Justin Hilliard, like all of the players on the Ohio State defense, was on a mission.

The sixth-year graduate linebacker from Cincinnati, and 2019 B1G Sportsmanship Award winner, has always been known for being a nice guy. A quality citizen. A good dude.

But on Friday night, Hilliard just looked like a monster, one of many Ohio State defenders who spent time in the Clemson backfield and terrorized quarterback Trevor Lawrence in their semifinal of the College Football Playoff. For example: On 3rd-and-1 from the Clemson 22, Lawrence handed off to running back Travis Etienne. Hilliard anticipated it, and after shedding the block of Clemson tight end Braden Galloway, he collided with Etienne and stopped him cold for no gain, ending the third quarter, and effectively snuffing out any chance the Tigers had to come back from a three-touchdown deficit.

On the sidelines, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs pumped his fists and screamed in joy. He’d been waiting for this. All of Ohio State’s fans had been waiting for a defensive performance like this.

Finally, they could say it. They belonged. They deserved to be there, on the biggest stage in all of college football. Some coaches (including one who happens to helm the Clemson Tigers) openly questioned whether Ohio State belonged in the College Football Playoff. And let’s face it: The Buckeyes defense was at the center of that inquiry.

All season, the Buckeyes defense had been questioned. All season, the unit had been picked on. Fans and the media asked: Why were they giving up so many big plays? Why couldn’t they hold on to leads in the second half? How many points would Justin Fields and the offense have to score to make up for the defensive inadequacies?

And some of the questions also centered around Coombs, the new coordinator who replaced Jeff Hafley, who left last season to become the head coach at Boston College. Coombs, who made his bones developing Ohio State defensive backs into NFL stars, took over a defense that had lost a handful of amazing players from last season. Could Coombs re-create his magic and turn these guys into winners? Maybe only he knew how much time — and how many games — would be needed f0r this unit to gel and reach its potential.

Many don’t seem to realize that Ohio State has played just 7 games this season. If it were a normal year, they’d be around the halfway mark, possibly one or two games into their B1G schedule. Instead, they found themselves in the College Football Playoff, facing a Clemson team they’d dreamed about playing since last year, when they lost to the Tigers in the exact same game.

So maybe it makes sense that the Buckeyes defense is just now hitting its stride. Their performance against Clemson earned universal praise.

“Kerry Coombs and this Ohio State defense, they played with physicality,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “They played with speed. They played with attitude and fought against a very gifted quarterback. It’s not one player, it’s not two players. It’s pretty much every player. They bought in to the disrespect.”

Still, did anyone see them doing this against Clemson? Especially when we learned how defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday would be held out of the game due to COVID-19 protocols?

Somehow, some way, they did it.

The defensive line applied pressure and the linebackers helped shut down the running game to the tune of 44 total rushing yards — just 2 yards per carry. Etienne never got going, finishing with 32 yards on 10 carries. And Amari Rodgers, one of the Tigers’ best receivers, was held to just 54 fairly meaningless yards.

Who was doing the damage? It truly was a team effort. Chris Fowler may have said it best when he described how every member of the Buckeyes defense played with “controlled rage.”

“It’s a community effort by Ohio State,” he said.

All season, the Buckeyes have gotten pressure on quarterbacks. Even in the Indiana game, Ohio State was able to get to Michael Penix Jr. — but Penix was amazing in his ability to run and throw under extreme duress. So just as they have all year, Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett got serious pressure on Lawrence in the Sugar Bowl. Togiai had 4 tackles (1 for loss) while Shaun Wade and Pete Werner led all defenders with 9.

Tuf Borland (8 tackles — 4 solo) was awarded Defensive MVP honors, while Jonathon Cooper added 2 solo tackles and a sack. But it was also Sevyn Banks and Wade and Tyreke Smith and Josh Proctor flying around the field, playing better than they had all season long. They made sure to stifle an offense that shredded every team it had played this year.

They forced Lawrence into 3 fumbles (1 lost) and 1 interception. To put it simply, he looked very un-Lawrence-like.

“Obviously it feels great with everything this team has been through the last 10 months or so,” Borland said. “It was such a rollercoaster, up and down, so much adversity. But these guys always stayed with it.”

Hilliard also wound up with 8 tackles (6 solo) and was a general menace during the entire game.

But still, Clemson is good — either second or third-best in the country good. And there were instances when Lawrence got the better of the defense. It just didn’t happen that often.

And by the end of the night, fans saw Day and Fields and Borland lifting the Sugar Bowl trophy. They saw players like Hilliard high-fiving fans and smiling for pictures. They saw the silver-haired Coombs taking the chance to make snow angels in the scarlet and gray confetti that had fallen from the Superdome ceiling.

They saw a celebration fit for a championship. Which makes sense.

Because the Buckeyes slew the dragon, and along the way they redeemed themselves — especially the defense.

“What a journey it’s been to get back to this spot,” Haskell Garrett told the media after the game. “We knew that we had to play them every down, every series, because Trevor Lawrence is a great quarterback. He didn’t show it tonight, but the cards fell the way they fell.”

Garrett then had to leave to get back to Hilliard and the rest of his teammates. It was time to celebrate.

And after everything they’d been through this season, no one could argue with them. They’d earned it.