The 105,899 fans — an Ohio Stadium record for an Ohio State-Michigan game — gasped as senior defensive end John Simon hobbled out on the field without pads during pregame festivities.
“I had a bad feeling early in the week when I saw his knee,” Meyer said of the bursa Simon suffered on his right knee last weekend against Wisconsin. “It’s not a structural issue, it’s just the swelling we couldn’t get to come down … and my man was in the training room early in the morning until late at night doing everything he could.
“When (the doctors) DQ’d him, it was like our defense became a possessed group.”
The Buckeyes had three glaring errors during Saturday’s game — a 30-yard run by Denard Robinson on Michigan’s first play of the game, a short pass from Devin Gardner to Roy Roundtree that turned into a 75-yard touchdown and a 67-yard touchdown run by Robinson. All three plays occurred in the first half.
Take away those three plays and the Buckeyes held the Wolverines to 107 yards on 44 plays — a 2.4-yard average — forced four turnovers and consistently came up with crucial stops on critical downs.
“I’ve been blessed to be on a couple of championship teams and the common denominator wasn’t rushing yards, passing yards or blocked punts … it was great defense,” Meyer said. “I’d say at this point we could go play with anybody in America. I wouldn’t say that five weeks ago, but I think you saw the growth in our defense today.”
The biggest moments came when the Wolverines badly needed offensive production. Ohio State stopped Michigan six times on third down and once on fourth, many times with sacks or tackles for loss when the Wolverines only needed a few yards to pick up the first down.
“It is hard to win when you turn the ball over four times and don’t convert third-and-short opportunities,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “Our offensive line played good at times and they played bad at times, but win or lose, all games are decided in the trenches.”
Ohio State won those battles more often than not. The Buckeyes opened the second half by stuffing Robinson on fourth-and-3 to take possession in Michigan territory, stopped running back Vincent Smith for no gain on third-and-2 later in the third quarter and dropped Smith for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 in the fourth quarter.
All of Michigan’s other second-half drives — the Wolverines didn’t score in the final two quarters — were halted by turnovers.
“In the second half we just made a couple of adjustments and shut (Robinson) down,” said safety Christian Bryant, who forced the dynamic quarterback to fumble in the third quarter. “Me and Trav (Howard) had a collision (on Robinson’s TD run). Trav hit him on the right side and I hit him on the left side. Those are plays we have to overcome, like in the second half, we didn’t have any of that.”
Many of the defensive players said the loss of Simon, who was given a game ball after the victory, inspired them to play harder.
“It hurt to lose him,” said linebacker Etienne Sabino, who missed four games this season with a leg injury. “He’s the heart and soul of the team and he puts it all on the line for his teammates every day. We got though it and I’m proud of our guys.”
“It was rough not knowing if he was going to play,” said Shazier, who finished with a sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss. “When he told us he wasn’t going to play, we had to bring it in together as a team, like when Sabino got hurt. We had to win it for him.”
Win it they did, and just about everyone got involved.
Zach Boren, who played fullback for most of the season before jumping into the linebacker role because of injuries, led the team with nine tackles. Boren, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington joined Shazier with sacks. Bennett and Washington joined Bryant with forced fumbles, while Boren, Howard and Nathan Williams all recovered fumbles. C.J. Barnett grabbed an interception, Johnathan Hankins had a quarterback hurry and the Buckeyes had seven tackles for a loss.
“This team is tough all the way from the seniors to the freshmen and it extends to the coaching staff,” Boren said. “The way we train, how the coaches drill us, it all comes from turning the little things into big things.”
And the Buckeyes agree that nothing is bigger than a victory over Michigan to complete an undefeated season.