When Chris Olave speaks, you have to lean forward to hear him. He’s about as far as one can get from the stereotypically loud, brash wide receiver.
Until last year’s game against Michigan, that understated personality fit him. The morning that Ohio State played host to Jim Harbaugh’s team on Nov. 24, 2018, many fans didn't even know his name. Most who had heard of Olave at the time knew about him as a late addition and the third-lowest ranked prospect in the 2018 recruiting class. At that point, the then-freshman had five career catches for 70 yards.
A year and three days later, less than a week before the Buckeyes head north to Ann Arbor and face the Wolverines again, Olave’s quiet voice and humble nature suddenly feel incongruous to the player he has become and the reputation he has earned. He’s second on the team with 39 catches and leads Ohio State in receiving yards (637) and receiving touchdowns (10). Good luck trying to find anybody who follows the Buckeyes even from the periphery who hasn’t heard his name now.
It all began last year when he scored two touchdowns and blocked a punt in the Buckeyes' 62-39 clobbering of the Wolverines. Just ask Olave.
“I believe it changed my career, having that game,” Olave said. “We kind of build our program around that game and that game was around our building everywhere. Having that game in that game specifically, I believe it changed my career.”
It would be hard for anyone to argue that point.
“I think you learned what followed after that, which is that he's a great player. I don't think anybody really knew up until that game what he was capable of.”– Ryan Day on Chris Olave's breakout game against Michigan
Olave, a Californian who had been in Columbus for just months at that time, went into what’s arguably – or, to those in Ohio and Michigan, inarguably – the best rivalry in all of sports and made game-changing plays out of absolutely nowhere. The score of last year’s game makes it look like a blowout, and it certainly became one. But it’s often forgotten that the Buckeyes had just a four-point lead at halftime.
After catching a pair of touchdowns that each went for 24 yards in the first half, Olave busted the game open with his punt block that Sevyn Banks returned for a touchdown to give his team a sudden 34-19 lead midway through the third quarter.
In an interview with Eleven Warriors, Jim Tressel once compared a punt block to somebody grabbing another person’s jugular vein, which is an apt metaphor for what followed. The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on their next four drives, and their defense picked off a pair of passes from Shea Patterson to ice the game.
There’s a chance the blowout, which marked Urban Meyer’s final win against Michigan, might not have transpired the way it did without Olave’s contributions.
“At the time I didn't really know how big it was,” Olave said. “I was just kind of playing football. Especially after the game, that's when it hit me. My family was there for the first time, and they all had smiles on their face. My teammates and my coaches and Buckeye Nation was astonished by the performance.”
The astonishment stemmed from the fact that Olave’s main production up until that point had come as a special teamer.
“It was a little spark of confidence to myself, and I believe it brought me closer to my teammates, them knowing that I can do that,” Olave said.
He left the game as a legend. An Ohio State legend at 18 years old who had caught just seven career passes at the time.
“I think you learned what followed after that, which is that he's a great player,” Day said. “I don't think anybody really knew up until that game what he was capable of. Then what you've seen afterwards is what he is capable of. Obviously to play in a game like that and to become a legend in the history of the game as a freshman, to block a punt, have two touchdowns, that's just unbelievable. Look what he's done from there. Yeah, that was a great way to start off his career.”
This year, Olave has ensured he won’t be a one-game wonder – even though he would’ve already had a heck of a legacy had that been the case. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound wideout has developed into Ohio State’s top downfield threat, thriving in one-on-one jump ball situations as a sophomore.
Against Penn State last week, he had two catches for 44 yards, including a touchdown catch on a 28-yard pass from Justin Fields in the fourth quarter when the Buckeyes needed to end a Nittany Lions rally. A month before then, he snagged a career-high seven passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-7 beatdown of Wisconsin, in which the Buckeyes also poured it on in the second half after a tight first half.
With everything else in the regular season out of the way and his team undefeated, Olave's second date with Michigan is scheduled for noon on Saturday.
“That’s why I came to Ohio State,” Olave said. “To play in these type of games. I wanted to play against the best, so when we get an opportunity to play the big game, I believe I got to bring out my best, so that’s what I did.”
And that’s what he’ll try to do again on Saturday. Olave won’t catch the Wolverines by surprise this time.
Unlike last year, they hear him coming.