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Football: McCalister records interception, helps No. 3 Ohio State ‘a huge deal’ in downing Wisconsin 52-21

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Ohio State graduate safety Tanner McCalister (15) celebrates with his teammates during the No. 3 Ohio State-Wisconsin game Saturday. Ohio State won 52-21. Credit: Katie Good | Asst. Photo Editor

Graduate safety Tanner McCalister kept it real: He thought he had a chance to score on his first interception as a Buckeye.

When Wisconsin junior quarterback Graham Mertz dropped back and threw to the left on his first attempt of the game Saturday, McCalister read the pass and snagged the football, which tailed behind the intended Badgers receiver. McCalister cut across the field after the catch, and said the end zone was in his vision.

“I saw a lot of green grass, cut back a couple of times,” McCalister said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I might score,’ but no, he got me down. But I knew our offense was going to get it in, so I was still excited.”

Since arriving at Ohio State in January as a transfer following four seasons at Oklahoma State, McCalister made his biggest in-game impact against Wisconsin, totaling four tackles and two passes defended in addition to his interception as No. 3 Ohio State defeated the Badgers 52-21.

McCalister missed the game against Toledo in Week 3, citing bumps and bruises as the precautionary reason for being held out of the matchup Sept. 17 before returning Saturday.

“I’m still a little banged up, but I was ready to play,” McCalister said. “Still more treatment to get done, but now we got a whole ‘nother week to recover. So I mean, I’ll be fine.”

Ohio State needed its depth in the secondary to step up against Wisconsin as the Buckeyes’ back-end defense deals with ailments. Cornerbacks graduate Cameron Brown and second-year Denzel Burke were unavailable, the latter of whom wore a cast on his right hand, and second-year Jordan Hancock hasn’t played yet this season.

Defensive backs second-year JK Johnson and first-year Jyaire Brown both made the first starts of their Buckeye careers at cornerback versus the Badgers, while McCalister and fifth-year safety Josh Proctor returned to action following their absences against the Rockets.

Head coach Ryan Day said Ohio State “was able to capitalize” after McCalister’s interception, which set up a 13-yard touchdown reception — fourth-year tight end Cade Stover’s first career score.

“He had the pick early on in the game and that was a huge deal,” Day said. “He’s played a lot of football, so that helps. It’s a little bit of confidence when he’s out there, especially when you have some young guys back there.”

McCalister brought several seasons of experience under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles as both were part of the Cowboys’ defense in the previous four seasons.

Knowles has placed high expectations on the Buckeyes defense this season, and they’ve yet to allow more than 307 yards of offense to an opponent through four games. Knowles said Tuesday that Ohio State’s hasn’t played a complete, all-around game defensively, and McCalister said it’s “a huge challenge” to meet the standards, but it’s something for which he and his teammates strive.

“That’s a big challenge just because coach Knowles, I mean, he is a genius, so his version of a perfect game may never happen just because it’s football, things happen,” McCalister said. “It may not be up to his expectations or up to par with what he wants every single play, but the majority, he enjoys what he sees at the end of the game.”

Ohio State’s offense has caught the majority of attention through the first month of the season, entering Saturday atop the NCAA charts behind an average of 565.3 yards of total offense. The Buckeyes nearly met their rate and recorded 539 yards against Wisconsin, scoring seven touchdowns after reaching the end zone 11 times against Toledo.

McCalister said the Buckeye offense helps make it easier on their defense when running up the scoreboard, but he thinks “the accolades and the attention and all that that we deserve” will soon spotlight Ohio State’s defense as the season unfolds.

“I feel like in football period, offense is what sells tickets,” McCalister said. “It don’t really matter where you are, the offense, they’re going to get a lot of the love, but I think as the season goes on, and we keep playing how we’re playing, they’re going to recognize us as a top defense in the country.”

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