On a day in which offenses largely ruled conference championship games, the Big Ten reminded college football fans that instinctive, physical defense is still being played somewhere.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, their loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game Saturday night assures that their talented defense won't get the opportunity to slow down Florida State's dynamic offense in the BCS Title Game.
As disappointing as Saturday night's loss must be for the Buckeyes, the play of junior linebacker Ryan Shazier deserves acknowledgement. For the victorious Spartans -- on their way to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years -- senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard showed off the that form that has earned him the top spot among cornerbacks on my Big Board for months.
Shazier unofficially recorded a team-high 12 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss and a blocked punt in the fourth quarter that seemed to give his Buckeyes the opportunity to take the roller-coaster game back. The Spartans jumped out to a 17 point lead only to surrender the next 24 unanswered to the Buckeyes. Shazier's blocked punt came with the Spartans clinging to just a three-point lead with half of the final quarter yet to play.
Shazier's block typified the frenzied pace with which the 6-foot-2, 230 pound plays the game. On the play Shazier exploded into and through a much stouter Michigan State blocker, simply willing the block to occur.
It is this type of anticipation and explosiveness which has made Shazier a star for the Buckeyes. His speed to the flanks and willingness to shoot gaps made him Ohio State's most impressive performer on the big stage.
Dennard, not to be out-done, was terrific on the edge, creating a turnover of his own with a forced fumble and providing lockdown coverage.
Dennard's long arms and quick hands helped him rip away a well-thrown deep ball from the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller to force one long incompletion. On a second deep pass attempt, Dennard showed another key trait - great awareness - to limit what could have been a huge play for the Buckeyes.
With Miller and Ohio State feeling increasing pressure to make a big play, the Spartans knew long pass attempts were coming. On a deep ball down the right seam late in the fourth quarter, Dennard initially appeared as if he was going to leap to compete with his Buckeye opponent for the pass, sliding ahead of the receiver to be in position to knock the ball away.
Just as he was about to leap, however, Dennard realized that the pass was overthrown, rather than leap and potentially tip up the pass (potentially allowing his opponent to catch it on a deflection), Dennard instead kept his feet, spun around the Buckeyes' intended target and prepared to make the tackle should his opponent make the unbelievable play. Miller's pass was too long and the ball fell harmlessly to the ground but by being in position to make the tackle rather than go for the splashy interception, Dennard played the kind of smart "bend but don't break" defense that frustrated the Buckeyes all night long.
Boasting impressive athleticism and speed, Shazier and Dennard certainly possess the physical characteristics to warrant a first round selection in the 2014 draft. It was the anticipation and ability to raise their game at critical moments, however, which allowed each to stand out on this night.