Linebacker Justin Hilliard comes through for Ohio State in Big Ten title game, playoff push

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard (47) celebrates with defensive end Zach Harrison after Hilliard's interception against Northwestern.

Justin Hilliard was covering Northwestern tight end John Raine in the end zone early in the third quarter of Ohio State’s win in the Big Ten football championship game.

It was a critical third down for the Wildcats.

As they moved deeper into Buckeyes territory on their opening drive of the second half, holding a 10-6 lead, they had a chance to move ahead by two scores.

Points were scarce for much of the afternoon. A touchdown would offer a significant cushion.

But Hilliard draped Raine as a pass arrived from quarterback Peyton Ramsey, leapt into the air and secured the ball with two hands.

Northwestern ended a trip to the red zone without any points.

The interception from the sixth-year linebacker was a significant turning point for the Buckeyes in Saturday’s win, a triumph that paved the way for their return to the College Football Playoff and a rematch with Clemson in a semifinal in the Sugar Bowl.

The Wildcats never came as close to scoring over the final two quarters, shut out by Ohio State’s defense.

Hilliard felt prepared to step up as soon as Raine began running his route.  

“That whole play was something that we practiced,” he said. “Our coaches put us in the best positions to make plays. And I felt like I was extremely ready for him to run that fade, and I was glad I was able to make that play.”

Hilliard, who on Monday was named the defensive player of the game for the Big Ten championship, had another critical stop early in the fourth quarter.

After fellow linebacker Pete Werner stripped Ramsey on a quarterback keeper, Hilliard landed on the fumble to give the Buckeyes possession.

“He played his tail off,” coach Ryan Day said.

Without Baron Browning, who was one of 22 players unavailable for the conference title game, Hilliard started for the second consecutive game.

He had also started in a Dec. 5 win at Michigan State when Tuf Borland was similarly sidelined, leaving the linebacker corps without another starter. Twenty-three players were out against the Spartans.

Much of Hilliard’s career at Ohio State has been defined by adversity. Recruited as a five-star prospect out of Cincinnati, he hardly played during his first two seasons with the Buckeyes in 2015 and 2016 due to biceps injuries.

Prior to last season, he injured his Achilles tendon and did not return until the third game.

As if a bad luck streak wouldn’t end, he missed the Buckeyes’ road opener this fall due to a false positive coronavirus test.

But the two turnovers offered a more hopeful closing chapter to his college career and the Buckeyes’ fortunes in a pandemic-stricken season.

“This whole journey has been something,” he said. “It's been tough. But it's been such a blessing at the same time.”

Hilliard had recently reflected on his course during Senior Tackle, the long-held program, tradition when seniors speak in front of the team and hit a blocking sled for the last time during a practice.

“That was so emotional for me because of just the journey that I've been on,” he said, “and the guys that have been here with me, to stick with me, and push me through some of those tougher times.”

Looking back on the victory over Northwestern, Hilliard saw another turning point occur before his interception.

It was a halftime address to the players from defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs that left them with the belief a turnaround was imminent in the second half.

“I'll never forget that moment,” Hilliard said. “Coach Coombs told us exactly what we needed to fix. Exactly what we needed to do. And we were confident about it. We had no worries because we knew what we were capable of, and I'm glad we were able to pull it off.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

Justin Hilliard tackles Northwestern wide receiver Riley Lees.