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Football: Defense gave OSU offense a shot at a comeback

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OSU sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker (17) and senior linebacker Chris Worley (35) combine on a sack againstr Michigan junior quarterback Wilton Speight (3) during their game on Nov. 26 at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 30-27. Credit: Mason Swires | Assistant Photo Editor

OSU sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker (17) and senior linebacker Chris Worley (35) combine on a sack againstr Michigan junior quarterback Wilton Speight (3) during their game on Nov. 26 at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes won 30-27. Credit: Mason Swires | Assistant Photo Editor

The Ohio State Buckeyes were doomed for defeat against rival Michigan. Everybody could see it. Everyone could feel it throughout the stadium. The signs were present.

Through much of the game, the OSU offense failed to string together consistent drives to put the Wolverine defense on its heels. Almost a replica to how the offense looked in its only loss of the season at Penn State, redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett was erratic with his throws and the running game was stopped for minimal gain against a ferocious Michigan defense.

However, there were a couple signs of a possible OSU comeback, all of which began with the defense.

In the second quarter, a theme was developing. The OSU offense was unable to move the ball past its own 35-yard line in the quarter and only accumulated two first downs. A booming 60-yard punt pinned Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight at his own 6-yard line.

OSU blitzed junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan and sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker, but it was McMillan who got to Speight and forced an errant throw that landed in the hands of Malik Hooker. The redshirt sophomore safety returned it to the house for his third pick-six of the season, breaking a school record.

In the third quarter, an unproductive offense became the story of the game. Barrett wasn’t connecting with receivers in the passing game and redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber and junior H-back Curtis Samuel were being stalled in the run game.

Michigan led by 17-7 nearing the fourth quarter and it was clear that the defense needed to make a play to boost the offense or the Wolverines were going to roll to victory. Like it had so many times before, the defense stepped up.

Baker intercepted a pass from Speight and returned it 22 yards to the Michigan 13. Two penalties later, OSU had the ball on the 4 where Barrett carried for three yards, then Weber punched it in to trim the deficit to three.

“We just do our job. I got it in there, did what I can do,” Baker said. “Raekwon, (Chris) Worley, Joe (Burger), all those guys kept my head up.”

Again in the fourth quarter, following senior kicker Tyler Durbin’s second missed field goal that would’ve tied the game, the Silver Bullets took the field needing to stop the Wolverines for the offense to have another chance to tie, or possibly win the game. A couple first downs likely would’ve put the nail in the coffin of OSU.

Three plays later, the defense was off the field and the offense marched 77 yards to send the game to overtime.

“Our defense kept hanging in there, hanging in there, and they provided sparks,” said OSU coach Urban Meyer. “And the offense kind of took over in the fourth quarter and overtime.”

It was the third time in the biggest game of the year that the defense saved a lackluster offensive performance, and was one of several games that the defense gave the offense a chance for redemption.

A walk-off sack against Wisconsin in overtime, an early pick-six in Norman, Oklahoma, a game-saving interception on a Michigan State two-point conversion and a game-clinching interception against the Spartans are all plays that have defined this 2016 defense as opportunistic. They are all plays that can bail out an offense.

The two interceptions on Saturday were primary examples of something that has been a staple of co-defensive coordinators Greg Schiano’s and Luke Fickell’s defense.

Michigan running back De’Veon Smith gained 158 yards and score two touchdowns in the previous game against Indiana. On Saturday, McMillan, Baker and the rest of the defense halted Smith to just 60 yards on 21 carries. The two linebackers combined for 31 tackles — 16 and 15, respectively.

“At times we need (the offense) to help pick us up. At times, they need us to pick them up,” McMillan said. “We needed them toward the end and they needed us toward the beginning. The brotherhood at the beginning, they just keep us going.”

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