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Ohio State’s linebackers made all the difference in the win over Michigan

Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan refused to let the Wolverines win on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a phenomenon in physics known as the Quantum Zeno Effect, in which certain systems behave differently under observation than they do when ignored. Certain radioactive elements, for example, cease decaying because they are being looked at under a microscope. The act of observing them influences what they do, freezing them in time.

Every sports fan knows this same feeling all too well, the idea that we might have some impact on the outcome of a game—however infinitesimally small—by virtue of our watching and cheering. We carry out our bizarre rituals of superstition, certain that without them, our team is doomed; we scream at the TV as though heard by the people miles away through the roar of the crowd that surrounds them.

It’s silly, but it feels true, doesn’t it? And in my lifetime, few moments have felt that way more than the final hour of this year’s Ohio State-Michigan game, The Game, one which ended the only way it could have, with enough drama to fill a lifetime. And it felt like we were all a part of it, all of us cheering until we were hoarse in every corner of the planet, our energy prevailing as we rode the crest of a high and beautiful wave. It was a magnificent thing to feel and to do and to be. Our own minor contributions aside, let’s take a look at who got the job done against Michigan on Saturday.

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Raekwon McMillan, LB: We wrote earlier this week that the Buckeyes were going to need a huge game from their star linebacker if they were going to beat Michigan. They got it. McMillan finished with 16 total tackles, including seven on his own. He was everywhere, leading the charge on gang tackle after gang tackle against the Wolverines’ talented cohort of rushers.

McMillan’s best play of the day wasn’t a tackle. With Michigan backed up close to its own goal line, No. 5 blitzed unchecked through the offensive line and rocked QB Wilton Speight as he let the ball go. The pass sailed, and Malik Hooker reeled it in for an interception that he took back to the house. It was an early bright spot for a team struggling to put points on the board, and it all started with Raekwon.

Jerome Baker, LB: Jerome Baker also nabbed himself an interception against the Wolverines, this one a drive-killer late in the third-quarter that he took back to the Michigan 13 yard-line. It set up an easy Buckeye touchdown that brought the game back within reach at the precise moment the team, foundering on offense, needed some juice.

Baker ended the day with 15 total tackles, including seven by himself. He also got to Speight for a key sack. His and McMillan’s efforts were part of a Herculean effort by the Buckeye run defense, which limited the talented Wolverines to just 2.1 yards a carry. No. 17 has the brightest of futures in Columbus.

Curtis Samuel, H-back: Samuel has had more eye-popping performances, numbers-wise, but he still made big plays when it counted against Michigan. He capped off an 86-yard offensive day with an exclamation point, scampering into the end zone with ease from 15 yards out to give the Buckeyes the walk-off win in double OT.

The Ohio State offense really struggled all afternoon to find its mojo against Michigan’s shutdown corners and speedy linebackers. It was Samuel who started finding space late in the game, when fatigue and/or improved playcalling started pushing the Buckeyes toward the end zone. He’s still not used often enough—we could probably reasonably say that at any number of touches less than 50—but when he does get the ball, there are few players in college football more capable of breaking a big one.

Samuel’s bizarre, multi-directional third-down scamper that set up the game’s controversial fourth-down result shouldn’t go unmentioned, either. Dude was running for what felt like six years on his way to the 25 yard-line.

Solid investments

Malik Hooker, S: In our humble and professional opinion, Hooker’s name not appearing among the three finalists for the 2016 Thorpe Award is straight trash. His pick-six to put the Buckeyes on the board was his third of the season, which isn’t anything to sneeze at. He’s as good at playing aggressively at the line as he is tracking receivers deep; he’s been a cornerstone of the Buckeye defense’s success this season.

Against the Wolverines, he was in on seven tackles (three solo), including 0.5 tackles for loss. This dude can flat-out play. He showed it at the biggest moments of the season’s biggest game, and deserves all the accolades you care to throw his way.

Junk bonds

Tyler Durbin, K: The roulette wheel of “inexplicable misses by college kickers” is a brutal one, and Ohio State was the victim on Saturday. Durbin’s two misses really stung, and almost cost the Buckeyes in a big way. No sense in piling on the young man any further—he hit the last one, and that’s what we should remember.

Buy/Sell

BUY: J.T. Barrett converting on 4th down. Listen not to the #truthers who don’t think Ohio State converted the most important play of the game. He got the first down.

SELL: Swing passes to the sideline. You can only watch Michigan’s elite defenders murdering Mike Weber behind the line of scrimmage so many times before you wonder why the Buckeyes even bother calling plays like that, you know?

BUY: Ohio State’s playoff chances. There are no guarantees, of course, given that the Buckeyes won’t be appearing in the Big Ten Championship Game, but that feels sort of irrelevant. They went 11-1 while playing in the better half of the country’s best conference (you read that right), they were ranked No. 2 before beating the No. 3 team in the country, and their résumé is better than several other teams hoping for a chance to appear in the Final Four. They deserve a shot.

BUY: Pancakes. On a day highlighted by several prominent failures by the Buckeye offensive line, we got a great reminder of what once was for the Ohio State’s big men up front.