COLUMBUS — Justin Hilliard was told early in the week that he would be starting for Ohio State against Wisconsin.
As excited as he was to finally start a game at linebacker after four-and-a-half years of hype, he didn’t tell anyone the good news.
The former five-star prospect just did what he has been doing since he arrived on campus long ago. He worked to get on the field, and in the Buckeyes 38-7 blowout win over a ranked Wisconsin team, he made a good first impression as a starting linebacker.
In a scoreless second quarter, the Badgers were moving the ball and nearly made it into Ohio State territory. All-American running back Jonathan Taylor was promptly tackled by Hilliard in the backfield for a 6-yard loss, changing the momentum of the second quarter.
“It felt so good,” Hilliard said. “When I’m out there, though, I’m not going out to make plays. I’m going out to do my job. On that play, I did my job.”
Staying the course and doing his job hasn’t been the easiest task for Hilliard, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to make an impact for the Buckeyes throughout his career. So the payoff of a huge tackle for loss in a scoreless game against a top-15 team was particularly sweet for Hilliard and Ohio State.
“I can’t say that I didn’t have some of those [doubting] moments,” Hilliard said. “It hasn’t been completely easy, but this has been the best five years of my life. I love the teammates I met, the coaches I have been with. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Hilliard’s first start and his massive game-changing play showed what he can do against a big, powerful front like Wisconsin brought to the Horseshoe. And it proved that Hilliard is more than just a handful of recruiting stars and a lot of injuries. He can make a difference for the Buckeyes moving forward.
Hilliard certainly helped his cause against the Badgers, but he wasn’t alone. Lettermen Row has four others who helped their cause in the latest Buckeyes beatdown.
WR Garrett Wilson
Wilson has done more than enough as a wide receiver to no longer need to help his cause. The true freshman has shown a gift for getting open and making special plays, and he is only eight games into his Ohio State career. But where Wilson can have a bigger impact moving forward for the Buckeyes is at punt returner. After Demario McCall scared the 102,000 patrons in attendance Saturday, falling backwards while fair catching a punt in a driving rainstorm, Wilson returned a punt 23 yards to set the Buckeyes up for a score — and he almost took it all the way back on the return. He could be the answer at punt returner.
K Blake Haubeil
Blake Haubeil has had an impressive last couple weeks. Just a week removed from drilling a 55-yard field goal to close the first half against Northwestern, Haubeil backed that kick up with a 49-yard boot to open the scoring for both teams Saturday. Haubeil’s misses from inside 40 yards feel like they were forever ago based on what he has shown in the last two weeks. And Ohio State might need a long field goal or two from Haubeil as the Buckeyes prepare for the final stretch of the season.
DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste
Javontae Jean-Baptiste shows up one time on the stat sheet from the win over Wisconsin. But his one tackle on the afternoon fails to tell the story. Each defensive end was bumped up the depth chart while Jonathon Cooper was sidelined yet again this season, and Jean-Baptiste may have benefitted the most from it. Jean-Baptiste was on the field for key moments throughout the afternoon. That isn’t to say that he is the new No. 3 defensive end for the Buckeyes, but he may be rounding into form in time to make an impact on this national title-contending team.
DB Damon Arnette
Arnette, a cornerback, led Ohio State in tackles Saturday against Wisconsin, finishing the day with seven. Oh, and he had a huge tackle for loss of Jonathan Taylor when the Badgers had momentum. There were plenty of pro scouts on hand to watch the Buckeyes and Badgers. Arnette may have just impressed the right one, because he is playing at a high level, and the stellar game against Wisconsin was no exception.