Ravaged by injuries all year, players who at the beginning of the campaign probably had little chance to see the field were a part of a defense that bent but did not break in a 31-26 victory against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. True freshman nickelback Christian Bryant returned to the field for the first time since suffering an injury in October and Dominic Clarke – once the No. 5 cornerback on the depth chart – was called into action when the Buckeyes lost All-America cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (wrist) and No. 3 cornerback Travis Howard (cramps) to injuries.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Bryant, Clarke and Gant all held their own. So did the Ohio State defense for that matter, which allowed 402 yards but only allowed standout Razorback quarterback Ryan Mallett to complete 24 of his 47 pass attempts. Mallett threw for 277 yards but never landed a knockout punch when Ohio State lost the momentum it had gained in taking a 31-13 lead in the third quarter.
"I was very proud," Chewka said after the game, his right wrist heavily wrapped after dislocating it after an impressive and athletic pass breakup late in the first quarter. "We tell guys all season that they're one play away from playing. Toward the end of the season guys start to not believe it, but it happens. Dominic Clarke went out and played great. Christian Bryant got back in there and play well. Aaron Gant played a little bit and did well.
"Guys were ready to play."
Chekwa was one of six Buckeyes to be credited with a pass breakup, earning his when he suffered his injury stopping a deep pass intended for Cobi Hamilton. Teammates said despite losing the All-Big Ten cornerback, there was still confidence on the sideline that the other players would step up and keep Mallett and the high-powered Razorbacks' passing attack at bay.
"Our defense has so much talent," linebacker Ross Homan said. "We know whoever is in those positions can make play."
Clarke was not one of the six credited with a pass breakup, but the redshirt freshman did make three tackles and did not allow any major pass completions. He admitted being nervous when he was called into action.
"I'm not even going to lie. I was really nervous," Clarke said.
Clarke added replacing Chekwa, a player he called his mentor, gave him extra motivation to succeed for Ohio State's defensive seniors.
"They're good players, and they make me want to play better so I don't let them down," Clarke said. "So when I get in the game I want to try my hardest to not give up a big play that would hurt the team."
Senior Devon Torrence beamed about Clarke after the game.
"I'm so proud of him," said Torrence, who took over on Chekwa's side of the field as Clarke moved to Torrence's. "I treat him like my little brother. He's with me every day. It felt good knowing he was out there and knowing I can help him along the way."
Bryant returned to the field for the first time since the Wisconsin game and did not miss a beat. He made a pass breakup as he manned Ohio State's star position. Bryant moved there after Chekwa's injury with Hines, who took over at star when Bryant went down with injury, moved to safety.
"It felt great to get back out there in my groove like I was before," Bryant said. "I'm so happy right now."
The secondary did allow 277 yards passing, but that total was lower than the 338.4 passing yards per game Mallett and company averaged during the regular season. The fact that the patchwork secondary ultimately got the job done did not surprise wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who faced members of the unit every day in practice.
"We probably put unfair pressure on them as an offense to make plays for us, and they've always come up big," Sanzenbacher said. "It's tough with injuries. It's tough with guys going down, but everybody has a mentality on this team that it's the next guy up. You're expected to be just as good as the guy in front of you when you get on the field."