him that the team had the game under control.
“I went out there and told him, ‘hey man, we got you.’ Told him I love him because I do, he’s a great guy and he’s a great brother,” Lee said. “Everybody was just gonna pick it up from there on, and that’s all it was.”
After the teams traded three drives in which they punted, the Buckeyes extended the lead to 14 when sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott ran in from 44 yards. On Michigan’s next drive came the real game-clincher: sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa stripped Gardner, before Lee picked up the ball and took it another 33 yards into the end zone.
It was a similar play to the first game of the season against Navy when Lee — in his OSU debut — gathered a fumble and ran for a score. The linebacker said his play against the Wolverines hadn’t quite hit him yet.
“It’s really different from the video games, I’ll tell you that. It’s nice, a lot louder,” he said. “Hasn’t really sunk in yet, but it feels good that we won.”
Even in victory, eyes turn to OSU’s quarterback situation as redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones takes the reigns for a Dec. 6 matchup in the Big Ten Championship and a potential bowl game. Junior linebacker Joshua Perry, who leads the Buckeyes in total tackles with 108, said the change means the defensive side of the ball has to be even better than before.
“We’ve got some things to shore up, definitely,” he said. “We can’t have six and seven-yard runs on first down. But you get past the emotions of the game and you really turn on the film and see what you need to work on, and we’ll find out.”
Lee had similar feelings when it comes to what the defense must do to help the team win going forward.
“Personally, I feel like defense is going to have to step up tremendously now,” he said. “I’m gonna do everything I can, and if that means I gotta do a little extra, then so be it.”
OSU is scheduled to face Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 6 in Indianapolis.