Outside of Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State’s secondary against Wisconsin consisted of players who either barely played during the 2021 season or weren’t with the Buckeyes at all a year ago.
Josh Proctor, who suffered a season-ending leg fracture in Ohio State’s second game of the 2021 season, and Tanner McCalister, who played at Oklahoma State for the past four years before transferring to Ohio State this offseason, returned to the starting lineup at safety on Saturday night after both of them missed the Toledo game with minor injuries.
Redshirt freshman JK Johnson and true freshman Jyaire Brown, meanwhile, each made the first starts of their Ohio State careers at cornerback in place of Cameron Brown and Denzel Burke, who both sat out against Wisconsin with injuries.
Collectively, all of them stepped up as Ohio State held Wisconsin to just 104 passing yards and routed the Badgers, 52-21, in the first Big Ten game of the season for both teams.
No Buckeye defensive back had a bigger night against the Badgers than McCalister, who set the tone for the Buckeyes’ defense on the Badgers’ very first possession of the game when he intercepted a Graham Mertz pass and returned it to the 16-yard line, putting the Buckeyes in position to score their second touchdown of the night and take an early 14-0 lead.
McCalister, who also had four tackles in Saturday’s game, made an even more impressive play in the final minute of the first half. When Skyler Bell beat Johnson deep for what could have been a 41-yard touchdown catch on 4th-and-3, McCalister broke back to the ball and got there just in time to knock the ball away, preserving a 31-7 halftime lead for the Buckeyes.
Just have to revisit this amazing play from Tanner McCalister. pic.twitter.com/FjJqyYfsip— Eleven Warriors (@11W) September 25, 2022
“That was a tough play,” McCalister said after the game. “Not to get into coverage detail, but basically, my job was to protect anything deep from the hash to sideline. So there was multiple guys running, so I'm trying to take multiple guys and I saw the throw late, speed turned and luckily I got that ball out. That was a tough play to make, but I'm glad I was able to make it, for sure.”
For McCalister, who had not yet recorded an interception or pass breakup as a Buckeye going into Saturday’s game, the Big Ten opener showed why Jim Knowles wanted McCalister to follow him from Oklahoma State to Ohio State and be a key part of the Buckeyes’ 2022 defense.
“It definitely builds confidence,” McCalister said of his performance against Wisconsin. “Obviously I wasn't at Ohio State last year but I made plays in college football, went against some good teams, so I knew I could do it. So it was just fun to actually be able to present it to the Ohio State fans and just really excel in front of my teammates as well and just fly around with a new team and just really be comfortable with those guys. And I think we're all jelling together and there's no limit to what our defense can do.”
Proctor also had a big game in his return to the lineup against Wisconsin, recording six tackles and a pass breakup while playing nearly the entire game at bandit instead of subbing out for Lathan Ransom as he did in his first two starts of the season.
Ryan Day thought it was crucial to have Proctor and McCalister, both fifth-year seniors, back in the lineup against Wisconsin with Burke and Cameron Brown out.
“I thought those guys really helped, especially with the younger players,” Day said.
Jyaire Brown and Johnson also stepped up in a big way, though, to ensure that the absences of the Buckeyes’ regular starting cornerback would not derail them on Saturday night.
Although their nights weren’t perfect, both of them more than held their own and didn’t give up many big plays. Johnson, who played only eight defensive snaps as a true freshman, finished the night with four tackles. Brown recorded one tackle and one pass breakup. Brown was penalized for pass interference in the second quarter, but Day made it clear he did not think that should have been a penalty – arguing vigorously with an official after it was called – and Day wanted the true freshman cornerback to know that his head coach had his back.
“I usually don't talk about that stuff after the game. But yeah, I obviously didn't like what I saw, and I felt like that was a big play,” Day said. “But I also wanted Jyaire to know that like, I do have your back. Now if it was egregious, okay, move on. But I wanted to defend him in that moment. This is a young kid out there in a big stage for the first time, and I hope he felt like his head coach was backing him up in that moment, because I think it mattered and I believe what I was fighting for.”
While Day admitted he was concerned about going into the game with a pair of inexperienced starting cornerbacks, he felt that both of them were capable because of what he had seen from them on the practice field, and Day was happy with how both of them rose to the occasion.
“They practiced really hard all spring, they practiced all preseason, they've been out there and we told them right before the game that everybody on the team believes in them, and we do,” Day said. “And they have no fear. And they went out there and played. And they did a really good job. I mean, I don't know what the film’s going to show, but I know they competed. And I thought Tim Walton did a really good job getting them ready. And I'm proud of those guys to be able to win a conference game with them in there.”
McCalister said he would give both young cornerbacks an A grade for how they performed.
“They stepped up big time,” McCalister said. “Obviously with Cam Brown and Denzel down, going into preparation, it’s kind of scary a little bit just because those guys haven't played much. But they came in comfortable, willing to listen. I'm talking to them on the field and they're trying to get checks, they're listening, so all of that was great and they stepped up big-time and handled their business.”
Middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, who led Ohio State’s defense with 14 tackles against Wisconsin, said he didn’t feel like he had to do anything differently to compensate for the inexperienced cornerbacks.
“We trusted the corners,” Eichenberg said. “I think people thought it was a disadvantage if your starting corners are out. It could be, but we got so much confidence in those guys, we didn’t even think about it.”
When asked specifically about Brown, who had played only 27 defensive snaps as a Buckeye going into Saturday’s game, McCalister said he was confident Brown would get the job done because of what he had seen from the true freshman in practice since his early enrollment in January.
“He's a cornerback that’s not afraid to go against the best,” McCalister said. You see it in practice. Marvin Harrison, Jaxon (Smith-Njigba), (Emeka Egbuka), we got really good receivers and he’s not afraid to step out there even though he's a freshman. He's like, ‘I want Marvin.’ So when you see some things like that early on, he's very confident. I think that's why the coaches like him, that's why we like him.”
After being without two different starting defensive backs for each of the last two games, Ohio State will certainly hope to get back to having a fully healthy secondary soon. Day said after the game he does not expect either of the starting cornerbacks’ absences to be long-term, though Burke was seen with a cast on his hand during pregame warmups before he was ultimately ruled out for the game.
Between Ransom and Cameron Martinez filling in for Proctor and McCalister against Toledo and Johnson and Jyaire Brown filling in for Burke or Cameron Brown against Wisconsin, though, a quartet of backup defensive backs has proven over the past two weeks that they can get the job done when called upon. And McCalister believes that shows how deep the Buckeyes can be in the secondary when they are healthy.
“We definitely got depth back there,” McCalister said. “I mean, we’re trying to all get healthy. That's the goal. We all want to be healthy so everybody can get a little piece of the fun. So that's what we're kind of working on right now. I think we're doing a really good job with that. But I mean, it goes to show that anybody that gets their opportunities can make plays. And I think that's what's been shown in the past couple weeks was all of us can be interchangeable and really go out there and fly around and make plays.”