The Five Most Underappreciated Ohio State Football Plays of the Past Decade

By Jacob Rhee on March 31, 2023 at 1:10 pm
Curtis Samuel in 2016
Tommy Gilligan – USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State fans are extremely lucky.

Back-to-back rudderless performances against Michigan and a devastating Peach Bowl loss to Georgia make that easy to forget. But take a step back and look at the last 10 years, and you'll see one of the best decade-long runs in program history.

Along the way, we've been spoiled by a laundry list of incredible moments. You know exactly where you were when Ezekiel Elliott rumbled 85 yards to the house against Alabama. You couldn't wipe the smile off your face for days after Dwayne Haskins humiliated the Wolverines in The Shoe. You'll never forget the pride you felt when Dabo Swinney threw verbal jabs at the Buckeyes and Justin Fields responded with a 49-point haymaker. These are all memories that will last a lifetime.

But because we cherish the iconic, program-defining moments on a daily basis, Scarlet and Gray supporters have allowed some other crucial events to escape into the attics of our minds. It's time for that to change.

Today, we're looking back at the five most underappreciated Ohio State football plays of the past decade. The task is relatively self-explanatory, but before we begin, let's establish one thing: the stakes are important. Jaxon Smith-Njigba's toe-tap touchdown catch in his collegiate debut was absurd, but it happened in a season opener against a Nebraska squad that finished 3-5. The circumstances don't make the grab itself any less impressive, but it's more understandable why we're not constantly reliving it.

Now that we've made that clear, we'll start with number five.

5. The House that Ruck Built

The Play: Jeremy Ruckert 16-yard TD reception (Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin, 2019)

For whatever reason, this stunning catch from Ruckert has gotten lost in the shuffle, and I can't put my finger on why that is. Maybe it's because the big tight end is "Ohio State open" in the end zone. Maybe Odell Beckham Jr. and his sticky mitts have made one-handed grabs look normal. It might even be because Ruckert himself made this catch seem routine by pulling it off again in the national championship game a year later.

The 2019 Buckeyes were so good that a 21-7 halftime deficit with hardware hanging in the balance wasn't all that concerning. (I still maintain that if you threw every 21st-century Ohio State team in a bracket, the 2019 squad would be the favorite to win.) But the Buckeyes definitely needed a spark coming out of the break, and Ruckert delivered.

As Justin Fields works through his progressions, he spots the New York native alone in the middle of the field with Badgers linebacker Zack Baun, who became a third-round draft pick a few months later. Ruckert breezes by him and makes Fields' overthrow irrelevant with a spectacular grab. The play got the Ohio State faithful back into the game, and kick-started a 27-0 second half from the Buckeyes.

Ohio State came into Lucas Oil Stadium as the No. 1 team in America, and there was a chance that the Buckeyes would've still gone to the playoff with a loss. But Ruckert's catch helped save everyone from another stressful Selection Sunday and brought conference championship rings back to Columbus.

4. A Dagger Denied

The Play: Jerome Baker interception (vs. Michigan, 2016)

First of all, take a look at the clock and the score. I can't be the only one who forgot how dire of a situation Ohio State was in during this game. A touchdown drive from Michigan doesn't necessarily end it, but it certainly forces the Buckeyes to play a near-perfect fourth quarter to even have a chance.

Fortunately, Jerome Baker picked a great time for the biggest play of his football career.

Outside of a Malik Hooker pick-six - which just missed the list - Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight had been getting anything he wanted against a loaded Ohio State secondary. Speight was 20 of 26 for 197 yards and a touchdown, but was about to make his second back-breaking mistake of the afternoon.

Watch the quarterback's eyes. He's locked onto wide receiver Amara Darboh from the moment he looks up from the play fake, and Baker reads in the moment what you and I are seeing right now. Speight throws a fastball, and the athletic linebacker makes an impressive leaping catch before setting up his offense in the red zone with a nice return. Two plays later, Mike Weber leaps over the goal line, and the momentum rests squarely with the Buckeyes.

Baker's coverage ability was always his standout trait in Columbus, and it's a big reason why he's now among the highest-paid linebackers in the NFL. Perhaps no play exhibits his incredible skill set better than this one.

3. Reviving The Shoe

The Play: Jalin Marshall 54-yard punt return TD (vs. Indiana, 2014)

Even though Ohio State walks out of The Shoe with a 15-point victory on this day, it still feels uncomfortable reflecting upon the game. The Buckeyes were sleepwalking for a large portion of the contest, and it took a special teams gem to finally wake them up.

With his team officially on upset alert, Jalin Marshall grabbed the wheel with one of his incandescent bursts of pure talent. The former five-star recruit was barely touched as he glided to the end zone, tying the game at 20 late in the third quarter.

Over 100,000 fans were shifting nervously in their seats prior to the punt, wondering if they had shelled out their hard-earned money to watch one of the most embarrassing losses in the program's recent history. Listen to how silent the stadium was before the return begins to unfold.

If the punt return touchdown never happens, there's a legitimate chance the Hoosiers pull off the shocker. After all, Ohio State had absolutely no answer for Tevin Coleman, who finished with 27 carries for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Even the slimmest of Indiana leads in the late stages of the game could've resulted in a clock-burning clinic.

A Hoosiers win means the Buckeyes fall well short of the playoff and likely head to the Outback Bowl to face an 8-4 Auburn squad instead. That's not how the 2014 Ohio State football team was meant to be remembered.

Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Marshall came to the rescue with a signature performance. After his house call on the punt return, he proceeded to catch three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, effectively saving a title-winning season for Ohio State.

2. The Money Man Delivers

The Play: Sam Hubbard tackle for loss (vs. Penn State, 2017)

In short, this is one of the coolest football plays I have ever seen. It gets lost due to the heroics of J.T. Barrett, who spearheaded the legendary comeback effort with his best game in Scarlet and Gray (though I personally believe that his 2014 performance against Michigan State belongs in the discussion).

When Hubbard blew up this read option, Buckeye Nation had one collective thought. We're really doing this. The former lacrosse star can feel it himself; on the replay, you can see Hubbard scream and wildly slap his own helmet in a frenzied release of energy. His team is down five with only a few minutes left, but he knows. This thing is over.

A primary reason that the read option is so dangerous is that it forces the unblocked defender – most often an edge guy like Hubbard – to hesitate. Pass rushers are trained to do the exact opposite, so thrusting them into a decision-making role induces bad gambles and incorrect guesses.

No one had a read-option attack quite as lethal as Penn State, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley sharing the backfield. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead deploys it to start a crucial possession for the Nittany Lions, and Hubbard gets to the mesh point so fast that he surprises himself. Upon realizing McSorley still has the football in Barkley's gut, he launches his body at both players, thirsting for havoc.

The pair of Penn State Heisman candidates do an admirable job of holding onto the ball, but it doesn't matter. The Nittany Lions are behind the sticks, and the drive has been completely disrupted. Barkley runs for three combined yards on the next two plays, and a punt ensues. Barrett and company are celebrating the game-winning touchdown shortly after.

Ohio State victories don't get much more fun or exhilarating than this, especially after Penn State spoiled the Buckeyes' perfect regular season the year prior. Denzel Ward's blocked punt – another painful omission from the list – may have served as the game's turning point, but it was Hubbard's reckless abandon that made us all truly believe that we were witnessing something magical that night.

1. Curtis Saves the Day

The Play: Curtis Samuel 8-yard reception (vs. Michigan, 2016)

In your head, name every Ohio State player in the past 10 years that could've turned this snuffed-out horizontal pass into an eight-yard gain.

There's only one. There might only be one that even gets positive yardage. Maybe Braxton Miller dances around Jabrill Peppers and picks up two or three. Maybe.

I can't fault Buckeye fans for overlooking this catch and run. After all, two of the most famous plays in program history immediately follow it. But in no world should Samuel's work to transform such an appalling play call into a fourth-and-short be forgotten.

After the Wolverines kick a field goal in double overtime, Ohio State is faced with third-and-9 from the 24-yard line. Barrett swings it out to Samuel, and there is absolutely nothing there; Peppers, Mike McCray, and Taco Charlton have him surrounded.

But this is Curtis Samuel we're talking about. The Brooklyn native reverses field three times, weaves his way through traffic, and comes within inches of a first down. Barrett moves the chains on the next snap, before Samuel soars into the end zone with a fifth consecutive win over Michigan in tow.

This won't be fun, but let's go down a nightmarish rabbit hole for a moment. If Samuel gets tackled for no gain on third down, the Buckeyes are left to attempt a 41-yard field goal with walk-on kicker Tyler Durbin, who missed from both 20 and 37 yards earlier in the game. If Samuel is brought down back at the 33 – the furthest point to which he retreated – Ohio State keeps its offense on the field for fourth-and-18 against the best pass defense in the nation. Neither scenario is particularly comforting.

If the Wolverines win, they head to the Big Ten championship game against a flawed Wisconsin team and likely go to the College Football Playoff as the No. 3 seed. Who knows what a playoff berth does to their subsequent recruiting efforts? Do coveted targets Pat Surtain II and George Karlaftis wind up in Ann Arbor? This butterfly effect can extend for as long as you'd like, but none of the results are good for the Buckeyes.

Samuel accomplished just about everything in his time at Ohio State, winning a national title in 2014 and planting himself a tree in Buckeye Grove as a First Team All-American two years later. His third-down wizardry against Michigan deserves to be remembered right alongside the rest of his achievements.

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