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Football: Ohio State needs Hooker and Samuel more than ever in playoff

OSU redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker (24) returns an interception during the second half of the Buckeyes game against Nebraska on Nov. 5. The Buckeyes won 62-3. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

OSU redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker (24) returns an interception during the second half of the Buckeyes game against Nebraska on Nov. 5. The Buckeyes won 62-3. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

The 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes are entering the third and final act of the season. Neither one of the first two acts can be distinctly separated from one another. At times, the curtain closed with a showering applause from the audience, and, on other occasions, the playbill was crumpled up and left in the aisle as people left with much to be desired.

It doesn’t matter anymore. Scratch the first and the second act. The stars of the first two acts were junior H-back Curtis Samuel and redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker. The third act — the college football playoff — is what matters.

Samuel and Hooker were each named Associated Press first-team All-Americans. The star playmakers on offense and defense have been the straw that stirs the drink for both sides of the ball. Against No. 2 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, the two are possibly the most important cogs to a national championship berth as any other player on either sideline.

Hooker has been the surprise contributor to the Buckeye defense this year. From the first game of the year against Bowling Green when he tipped the ball with one hand to himself in mid-air, Hooker has continuously made head-turning plays that have kept OSU in games. He also served as a dagger to momentum in other games. The former high-school basketball standout from New Castle, Pennsylvania, stood the test against a high-praised Michigan wide receiving corps, but no unit in the country quite compares to the star-studded lineup Clemson puts at receiver.

“From everything I’m hearing, these are the three or four best receivers we’ll ever face,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “Obviously a great quarterback, a nice balanced offense. That side of the ball is going to be a great matchup with their skill against ours.”

Redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Williams, senior tight end Jordan Leggett and junior wide receiver Artavis Scott are three of the four Clemson Tigers with over 500 receiving yards on the year. On top of that, they are all on NFL draft boards. Clemson is one of four teams with two of the top 30 reception leaders in the country with Williams and Scott. Of course it helps when Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson is the quarterback with almost 4,000 yards passing.

Hooker, the pick-six extraordinaire, has championed co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano’s sideline return play on interceptions. Hooker is tied for fifth nationally with six interceptions this season, and broke the school record against Michigan with his third interception for a touchdown in a single season.

Without that touchdown, OSU likely isn’t in the position it is in right now, just one game away from a shot at the national championship. For Hooker to be absent or largely ineffective from the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against the Tigers on Dec. 31 in Glendale, Arizona, wouldn’t only be shocking, it could be devastating to the No. 3 Buckeyes given Watson’s 15 interceptions thrown already.

“It makes us even want to be more hungry,” Hooker said. “We’re going out there playing with a Heisman candidate and a great player, so it feels like it’s sort of a thing for the back end. I feel like if we stop the pass, we have a great chance of winning this game.”

Meyer called Samuel the team’s No. 1 playmaker before the season even started. If his 1,526 offensive yards weren’t impressive, then maybe his third-down, crossfield dash that gave OSU a shot on fourth-and-1, or his game-winning touchdown in double overtime against Michigan were the final touch to a decorative three-layer cake built for a king.

All season, Samuel has been the catalyst of the offense. If redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett couldn’t get things going on offense, Samuel was the guy. If Barrett was clicking in the passing game, Samuel was the reason. The Michigan game was Samuel’s coronation. A win in Arizona will require the Brooklyn native to capitalize on any ball thrown his way.

“Whether there’s somebody in J.T.’s face or whatever it is as a receiver, we just feel like we have to make plays on those types of balls,” Meyer said. “We recruited well enough to make those type of plays and I just feel like we have to make those.”

Clemson’s defense ranks fourth in the country in sacks per game and registers a sack on 9.45 percent of plays, which is eighth in the country.

OSU’s offense has had its moments of inability to move the football, and sometimes that has been predicated on the lack of balance in the touches for Samuel. For three quarters of play, Michigan stopped Samuel from getting to the perimeter and beating defenses on the outside. Its pass rush, which had eight sacks against the OSU offensive line, prevented Barrett from looking downfield and finding his speedster, too

No one can accurately determine how OSU’s offense will perform on New Year’s Eve at University of Phoenix Stadium, but one can predict that Samuel will be a featured element.

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