By ED PUSKAS
John Simon’s motivational skills never were in question. He just wasn’t planning to have to display them from the Ohio State sideline during his final college game.
Simon, the Buckeyes’ emotional leader and a Cardinal Mooney High School graduate, did not play in Ohio State’s season-ending 26-21 victory over Michigan on Saturday. Simon injured his right knee in the Buckeyes’ 21-14 overtime win at Wisconsin last week.
The diagnosis was a burst bursa sac.
“I had a bad feeling early in the week when I saw his knee,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “It was a bursa. It’s not a structural issue. It’s just the swelling we couldn’t get out.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
“My man was in the training room early in the morning until late at night doing everything they could,” Meyer said.
Simon reportedly practiced little — if at all — this week and had been on crutches. Just walking onto the field as part of the Buckeyes’ senior day festivities looked like a struggle for him.
The Buckeyes eventually beat the Wolverines to put the finishing touches on a perfect 12-0 — albeit bowl-less — season, but they could have used Simon in the first half when Michigan quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner were making big plays.
Gardner threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree and ran for a 2-yard score and Robinson gashed Ohio State’s defense for 124 rushing yards on just six carries, including a 67-yard sprint on which two Buckeyes defenders hit him simultaneously, but couldn’t bring him down.
Ohio State’s defense seemed lost at times without No. 54 on the field.
“It hurt to lose him,” Buckeyes linebacker Etienne Sabino said. “He’s the heart and soul of the team. He puts it all on the line for himself and his teammates every day, so it was tough when we found out he couldn’t play.”
It still isn’t clear what Simon told his teammates after a Sept. 15 victory over California, but if there was any doubt about his status as a team leader, that postgame speech blew it away.
Even Meyer was impressed.
“The heart and soul of who we are — who we are as the 2012 football team — it’s John Simon,” the first-year Buckeyes coach said.
Ohio State’s Simon-less defense took control against Michigan in the second half. The Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten Conference) limited the Wolverines (8-4, 6-2) to just 60 yards and four first downs after the break, shutting out Michigan in the second half.
Robinson ran just four times for -2 yards in the final two quarters.
It took an entire half, but Ohio State figured out if Robinson was in the game, Michigan wasn’t going to pass because of his lingering elbow and wrist injuries.
“We made adjustments in the locker room,” Ohio State safety Christian Bryant said. “The defensive coaches said we needed to stop No. 16 because we knew he wasn’t going to throw the ball.”
Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said the Buckeyes’ second-half shutdown of the Wolverines was less about adjustments than performance.
“We really settled in,” Fickell said. “We didn’t make a ton of adjustments, but guys responded. We challenged them at halftime and told them that was the kind of game it was going to be.”
Ohio State forced three fumbles and recovered all of them. Linebacker Zach Boren, cornerback Travis Howard and defensive end Nathan Williams each recovered a fumble and safety C.J. Barnett intercepted a Gardner pass.
“It’s hard to win when you turn the ball over four times,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
Meyer said the loss of Simon made his teammates determined not to let him down.
“When [the trainers] DQed him, it was like a possessed group on defense,” Meyer said. “I know why – because our brother was down and we presented him the game ball, which we deserved.”
Simon was not made available to reporters after the game. Ohio State sports information director Gerry Emig said the Cardinal Mooney product did not want to take the spotlight away from the performance of his teammates on Saturday.