SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Northwestern safety Brandon Joseph rode the hip of Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson as they faded toward the corner of the end zone. Then Joseph saw the ball and leaped into the air with just his right arm extended, picking off quarterback Justin Fields.
The play ended a promising Buckeyes drive and preserved Northwestern’s 10-6 lead at halftime of the 2020 Big Ten title game.
The Wildcats went on to lose 22-10, but Joseph made a definitive statement that day on one of college football’s biggest stages.
Now at Notre Dame, Joseph’s new teammates often ask about that game and that one-handed pick. He’s the lone player on the roster with in-game experience against the Buckeyes, and they want to know, “How did you do it?”
“I just kind of give them the rundown of what happened,” Joseph said. “I was guarding him, saw the ball and I grabbed it. I had no intentions of going up with one hand. It just happened like that.”
On Saturday, Joseph will face the Buckeyes again when No. 5 Notre Dame travels to No. 2 Ohio State.
The 2022 edition of the Buckeyes’ offense looks a bit different compared to two seasons ago.
Wilson was the No. 10 overall pick by the Jets in the 2022 NFL Draft. Fields is the starting quarterback for the Bears, though it’s eerie how similar his replacement, CJ Stroud, looks on film.
“I was looking at CJ, and it looked like I was watching Justin Fields,” Joseph said. “It’s their demeanor; their size.”
Even so, it’s a bit disappointing for Joseph that he’s not currently in the same league as Fields and Wilson.
“I didn’t imagine being in college right now,” Joseph said.
During his 2020 season, he finished tied for first in the country with six interceptions and earned first-team All-America honors.
His plan entering last fall was to declare for the 2022 draft once eligible after the season, but he and the entire Northwestern defense struggled in 2021.
The team finished 3-9, and Joseph made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes, often in an attempt to make up for the shortcomings of others.
By December, he understood his chances of becoming a first-round pick in 2022 were slim, so he entered the transfer portal and quickly found a new home in South Bend.
Notre Dame feels fortunate to have Joseph, who quickly acclimated himself to the defense.
Whether it’s deserved or not, the national perception of the Irish is that they shrink against top competition, and Joseph can help shift that perspective.
“Brandon Joseph has shown up in the biggest games that he played in,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said. “I’m not surprised he’s having success here.”
In January, Joseph moved in with Michael “MILK” Vinson, filling a vacancy created when defensive tackle Kurt Hinish left to train for the NFL.
He was a bit surprised at how quickly his new teammates accepted him, especially the safeties. After all, Joseph was there to compete for a starting role.
“The brotherhood here is real,” Joseph said. “I’m honored to be a part of it. Honestly, the longer I’ve been here, the smoother it’s been.”
South Bend’s proximity to Chicago made the transition easier. Throughout the spring, he returned to Chicago frequently to meet friends. He shopped on Michigan Avenue or hit up Harold’s Chicken Shack.
He also has endured a tragedy since arriving at Notre Dame. Around the end of January, Joseph’s maternal grandmother died from COVID complications.
Before she died, she was a major source of his NFL inspiration. Ever since he was a child, they discussed his goals, and his hope was that once drafted, he’d have the money to buy her a home and around-the-clock care.
Even if that’s no longer a possibility, his professional dreams are still the same. This fall, he has another chance to prove he’s a first-round safety prospect, starting with Saturday’s game against Ohio State.
“With her being gone now, it’s that much more motivating,” Joseph said. “I’m going to do the things we talked about. There’s no if or maybe. It will happen.”