NORMAN, Okla. – It’s becoming old hat for Ohio State. One man goes down, the next man steps up.
That’s the way it goes when you’re bringing in the country’s best players year in and year out. For the second straight week, it was Jerome Baker — a sophomore linebacker from Cleveland — who stepped up and stood out playing in the place of the injured Dante Booker
Playing on the road at Oklahoma against a powerhouse Sooners offense is a whole different ballgame than lining up against Tulsa at Ohio Stadium though, and Baker admits he was nervous.
“I knew I was going to be nervous the first series. I was definitely nervous,” Baker said following the game. “After that, once that ball moves, it’s go time.”
The Sooners had the Buckeyes on their heels a bit and were moving late in the first quarter when Bob Stoops decided, from the Buckeyes 33, to take a risk, trying to pick up a key early conversion on fourth-and-3. Baker Mayfield dropped to pass and got the ball out quickly, but it was tipped and there was Jerome Baker, in the right place when the ball moved, to pick it off.
Then, 68 yards later in the opposite direction, the air was sucked out of Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium and the Buckeyes were up 14-0, just like that.
— CFB Central (@CFB_2016) September 18, 2016
If you’re thinking Baker would be over-the-moon excited about that moment, think again.
“Honestly, Jalyn Holmes, he tipped it, I literally looked up and it fell right in my hands,” Baker said. “I just ran. Just ran. The only thought I was having was ‘don’t get caught.’ I know if I got caught, (my teammates) would talk about it. That 70 yards it was nothing, just a little sprint.”
No sweat, right? Just another day at the office for Baker, who nearly returned a fumble for a score at the end of the first half against Tulsa a week ago. Thrust into the starting lineup because of injuries, the last two weeks have shown Baker that he belongs.
“It’s just a confidence booster. It shows I can really play and I can really do it,” Baker said. “That’s all a credit to the linebackers room. They help me get together and help me get ready.”
So what does it mean to step up and make those plays in big games? It means Jerome Baker is doing his job, and that’s the only way he’s trying to look at it.
“It’s expected. You come to Ohio State to make plays,” Baker said. “All credit (goes) to Coach (Luke) Fickell, Raekwon (McMillan), (Chris) Worley, and (Dante) Booker. All those guys. They get me right all the time. It’s expected.”
Like many before him, Chris Worley, who lines up opposite Baker, has waited his turn to play in Columbus. He sees the emergence of Baker as the next in line for the Buckeyes. It’s a natural progression in Columbus and one he’s seen since his freshman year in 2013.
“That’s what expected,” Worley said. “Every time someone leaves, or goes down, you kind of just see it. The greatest example in the quarterback situation. When Braxton (Miller) used to get hurt, Kenny Guiton used to come in and play well, there were questions about if Kenny should start. Then even in 2014, with Braxton going down, then J.T. going down, and Cardale coming in. I mean, we never doubt a guy going into the game.”
There’s no doubt that Jerome Baker is making the most of his opportunities right now. Against the Sooners, he had the game-changing interception, but he also finished third with seven tackles and added a sack for good measure.
Whether or not that continues when Booker returns, it doesn’t really matter. The playing time will be there, the rotation is getting deeper and deeper and because of that, the Buckeyes are getting better. Baker’s only concern is when the ball moves.
“I put my foot in the ground and go, just play hard,” Baker said. “It’s football, I’ve played it my whole life. I just go play ball.”