Steve Miller wasn't supposed to be the player to make the biggest defensive play in Ohio State's Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.

Steve Miller wasn't supposed to be the player to make the biggest defensive play in Ohio State's Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.

If all had gone according to the master plan, the senior from Canton would have been on the sideline, a capable backup at defensive end. Noah Spence, the five-star pass-rushing demon from Pennsylvania, would have been on the field instead.

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But Spence didn't play a down this season, permanently banished by the Big Ten for a second failed substance-abuse violation. So Miller took over, with help from fellow senior Rashad Frazier.

And so it was Miller who dropped back in pass coverage with Ohio State ahead 27-21 in the third quarter and Alabama hoping to regain the lead.

"Coach made the call - Coach (Luke) Fickell or Coach (Chris) Ash up in the booth," Miller said of the defensive coordinator and co-coordinator. "I've been working on my drops with (defensive line) coach (Larry) Johnson."

He read Alabama quarterback Blake Sims' eyes. Sims threw toward star receiver Amari Cooper but didn't notice Miller in front of him. Miller made the interception and ran 41 yards for a touchdown.

In that moment, an Ohio State victory sending them to the College Football Playoff championship game against Oregon suddenly went from possible to likely.

That it came from a player such as Miller was fitting. Championships aren't won only from the performances of stars. Contributions from role players are vital, and the Buckeyes got them against Alabama, just as they have all season.

Starting tight end Jeff Heuerman was in and out all game because of a sprained ankle. Nick Vannett has seen more action this season than a typical backup, but he had to play most of the snaps against Alabama. He caught two passes and blocked well.

"I don't know if people watching the game tonight will ever know what he did tonight," Heuerman said "For him to come in and take over most of the load at tight end was truly special."

Or take Corey Smith. The junior-college transfer is regarded by Ohio State coaches and players as the most gifted wide receiver on the team. But his potential has been mostly untapped.

He dropped a pass in the end zone against Virginia Tech that could have been a game-changing play. It haunted him for weeks, he said on Sugar Bowl media day.

For him to earn more snaps, he had to go through the standard pathway on coach Urban Meyer's Buckeyes - through special teams. Smith got that chance because of injuries.

On Thursday, he was spectacular in kickoff coverage. Three times, he plastered Crimson Tide returners - at the 10-yard line, at the 12 and then at the 16. On the last one, he was joined by Bri'onte Dunn, another player once seemingly buried on the depth chart.

Even in cameos, overlooked Buckeyes took advantage of their opportunity. Late in the second quarter, center Jacoby Boren's leg was bent backward near Alabama's goal line. (How it wasn't a serious injury and that he returned to the game is a minor miracle.)

Right guard Pat Elflein moved one spot to his left and Chase Farris took over at guard. Farris, who has shuttled back and forth between offense and defense in his career, stood up his man on the next play, a 3-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott.

That score was the first of four unanswered Buckeyes touchdowns, with Miller's the last.

"I had a vision about this," Miller said. "I was telling my teammates all bowl practice that I was going to catch an interception and score. I caught one in practice when we were at home and I was like, 'Man, I've got to get one for the game.' "

Miller said he had never scored a touchdown at any level of organized football.

"Never," he said, adding for emphasis, " Never."

That vision, that dream of Miller's came true. And Ohio State's improbable dream season continues partly because of it.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch