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COLUMBUS, Ohio - A year ago from this Saturday marked the first time that Ohio State fans knew that they had something special in Ryan Shazier.
Starting in the most important game of the Buckeyes' season, the then freshman linebacker hobbled around the Michigan Stadium field, shaken by a leg injury, but unwilling to leave the field. It wasn't the legendary performance that has etched players like Desmond Howard and Troy Smith's names into the history of The Game, but Shazier's eight-tackle performance in Ohio State's 40-34 loss to Michigan provided a glimpse into what fans could expect from the Plantation, Fla. native for the remainder of his career in Columbus.
"Linebackers have to play dinged up a little bit," Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes' current defensive coordinator and interim head coach for the 2011 season said. "The great ones do."
With one game remaining in his sophomore season and on the heels of the one-year anniversary of last year's loss to the Wolverines, Shazier is edging closer and closer to that "great ones" category.
Outside of star quarterback Braxton Miller, you'd be hard pressed to find a player on the Ohio State roster that's made more memorable plays than the sophomore linebacker has during the Buckeyes' 11-0 season in 2012. Shazier's latest monumental moment came in OSU's win over Wisconsin on Saturday, when he made what very well could be considered the game-saving stop.
With the Badgers at the Buckeyes' one-yard line, trailing by seven points and with fewer than three minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin put the ball in the hands of running back Montee Ball, with hopes that his 79th career touchdown would tie up Saturday's score.
But that would-be record-breaking touchdown never came.
As Ball leaped over the Badgers' offensive line, he was met in the air by Shazier, who knocked the ball free and into the hands of Ohio State safety Christian Bryant. The fumble was just the second of Ball's four-year college career, but it wasn't the least bit surprising for the player who forced it, and knew what was coming as soon as the Badgers lined up.
"I didn't think, I knew for a fact that they was going to give him the ball," Shazier said. "I knew that he was jumping, and once he jumped, I jumped also."
Despite Shazier's accurate forecast of Wisconsin's play-calling, his big play on Saturday could still be considered an improbable one. On just the Buckeyes' previous defensive series, the Big Ten's second-leading tackler was forced out of the game, with what many onlookers figured was a concussion.
The injury turned out, however, to be what Shazier described as a "slight neck sprain," and it wasn't enough to keep him off of the field for Ohio State's next defensive stand.
"I had to come back into it," Shazier said. "The team's first, no matter what. So I just wanted to do whatever I can. I know when I'm out there, I help out the defense a lot."
It's hard to underscore the impact that the first OSU sophomore linebacker to record 100 tackles in a season since 2006 has had on his unit. Since the Buckeyes' proverbial rock bottom this season, when they allowed 49 points to Indiana on Oct. 13, the Ohio State defense has allowed an average of 14.3 points per game in four contests, the most being the 16 points that the Buckeyes' defense surrendered against Penn State on Oct. 27.
It's no coincidence that in those four games, Shazier has averaged 11.5 tackles and has twice won the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Week award. He could now be on the fast track to the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award, which would be impressive considering that by his own coach's admission, he didn't play particularly well in the first half of the season.
"If you watch the film from early in the year to where he is now, he wasn't a linebacker the first few games. He was a guy running around, out of control," OSU head coach Urban Meyer said. "Now he's making tackles, he's staying on the backside help, and he's doing all the things that Coach Fickell's teaching him."
With just one game left in his sophomore season, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound linebacker admitted that he's just now starting to get the hang of things in college football, which could be a scary thought for opposing Big Ten offenses in the next two seasons.
"The game's slowing down a whole lot for me," Shazier said. "I feel like I'm maturing a lot more. Going through the game, we're trying to work out on the things that they're trying to do, and during the season, I noticed that the defense was playing a lot better when I played better."
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