When Ohio State junior quarterback Braxton Miller was sacked and fumbled with just over three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, there was no questioning what needed to happen if the Buckeyes were to win the game.
Trailing 40-35 with time running out, the Ohio State defense took the field knowing it had to find a way to get a stop and get Miller and Co. one last shot at a game-winning drive. Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who nearly committed to Ohio State and heard about the high schooler Miller on his official visit to Columbus, had dominated the team many thought he would play for.
When he took the field looking to run out the final three minutes and secure the first (and last) BCS win in program history, he had already thrown for 373 yards and five touchdowns, while also running for 114 yards and one score.
The Buckeyes obviously knew the gravity of the situation, but the message was reinforced on the sidelines before they set out to get the ball back to their offense. Just as redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell had made an interception to seal the win against Michigan, the expectation was that someone would find a way to stop Clemson and preserve a shot at the win.
“I would say the general theme was, ‘Somebody’s going to be a hero, why not you?’” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said.
Judging by its run on first down, Clemson seemed content to let its ground game grind down both the clock and the Buckeyes, but penalties quickly put an end to that strategy. A substitution infraction backed up the Tigers to midfield, and a 5-yard pass from Boyd was quickly negated by a false start, setting up third-and-13.
Safety C.J. Barnett, the only senior defender in the starting lineup, answered the challenge. With 1:30 remaining in the game and Clemson facing an obvious passing down, Barnett came up with an interception that he returned 11 yards to the opposing 48-yard line.
“We dropped into coverage and knew they were going to pass,” Barnett said. I made a read on the ball, made a break on the ball and was able to catch the ball and got the interception.”
In a vacuum, it was one turnover in a game that included six of them – one stop by a defense that too often let the Tigers go over, through and around them en route to the end zone. Of course, at that point, none of that mattered any longer. To many members of the Ohio State defense – Barnett included – it appeared as though they had done enough to win the game by putting the ball into Miller’s hands less than 50 yards from paydirt.
“Usually when you get the ball into our offense’s hands, especially in crunch time, they come through,” junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “We felt, ‘Get a stop, get a stop and that’s all it will take.’ And we did.”
Despite the fact that the offense had less than 90 seconds to advance across the field, the man who secured a game-altering interception had complete faith that his team would come through.
“Yeah, I have 110 percent faith in our offense and in Braxton and Philly (Brown) and our offensive line and Carlos (Hyde),” Barnett said. “They’re great playmakers, especially with a short field. I just knew they were going to score.”
But they didn’t. After one errant pass that ultimately fell incomplete, Miller was pressured into an early throw that was picked off by Clemson junior linebacker Stephone Anthony. The fourth and final turnover for the OSU offense relegated Barnett’s play to a footnote instead of Buckeye lore.
“We were pumped, but unfortunately they ran a scheme on the last play that I didn’t expect them to run,” senior center Corey Linsley said. “Obviously, their linebacker made a heck of a play. It was just a very subtle schematic difference.”
That play essentially ended the Buckeyes’ hopes of going out with a win, and the first down gained by Clemson shortly thereafter finalized it. Although the defense allowed its share of big plays, for one drive, it made the play that gave OSU a chance to win.
“At one point, you just have to understand you’ve done everything you can for the team,” Bennett said. “With C.J. getting the pick, it felt like he put the offense in a good position to go win the game. It didn’t work out, but you just have to look back on it and feel like, ‘Did I do everything I could for the team?’”
For one moment on an otherwise miserable night, the answer was yes.