COLUMBUS — As much as Jeff Okudah had bloomed into one of the elite cornerbacks in college football late last year and into this season, there was something weighing on the Ohio State junior.
The first letter of his last name was symbolic of his interception total as a collegian. It’s also the last letter in zero, and zippo.
Then, like a gift from the defensive gods, he grabbed college career No. 1 in the 76-5 win for the Buckeyes over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. Lining up to feign press coverage way out on the edge of the wide side on a play in the second quarter, he drifted back into an intermediate zone after the snap and watched incredibly as the pass from Brett Gabbert sailed over the intended receiver underneath and into his hands.
Suddenly, the wait was over and the weight was gone.
“I definitely think it’s a monumental moment, just kind of getting the monkey off my back,” said Okudah, a former five-star recruit from Grand Prairie (South), Texas. “The crazy story is, last night I had a dream I got the first interception. So I woke up with a smile, like: ‘Maybe today is the day.’
“So it was kind of crazy to kind of bring it to fruition and get the first one.”
His new defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley – fresh off tutoring defensive backs in the NFL — kept talking to him about inevitability, and that it was rooted in the discipline to keep taking care of his responsibilities from play to play.
“‘When it’s your time, it’s going to be your time,'” Okudah said of Hafley’s message. “You really can’t force the moment. So he just wanted to kind of keep me levelheaded, and he just told me it will come.”
Okudah had others rejoicing over his breakthrough, including his good friend Chase Young, the stellar defensive end who also wreaked havoc Saturday with two strip sacks, the fumbles recovered by the Buckeyes in that 42-point second quarter. Young smiled when asked what the pick would do for Okudah.
“Even though his confidence is sky-high anyway, it’s going to make him a more confident guy, a more swaggy guy on the field — you know, like you want your cornerbacks,” Young said. “Jeff’s a dog. I hope he gets some more.”
Those turnovers caused by Okudah and Young led to touchdowns in what officially will go down as a come-from-behind win by the Buckeyes, who trailed 5-0 early after a safety and then giving up a drive to a Miami field goal. The malice displayed by the defense after the sluggish start stood out as much as the play of quarterback Justin Fields and the high-powered Ohio State offense, which Okudah thinks bodes well headed into full-time Big Ten play beginning with a road trip to Nebraska for a prime-time game Saturday.
“I’d say right now we’re trending in the right direction,” Okudah said.
Ditto for him. Because the opportunities for his first pick came finally in a flurry, just as Hafley had forecast. In the first quarter, Gabbert slightly underthrew a fade route down the right sideline and Okudah, in press coverage, got his head around to see the ball coming right to him. That interception was not to be, the ball falling away.
“The receiver might have gotten a hand in there,” Jeff Okudah said. “But to be able to bounce back a couple series later with an interception, I think that’s really big.”