So it was especially gratifying for the defensive backfield to create a pair of huge turns in momentum Saturday afternoon during Ohio State's 31-16 win against visiting Central Florida.
The Knights tied the game 10-10 when they turned a stop on fourth down by their defense into a 1-yard touchdown pass from Blake Bortles to Justin Tukes with 6:54 left before halftime. The Buckeyes then took the ball on offense and promptly added to UCF's momentum when fullback Zach Boren lost a fumble at the UCF 43.
But where last season the secondary perhaps wouldn't have come up with a big moment, the unit made its first key play. Bortles took a second-and-8 snap at the UCF 45 and unleashed a pass over middle intended for a receiver on a slant pattern. Fifth-year senior Orhian Johnson, making his first appearance this season as OSU's top star/nickel back position, tipped the ball into the air – and into the arms of cornerback Travis Howard.
"I saw it coming, but I didn't know where he was throwing the ball," Johnson said of the play. "I was just playing the quarterback's eyes. I was lucky enough to put my hands on it, and lucky enough to have Travis come down with it."
Here's how Howard saw it: "I was breaking on the slant," he said. "I knew what route they were giving us, and they ended up throwing to the inside receiver. It was tipped, and I just kept my eyes on the ball and made a great catch."
The turnover turned the tide. Ohio State took over at the UCF 48 and drove for a touchdown in eight plays, the final of which coming on a 6-yard TD run by sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller with 15 seconds remaining before halftime.
Ohio State built a 31-10 lead behind two third-quarter touchdowns on a 12-yard scoring pass from Miller to Jake Stoneburner and an 8-yard run to the end zone by Miller. The Knights did not go away, however, cutting the deficit to 31-16 with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Billy Giovanetti with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
UCF forced a turnover on Ohio State's ensuing possession and drove into the red zone early in the fourth quarter. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, that's when the second key play was made by the secondary. Johnson picked off a Bortles pass over the middle at the OSU 5, stopping the drive and ending the Knights' upset bid.
"We wanted to keep them out of the end zone, and if we had a chance to make a play we wanted to make it," Johnson said.
Ohio State forced three interceptions in all, with fifth-year senior linebacker Etienne Sabino grabbing the other in the third quarter. But it wasn't all good news for the back end of the defense. UCF found some success through the air. Thanks in part to a lack of a consistent pass rush, Bortles completed 25 of 41 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns to go with his trio of interceptions.
Howard said, despite the big plays, the unit still has a ways to go.
"We did pretty well, but we've got better days in us," said Howard, who dealt with a nagging stinger injury through the game. "We could have done a better job, but it's only the second game. We're still learning on the go, still trying to regroup and get things together in order."