Tommy Eichenberg isn’t accustomed to the spotlight, and he isn’t particularly fond of it, either.
But after a 17-tackle performance on Saturday, topping Chris Spielman’s Rose Bowl record for the Buckeyes, the third-year linebacker was given center stage and the microphone as he was honored as the game’s defensive MVP. While his teammates smiled and cheered, Eichenberg’s most excitable moment was embodied by a split-second grin that flashed across his face while signaling thumbs up to the crowd.
Unsurprisingly, Eichenberg kept it curt and emotionless in his brief on-stage speaking segment, and afterwards the Cleveland native explained that individual honors aren’t among his top priorities.
“It was cool. I didn’t really care, honestly,” he said. “I’m just happy we won.”
Winning seemed far from the likeliest scenario for the Buckeyes at halftime of the Rose Bowl. Ohio State had already given up 35 points to the Utes at that point, a total Ryan Day called “ridiculous” in an interview at the intermission, and the Buckeye defense kept Utah out of the end zone on just two of its six drives.
Utah racked up 324 yards through the first two quarters, and one of its five touchdowns came on a 12-yard pass on a wheel route in which Eichenberg was beaten badly in coverage by Ute running back Micah Bernard. But Ohio State managed to stall the Utes on their last drive of the half, forcing them to punt in the final minute of the second quarter.
Given the damage Utah had already done, the stop didn’t seem all that significant at the time. But Eichenberg said it was crucial for Ohio State’s momentum headed into the locker room.
“I figure it was that drive at the end of the first half, where it’s like, ‘OK, we can do this,’” Eichenberg said. “I think it just came down to getting confidence in everyone and we were just telling everyone like, ‘We can do this, let’s go.’ That’s what we tried to do.”
After the game, several Ohio State players discussed the importance of a rousing halftime speech by sixth-year Buckeye veteran Demario McCall that helped turn things around for the scarlet and gray. Eichenberg and tight end-turned-linebacker Cade Stover were two Buckeyes that bought into McCall’s message straight away.
“We came in the locker room and were like, ‘We’re gonna win this game,’” Eichenberg said. “I was telling him, I was telling everyone, I was like, ‘We’re gonna win this game.’ The score just kept getting closer and closer, and I just kept looking at Cade, I was like, ‘I told you.’”
Even after Buckeye quarterback C.J. Stroud threw an interception in the end zone on the first drive of the second half, Stover said “there was never really a doubt” because “there was just an aura you could feel” around the team.
Utah scored just twice on five second-half drives, with only one of those being a touchdown, and the Buckeyes turned the Utes over on downs two different times. Utah gained just 139 total yards in the second half, in which it averaged 3.2 yards per carry on the ground and went just 2-for-8 on third and fourth down.
Eichenberg alone had nine tackles in the second half, and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said he – as well as Stover – were key in the turnaround.
“I thought in the second half they made up their mind on defense, that they were going to play different. It happened in the locker room,” Day said. “I heard it, and I got out of the way. They played with a different toughness, and we talked about playing fast and violent. I thought they played that way in the second half. When you make up your mind you're going to do something like that, then you can impose your will. I felt like that's what happened.
“It's a team game. You have to believe the guy next to you is going to do their job. If you do your job and you count on guys to do that, I think we did that in the second half. I thought Tommy played really well. He had a chip on his shoulder. I thought Cade Stover stepping in at linebacker, he had a chip on his shoulder.”
Perhaps the chip on Eichenberg’s shoulder came from the criticism he received early in the season. Eichenberg began the year as a starter at linebacker before eventually losing his job to Cody Simon as the Buckeyes struggled defensively against the likes of Minnesota, Oregon and Tulsa.
It took an injury to Simon, who had shoulder surgery following the Michigan game, to enable Eichenberg to get back into the starting lineup for the Buckeyes during the Rose Bowl. And he saved his most productive performance for the final game of the year.
If you ask Stover, Eichenberg didn’t pay much mind to any outside noise at the start of the year.
“If there’s one guy that doesn’t pay attention to that stuff, it’s Tommy,” Stover said. “He’s a nose to the grindstone kind of guy, just works his ass off all the time and he’s the exact kind of guy you want on your football team.”
Steele Chambers, who started next to Eichenberg at Will linebacker in the Rose Bowl, said he cares more about the work he puts in than the attention that might come from it.
“That dude works harder than anyone I know. He goes under the radar, a lot of people don’t really recognize him but we do,” Chambers said. “He’s one of the hardest workers on the team, and what he just did right there, he pointed out to the world what he can really do.”
With former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles taking over the reins in Columbus, there are changes coming for the Buckeye defense. That means there’s a degree of uncertainty for every player on defense for Ohio State, but with Knowles’ experience as a linebacker coach, it could mean double for Eichenberg and company.
But Eichenberg, who finished second in total tackles (64) behind only Ronnie Hickman (100) this season despite starting only four games, put his best foot forward in his last chance to make an impression in a live game until next fall. Between now and then, Eichenberg expects the entire defense to take a step forward.
“It builds momentum into the offseason,” Eichenberg said. “I mean, they put up way too many points, that’s something we’re gonna fix. When we get going next year, we’re gonna play better defense.”