Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett, a senior co-captain and son of two West Point graduates, is comfortable with his role as vocal leader of the Buckeyes’ defense.
But he’s made his loudest statement, along with playing his best football, since making a quiet gesture to honor a fallen teammate.
Bennett is listed as No. 63 in the Buckeyes’ media guide and on the school’s website. But he will wear No. 53 when No. 4 Ohio State (13-1) meets No. 2 Oregon (13-1) in Monday’s national championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Bennett has donned that number since serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of Kosta Karageorge, 22, a walk-on defense lineman who wore the number for the Buckeyes before his body was found in a Dumpster near Karageorge’s apartment on Nov. 30. Cause of death: apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
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After helping lay his friend to rest, Bennett (6-foot-2, 288 pounds) chose to wear Karageorge’s number in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. He posted a team-high four tackles for losses, with two sacks. He continued donning No. 53 during OSU’s 42-35 upset of top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, adding 1.5 TFLs and a sack to his season ledger.
“For whatever reason, I’ve played better in his jersey,” said Bennett, who will wear No. 53 during his final college game Monday. “I don’t know if that’s just because of the significance of the jersey or what. It’s been important to me that I can bring a light to him and people can notice him.”
The death of Karageorge, a former OSU wrestler who joined the football team this season, remains a source of motivation to players who seek to honor the fifth-year senior during their playoff run. The list includes running back Ezekiel Elliott, also a pallbearer at Karageorge’s funeral.
“Kosta, he was our brother and we loved him so much,” said Elliott, who has posted the only 200-yard rushing performances of his college career in the Buckeyes’ past two games. “He was just such a great guy to be around. I know he’s up there, smiling down on us, blessing us as much as he can. I know he’s happy for us and I wish he was here with us.”
As a team, the Buckeyes have worn a helmet decal to memorialize Karageorge the past two games. The sticker is a black circle with a white “53” in the middle. It will be worn again Monday, honoring a player whose final text message to his parents reportedly contained these words: “I am sorry if I am an embarrassment but these concussions have my head all [messed] up.”
But only Bennett will don No. 53 on the field when OSU plays a winner-take-all game in quest of the school’s first national championship in 12 years. He said the purpose is to keep the focus on a fallen teammate after Bennett perceived discussions about Karageorge “kind of fell off” once the Buckeyes entered the CFP playoffs.
“I don’t want his family to think the team has forgotten him or anything like that. I want them to know that we’re still thinking about Kosta every single day,” said Bennett, who has collected 5.5 of his 14 tackles for losses, as well as three of his seven sacks, in the two games he has worn No. 53 for the Buckeyes.
After the victory over Alabama, Bennett posted this message on his Twitter account, @mike63bennett: “That one was for you Kosta. The next one will be too.”
In fairness to Bennett, it is worth noting that he earned first-team All-America honors from CBSSports.com based on efforts made this season in his traditional number. Coach Urban Meyer characterized Bennett as a player who “always had the talent … but never flipped the switch” until this season.
Teammates said they noticed the transformation this summer, when Bennett became a driving force in organizing voluntary workouts. They saw it again during games, when he became the holler guy in the Buckeyes’ huddle. Linebacker Darron Lee called Bennett “the guy that gets us going” in difficult situations. Other teammates agree.
“Mike Bennett is the kind of guy who gets fired up and gets in somebody’s face. He’ll call guys out and put the pressure on you to be better,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “You need that type of a leader on defense. He’s the tough guy out there.”
But, clearly, Bennett has a caring, compassionate side, too. That’s why he will be the Buckeye wearing someone else’s No. 53 in his final college game Monday.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
College Football Playoff National Championship
7:30 Monday, AT&T Stadium