Ohio State football's Jyaire Brown, JK Johnson step up in first starts against Wisconsin

Ohio State was without two of its starting safeties last week against Toledo.

While Tanner McCalister and Josh Proctor returned in Saturday night’s 52-21 rout of Wisconsin after being held out as precautions related to undisclosed injuries, the Buckeyes dealt with absences elsewhere in the secondary.

Cameron Brown and Denzel Burke, both of their starting cornerbacks, were sidelined against the Badgers, thrusting inexperienced freshmen in Jyaire Brown and JK Johnson into the starting lineup.

“Not having those guys in there and their experience was a concern going into the game,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said, “but Jyaire and JK have been practicing. They practiced really hard all spring, all preseason.”

Johnson, who redshirted as a freshman last season due to a shoulder injury, had been the more experienced of the pair.

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Through the first three weeks, he had been the top backup, rotating behind Cameron Brown and Burke, while Jyaire Brown had played only about two dozen snaps on defense in his first season with the program.

Sep 24, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback JK Johnson (4) tackles Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) in the first quarter of the NCAA football game between Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers at Ohio Stadium.
Sep 24, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback JK Johnson (4) tackles Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) in the first quarter of the NCAA football game between Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers at Ohio Stadium.

“We told them right before the game that everybody on the team believes in them, and we do,” Day said. “They have no fear. They went out and played and did a really good job. I don’t know what the film is going to show, but I know they competed.”

Both were part of a secondary that held tight coverage against the Badgers. Quarterback Graham Mertz threw for only 94 yards and a touchdown against the Buckeyes, completing 11 of his 20 passes.

It was the fewest yards passing Ohio State had allowed in at least two decades.

Day said neither Cameron Brown nor Burke is expected to be out long-term.

Burke participated in the early rounds of warmups before being ruled out. He wore a cast on his right hand.

It’s unclear the issue limiting Cameron Brown. He left for the locker room during the second quarter last week.

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Jaxon Smith-Njigba shut down

Day said he is hopeful receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who was held out against Wisconsin, could return against Rutgers next Saturday.

“We’ll get him going on Tuesday,” Day said, “and hopefully make some progress, and get to see him play next week.”

He didn’t disclose if Smith-Njigba re-aggravated the apparent hamstring injury he suffered in the season-opening win over Notre Dame, only mentioning that the staff had decided to shut him down against the Badgers.

Sep 24, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) will miss the NCAA football game between Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers with an injury at Ohio Stadium.
Sep 24, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) will miss the NCAA football game between Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers with an injury at Ohio Stadium.

The decision was made in advance of kickoff. Smith-Njigba did not participate in warmups, watching from the sidelines in sweats.

Smith-Njigba had been back in a limited role last week against Toledo, catching two passes for 33 yards.

In his absence for the Buckeyes’ opening Big Ten game, Julian Fleming got the start, and Emeka Egbuka moved into the slot to replace Smith-Njigba.

Egbuka's six catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns led the Buckeyes. Fleming, who had two touchdown receptions in his season debut, again got in the end zone as he caught four passes for 67 yards and a touchdown.

More turnovers

The Buckeyes’ defense generated a turnover for the second consecutive week when McCalister picked off a pass by Mertz five plays into Wisconsin’s first drive.

McCalister returned the interception to the Badgers’ 16-yard line to set up Ohio for its second touchdown.

“Especially this offense, we can put them in position to score,” McCalister said. “We like to say blood in the water. There’s definitely blood in the water. We score on the first drive, then we get the stop.”

Mertz’s pass was intended for receiver Chimere Dike, but as he continued his route toward the sideline, the ball came in behind him and headed to McCalister.

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Though it set up the Buckeyes with promising field position in the red zone, McCalister thought he might first return it for six points before Badgers receiver Keontez Lewis tackled him from behind.

“I had seen the end zone,” McCalister said, “and I was like, “Ah, I might score,’ but he got me down.”

The two turnovers Ohio State forced against Toledo were its first of the season.

Stroud's first pick of year

Stroud was picked off for the first time this season late in the second quarter.

It was a second-and-5 at the Buckeyes’ 30-yard line when he overthrew a pass intended for Marvin Harrison Jr. that landed in the grasp of Wisconsin safety John Torchio.

Stroud had thrown 99 consecutive passes without an interception to start the year.

Sawyer start

Sophomore Jack Sawyer made his first career start, replacing J.T. Tuimoloau at defensive end.

He later recorded a sack for the second straight week after bringing down Mertz for a loss of 3 yards late in the first quarter.

Etc.

Freshman safety Sonny Styles, who graduated a year early from Pickerington Central to join the Buckeyes, had one of his biggest roles, rotating in on short-yardage situations. … Defensive tackle Mike Hall returned to the starting lineup after he was held out with a shoulder injury last week. …. Ohio State’s announced attendance of 105,473 was the third game this season it drew more than 105,000 to Ohio Stadium, surpassing capacity.

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Jyaire Brown, JK Johnson start for Ohio State against Wisconsin