COLUMBUS — C.J. Stroud waltzed onto the field after the opening kickoff. With receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka to his left and right, the Buckeyes’ quarterback entered the fray flanked by stars on either side — though the Heisman-hopeful himself shined the brightest.
Lined up across from Ohio State’s uber-talented offense was the No. 3 Michigan football team’s defense, the “no star” defense as the Wolverines have self-proclaimed it since fall camp.
On the first drive, Stroud and the Buckeyes made it seem that way. Ohio State’s stars dazzled, and Michigan’s defense lacked a glimmer of light. Twelve plays and 81 yards later, the Buckeyes had a touchdown, a reception by Egbuka across the middle of the endzone, dusting the Wolverines in coverage.
On the second Ohio State drive, it was mostly more of the same. The Buckeyes blasted up the field but stalled out, settling for a field goal. Still, it felt like they were in full control of the game, up 10-3, with no real answer stemming from Michigan’s defense.
The third drive is where tides began to turn. On fourth and two from the Wolverines’ 37 yard line, Ohio State went for it. With tight end Cade Stover sprinting out and Stroud dropping back, it forced junior edge rusher Jaylen Harrell into coverage. With an edge rusher covering a 6-foot-4 tight end and a Heisman candidate delivering the ball, everything pointed to the Buckeyes converting and delivering a gut-punch to Michigan.
Harrell broke up the pass and breathed life into the Wolverines.
“They did an incredible job,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of the defense. “We felt like any kind of stop was going to be like gold. And we weren’t gonna mess up any stop with any kind of penalty or even if they got into a panic situation. … Those stops were like gold to us coming into this game, and it was great that we got so many in this game.”
Like Harbaugh alluded to, the Wolverines only built on Harrell’s heroics en route to their 45-23 win in Columbus.
That success, finding the gold that was those stops, was fueled through strong adjustments. Though Ohio State struck first and appeared unstoppable early, Michigan managed to stifle the high-flying offense going forward despite its stars.
“They played great,” sophomore running back Donovan Edwards said. “They played it great. But credit to Ohio State, they have a great offense as well. Our (defensive backs) really stepped up, linebackers stepped up, d-line stepped up, d-line got pressure to the quarterback and stuffed the run a little bit.”
Though the defense stabilized in the first half, it became a force in the second.
“Coach, right before we went out (after the half), he said, ‘Let’s go finish this game, (we’re a) second half team,’ ” senior defensive back Mike Sainristil said. “And for the first time this year, I thought to myself, I was like, ‘You know what, maybe we might be a second half team, and that’s fine. Just finish the game. That’s what we’ve been doing and we’re going to continue doing that.’ ”
They did. After giving up 20 points in the first half, the Wolverines allowed just three after the break. Michigan’s team-oriented scheme, relying on its system and all its players, turned into a black hole, consuming the stars meant to shine on Ohio State’s offense.
Stroud went flat, Egbuka and Harrison were no longer the unstoppable force that the 1,000-yard-on-the-season receivers have been all year. The Wolverines were a neutralizing force, making the second half their domain.
To jam the nail through the coffin, on every critical, game-changing play, Michigan came out on top. This was epitomized with Sainristil’s late fourth quarter breakups, including one in the endzone against Stover that would have cut the lead to just four points.
“What really helped us out and saved the day was Mikey, when I think they ran a crossing route in the endzone and Mikey played through the defender,” Edwards said. “That’s basically all it is right there, coming up big and big situations. That’s what our defense did.”
It’s how the defense has won all year, and it’s how it won its battle Saturday.
When the lights were brightest, undefeated against undefeated, top-three matchup in The Game with everything on the line, the stars of the Buckeyes’ offense were snuffed out.
And the “no star” defense shined brighter.