Read the list of reasons Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard has had to miss games in his college career. You won’t believe it.

There was a torn Achilles tendon.

A torn biceps in one arm. A torn biceps in the other arm. Any of the injuries could have ended his career — he’s actually missed more than two complete seasons. But Hilliard, once a 5-star recruit out of Cincinnati, battled back to get on the field.

Then the B1G canceled the football season. Then they decided to play again in October. And then Hilliard had to miss the Buckeyes’ game against Penn State this year — Hilliard’s sixth season on campus — because he got a false positive on a COVID-19 test. He didn’t have COVID, but he still had to stand on the sidelines and watch while his teammates drubbed the Nittany Lions.

When he felt better, he was relegated to backup linebacker duty. But once he got into games, he began to make plays. And oh, how things have changed.

Which leads us to this question: Who’s been the best defensive player in Ohio State’s last two games — the ones that just happened to be the biggest of the season? You could easily make the argument for Hilliard, who has led the team in tackles and takeaways.

Now, Hilliard is front and center, making plays and helping to win games. And he’s leading a defense that was questioned all season but has formed into a formidable unit at just the right time.

‘A bigger role’

Hilliard committed to Ohio State on June 2, 2014. To put that in perspective, J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott were leading the roster at that time.

Hilliard actually got his first start of this season in the B1G championship against Northwestern, a game that quickly turned into a rock fight. It was just the kind of contest Hilliard was built for — so it was no surprise he made one of the game’s biggest plays.

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With the Buckeyes holding on to a 4-point lead, Wildcats quarterback Peyton Ramsey floated a pass into the end zone. It forced Hilliard into coverage, and he stayed with his man. At the last second, he turned and made a play on the ball, picking off the pass for his second career interception.

It wasn’t his only big moment in the game. On the second play of the fourth quarter, teammate Pete Werner forced a fumble that also found its way into Hilliard’s hands. The sixth-year senior finished with a team-high 9 tackles — 2 of them for loss — along with his interception and fumble recovery.

His moment had come, and Hilliard had shined.

“Oh my gosh, man,” he said afterward. “This whole journey, man, it’s been tough but it’s been such a blessing at the same time. … That was just so emotional for me because just the journey I’ve been on and the guys that have been here with me, to stick with me and push me through some of those tougher times. I knew I had to step up today in a bigger role, and I’m glad I was able to.”

And it just prepared him for another huge performance on an even bigger stage — the Sugar Bowl against Clemson.

‘Make that first big play’

Since Hilliard committed to the Buckeyes, he’d seen Ohio State lose to Clemson three times.

He did not want to see a fourth — and he played a huge role in making sure his team got the victory.

But was Hilliard nervous to go out and perform on the biggest stage of his college career? Yes — but he calmed himself by watching Chris Farley.


“A lot of times when you get out there, you need to make that first hit, that first play,” Hilliard said before the Sugar Bowl. “I was actually watching Chris Farley, that video of his entrance where he goes crazy, and gets the crowd going and everything, and he says he does that just to get the nerves out and just to get his feet wet. I would say the same thing with football, when you’re out there, you’re just looking to make that first big play, and once you make that first big play, you’re in the flow.”

Whatever works, right? Clearly, Hilliard knows what he’s doing. He followed up his career-defining performance in the B1G title game with this stat line against Clemson: 8 tackles, including 1 for a loss, and another fumble recovery. And again, his plays ended up making a huge difference in the outcome of the game.

For instance: With Ohio State up 28-14 in the second quarter, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw to receiver Amari Rodgers. But Hilliard saw what was coming and zoomed in to tackle Rodgers for a 3-yard loss. It forced the Tigers to punt for the third consecutive time, and helped get the ball back to Justin Fields. It was no coincidence the Buckeyes outscored Clemson 21-0 in that quarter, which effectively put the game away.

Then, with under 5 minutes to play in the third quarter, Clemson was driving when nose tackle Tommy Togiai knocked the ball out of Lawrence’s hands, and Hilliard was there for the recovery. It squashed the rally, and the Tigers never really threatened again.

All over Buckeye Nation, fans were singing Hilliard’s praises. Even Cincinnati Bengals quarterback (and one-time Buckeye) Joe Burrow, who came into Columbus in the same recruiting class with Hilliard, offered his congratulations via Twitter:

“So happy for Justin. Guy has been through it all,” he wrote.

Now, with the Buckeyes facing Alabama for the National Championship next week, there’s no reason to think Hilliard won’t follow up these two games with another, similar performance.

After everything he’s been through, what a better way to go out, right? Consider this quote from Hilliard before the Clemson game, something that probably applies to every contest.

“Coach (defensive coordinator Kerry) Coombs is one of the most influential coaches I’ve had,” he said. “He says the team that wins is usually the team that runs to the ball the hardest and hits the hardest. So I mean, that’s going to be our motto. … So if we get 11 guys running to the ball every single play, 11 guys trying to make contact and create plays when they get to the ball, then I think we’ll be alright.”