October 28, 2012

Shazier steps up while honoring late friend

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's hard to recall Ryan Shazier making a bigger impact in his young college career than he did on Saturday. But Ohio State's sophomore linebacker may have had an assist in playing what could very well be his best effort of the season.

Shazier recorded a team-high seven tackles and two sacks in the Buckeyes' 35-23 win over Penn State on Saturday, adding two pass breakups and an interception return for a touchdown in OSU's ninth victory in as many games. The Plantation, Fla. native did all of this not while wearing the No. 10 uniform that he wore throughout the first 21 games of his college career, but rather a No. 48 jersey- a tribute to his late friend, Gary Curtis.

"I was thinking about him the whole game because I knew I had his number on and it just felt like he was playing through me," Shazier said after the game. "He was telling me what was going on and he just had my back."

If there's anybody who could've gotten in both the head and the heart of Shazier to inspire OSU's leading tackler, it's Curtis. A former team manager at Shazier's alma mater, Plantation high school, Curtis passed away in the spring after suffering from muscular dystrophy. Shazier wanted to pick a primetime game this season to honor his late friend, but after he didn't provide enough time's notice before the OSU's 63-38 win over Nebraska, he chose to wear Curtis' favorite number for the Buckeyes battle with the Nittany Lions.

"He wasn't on the team, but that was the number he always wore," Shazier said. "I told him that one game, I'm going to have your back, and that was the number he wore, and I just wanted to wear that number."

If Buckeyes fans weren't aware of Shazier's number switch- which he announced on Twitter on Friday- it didn't take any longer than two minutes into the second half for them to figure out who No. 48 in the white jersey was on Saturday.

After a quiet first half that saw him record just one tackle, Shazier opened up the second half in a big way with a second down sack of Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin at the Nittany Lions' eight-yard line. On the very next play, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound outside linebacker intercepted McGloin's third down pass attempt, returning it 17 yards for what would prove to be the game's deciding score.

Shazier was very appreciative of the moment after the game, especially considering that so many have slipped through his hands over the course of the season.

"It felt amazing 'cause it almost felt like a dream," he said. "I've dropped so many picks this year, and when I caught the ball, it just felt amazing knowing that I'm helping my team out and it was a great momentum change."

Shazier's effort against Penn State marks his second consecutive big game for the Buckeyes, after he earned OSU's defensive player of the week honors in the team's win against Purdue. The sophomore's play as of late has been welcomed with open arms by the coaching staff, which has been desperate to see a linebacker on its roster step up, especially given the absence of injured senior Etienne Sabino.

"He's a 19-year-old kid that's just a true sophomore that really never played linebacker in high school," OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "He's a kid that obviously is a talent, that's just grown as a football player. He's a natural leader kind of kid and has great instincts and things he can do, but he loves the game of football and I think he's really starting to embrace it."

With three games left in the season, the Buckeyes couldn't have asked for a better time for Sabino to be playing his best ball of the season. And with offensive stars like Wisconsin's Montee Ball]/db] and Michigan's [db]Denard Robinson looming on their schedule, they'll need it to continue- if not improve- for their final fourth of the season.

Whether or not Shazier will be wearing No. 48 or his customary No. 10 for those games remains to be seen, but given the game that he just had, he's not ruling out turning the former into more than just a one game tribute.

"I'm going to think about it after right now because I had a great game in the number and I don't know how I'm going to do," Shazier said. "I'm just going to keep on rolling and we'll find out next week."


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