Justin Hilliard makes memorable season debut for Ohio State in win over Rutgers

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Between a series of injuries to an Achilles tendon and biceps, the Ohio State career of linebacker Justin Hilliard has at times seemed stricken by cruel luck.

Then came a recent trip to Penn State.

Looking to make his season debut in the Buckeyes’ second game on Halloween night, Hilliard tested positive for COVID-19 in the hours prior to kickoff.

The test result proved to be a false positive. At a hospital in State College later in the day, Hilliard took a more accurate polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which yielded a negative result. But under the Big Ten’s coronavirus protocols, he was unable to play in the game.

“Obviously there was frustration, a little bit of anger,” Hilliard said. “But that was set aside quickly because we had a goal to win that game and we did.”

Hilliard had been hoping for one more chance to face the Nittany Lions, one of the bitter foes for the Buckeyes in the Big Ten East Division, for the last time as a sixth-year senior.

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Justin Hilliard (47) forces a fumble by Rutgers Scarlet Knights wide receiver Aron Cruickshank (2) during the second quarter of the NCAA football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

The Buckeyes have won the past two meetings by double-digit margins, but the teams' previous matchups had been settled by narrow margins, competitive games befitting two programs frequently ranked among the top 10.

“It was just not fair,” linebacker Tuf Borland said. “We were all heartbroken for him. He’s a guy who has given so much to this program.”

As he stepped onto the field for the first time a week later, in the Buckeyes’ 49-27 win over Rutgers on Saturday night, Hilliard did not wait long to make an impact.

In the second quarter, he stripped the ball out of the hands of wide receiver Aron Cruickshank, then recovered the fumble.

Hilliard said he was prepared to make a play once Cruickshank caught a pass from quarterback Noah Vedral in the flat, then turned upfield, colliding into Hilliard.

“That’s something we practice,” Hilliard said. “The coaches do a great job of preparing us each week of different things the offenses are going to try to get us with, and I was able to make that play.”

Giving the Buckeyes’ offense with possession at the Scarlet Knights' 32-yard line, they were able to score six plays later and cushion their lead to a comfortable 28-3 margin.

Hilliard, who backs up Baron Browning as a strong-side linebacker, finished with two tackles in his season debut, which was further delayed after he missed the season opener against Nebraska due to an undisclosed injury. Hilliard had been in uniform against the Cornhuskers, but never appeared.

Speaking with reporters on a Zoom call after his return against Rutgers, he was appreciative of the chance in getting back on the field.

“This whole offseason, the focus has been to keep getting better, because I know this is my last shot at playing,” Hilliard said. “Being out there today means so much just because I know the last couple of weeks haven’t gone exactly how I wanted to go. Obviously I have a lot to work on, but it was great to be out there.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman