ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Denzel Ward wasn’t everywhere at once, even though at times Saturday in Ohio State’s 31-20 win over Michigan, it seemed like it.
“I thought he played a fantastic game,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said.
No play seemed to matter more than Ward’s block of a Michigan point-after attempt in the third quarter. Just when the Buckeyes defense had seemed to gain the upper hand on the Wolverines, they drove 51 yards to that TD to retake the lead.
But they were left with a six-point lead. Ward came off the edge to block the kick just ahead of linebacker Chris Worley, who seemed in position to do the same while coming up the middle.
Michigan never scored again. One reason was the play of Ward and the secondary. He led the team with eight tackles and made two pass breakups. He didn’t have a sack, but the coverage by him, Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller and Damon Webb helped on the six sacks the Buckeyes recorded.
“(Ward) faced every challenge in the passing game and was exceptional, and he played the run incredibly well,” Coombs said.
In 2014, quarterback Cardale Jones was called on to save the season when J.T. Barrett was injured on the first play of the fourth quarter against Michigan. After beating the Wolverines, a run to the national championship followed.
Barrett went down again Saturday, leaving the game because of a knee injury in the third quarter, and it was Dwayne Haskins Jr.’s turn to save the day — and perhaps the season. Watching it from the sideline was Jones, who had the weekend off after his Los Angeles Chargers won Thursday at Dallas.
“He’s been doing this all year, playing in blowouts and coming when J.T. went down or something like that,” Jones said. “So it’s a good thing there’s nothing serious with J.T. and we’ll see him back next week.”
What didn’t surprise Jones was that the game was so competitive, especially after Michigan took a 14-0 lead.
“It’s a classic always,” Jones said. “You never know what to expect when you play this game.”
Hill steps to fore
One of Haskins’ major accomplices was receiver K.J. Hill. Twice on third-down plays in the fourth quarter, Haskins hit Hill on shallow crossing routes that Hill turned into major gains.
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The first, a 29-yarder to the Michigan 28-yard line, led to a 44-yard field goal by Sean Nuernberger. The second, a 24-yarder to the Michigan 34 on the next possession, put the Buckeyes in position for another field-goal attempt, but the kick drifted left from 43 yards.
“My number was called so I had to catch the ball and make a play,” said Hill, the Buckeyes’ leading receiver with 51 catches for 519 yards. “We knew we were going to win the whole time, I feel like, just because of how hard we were practicing this week. We just had to calm down and get everything going. Once we scored we knew it was over with.”
Even when Ohio State trailed 14-0, Worley said he had no doubt the Buckeyes would win. That’s all he and his fellow seniors, including the fifth-year players, have known in the rivalry.
“In my mind, I wasn’t losing,” Worley said. “These seniors, we weren’t losing. Some of us were 4-0 and some were 3-0. We’re going out of here with four or five sets of gold pants. There have been some great Buckeye legends who didn’t win one. Our group won four or five. Most of the time they were wars.”
Defensive end Tyquan Lewis said Saturday’s was the sweetest.
“I’ve never lost against the team up north,” he said. “It feels great to be able to say that.”
Shades of Gonzalez
An Ohio State receiver wearing No. 11 making a critical catch in the Big House isn’t a new thing.
Anthony Gonzalez made a leaping catch of a Troy Smith pass to help the Buckeyes win the 2005 game. Austin Mack, who wears Gonzalez’s old number, made a clutch catch on Ohio State’s go-ahead touchdown drive.
On Haskins’ first downfield throw, he threw a dart between two defenders to Mack, who held on despite taking a big hit for a 27-yard gain on third-and-13 to the Michigan 26. Three plays later, Dobbins scored on a 1-yard run.
“We had back-to-back penalties and it’s third-and-long and we needed a big play,” Mack said. “They called an isolation pass to me, a fade route, and I went up and made the play.”
It was Mack’s first catch since the Penn State game Oct. 28.
“I love all my receivers, but I definitely have a special connection with Austin,” Haskins said.
Another tough year
Michigan finished coach Jim Harbaugh’s third season 8-4. He has lost three times to Ohio State and is a combined 1-5 to rivals OSU and Michigan State.
“I don’t know about levels of disappointment,” Harbaugh said. "Wish we could have won. Wish we could have sent the seniors out with a victory. They gave it everything they had and played extremely hard. Great bunch of guys, great character guys. So it’s disappointing.”
That TD feeling
Ohio State turned to its running game to get its offense on track in the second quarter. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber gained 101 and 57 yards, respectively, and each scored a touchdown.
Weber’s 25-yard TD run in the fourth quarter was quite meaningful, considering he’s a Michigan native from Cass Tech High School in Detroit.
“It felt real good to be from down the street and score a touchdown in the Big House,” Weber said. “I know a lot of people don’t like me right now up here, but I did what I could for the team and it felt good.”
Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News contributed to this report.