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COLUMBUS, Ohio — There are Heisman Trophy moments seared into our consciousness, running on highlight loops for generations. These moments, of course, all involve scoring — Billy Cannon’s touchdown return for LSU in 1959, Michigan’s Desmond Howard striking a pose in 1991 and Cam Newton stunning Tuscaloosa silent in 2010.
We’re trained, of course, to identify Heisman moments with offensive bursts. Which is what made the defining decision and play in No. 2 Ohio State’s 28-17 victory over No. 8 Penn State on Saturday so delightfully unconventional.
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young clinched his status as Heisman Trophy finalist with another marauding performance — nine tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Coming off a two-game suspension after NCAA scrutiny from a loan, Young reminded everyone he was college football’s most dominant player with a game that could help rethink how we view Heisman Trophy contenders. “If there’s a more dominant player in the country on defense than Chase Young, someone needs to bring me the tape and I’ll watch every snap,” OSU co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said.
The Heisman Trophy race between Young and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow — his former teammate — is a parallel duel to their teams’ race for the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff. At the very least on Saturday, Young’s ability to rush the quarterback, stuff the run and spook PSU linemen into false starts should assure him a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. “It would definitely mean something to me,” Young told Yahoo Sports after the game. “But I can’t really be focused on the things that come after the season.”
Ohio State entered the game with the country’s No. 1 scoring offense and scoring defense. It left it with a defining decision where coach Ryan Day leaned on the defense to win the game — perhaps the highest compliment to the dominance of Young.
With Ohio State clinging to a 21-17 lead and a smidgen over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, Day faced a fourth-and-2 from the Ohio State 49-yard-line. Day’s biggest in-game decision — punting to flip the field — led to Young’s showcase.
Day is an offensive head coach and play caller and the early read on his coaching career would brand him as the coaching equivalent of the guy who doubles down in every reasonable blackjack scenario. But on Saturday, Day allowed punter Drue Chrisman to back up Penn State to their own 11-yard line.
This set up Young to deliver the game’s signature play. He tossed aside 313-pound right tackle Will Fries like he was a traffic cone and enveloped backup quarterback Will Levis, who had managed to corral a fumbled snap. Penn State was pinned on the 1-yard line and Hafley identified a scary notion for Buckeye opponents moving forward.
“If it turns into a throwing game against us, where we know that they have to drop back and throw the ball, it’s going to be very difficult [for them],” Hafley said. “We were rushing three at the end of the game. It probably looked to most people like we were blitzing.”
That’s an immediate compliment to Young, who has proven to be the most unblockable player in college football since Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2009. Young looming over Fries the previous Penn State possession helped that drive end in a field goal, as Fries got flagged for a false start, which forced Penn State to settle for three points.
Day’s decision to rely on the defense also shows the complementary nature of Ohio State’s defense, as defensive backs Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah shut down Penn State speedster KJ Hamler and linebackers Malik Harrison (2 TFLs) and Baron Browning (2.5 TFLs) posted up in the Penn State backfield for much of the afternoon.
The collective defensive effort, which was undercut by the three fumbles by the Ohio State offense, was the game’s biggest takeaway. After Young pinned Penn State at the goal line with the sack, Ohio State exploited the short field and sealed the game on a pretty 28-yard pass from Justin Fields to Chris Olave. “Let’s make them drive the length of the field and use the time,” Hafley said of the discussion on the headset with Day. “We kept talking about balancing off of each other, which was awesome.”
In back-to-back marquee games, Young has put on generational performances. He finished Ohio State’s game against Wisconsin with four sacks and two forced fumbles. Young sat out the subsequent two games with NCAA issues and continued on his linear path to be remembered as one of the sport’s most dominant defensive players. “I had that itch,” Young told Yahoo about the anxiousness of sitting out. “It was one of those games where we’re going to send all the bullets at them.”
Despite missing two games, Young leads college football in sacks with 16.5. He’s on track for the sport’s first 20-sack season since Elvis Dumervil in 2005, and he may have reached it already if he’d played against lowly Maryland and Rutgers instead of watching those games at home.
Young also set the Ohio State single-season sack record, passing Vernon Gholston’s record of 14 from 2007. “Oh my gosh, I just think Chase Young deserves to be in New York,” Day said. “How dominant of a player is Chase Young? And the impact he has on the game is just unbelievable.” Hafley added that if he’s not: “It would be a joke.”
Young said he leaned on his family during the time off, as his father, Greg Young, came from the family’s home in Maryland and spent five days with his son as Ohio State and the NCAA sorted through the re-instatement process. Greg Young beamed after the game on Saturday, telling Yahoo Sports: “I think he’ll be there,” he said of his son going to New York. “It’ll be good for college football to have a defensive player there. We have one that can do it.”
Young summed up his effort on Saturday by saying, “You’re a dawg or you’re not.”
On a day that made us rethink what a Heisman moment should look like, Young left little doubt which category he fit in.
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