In a single afternoon for which he waited through a seven-week delay to start the season, five games of part-time participation and consecutive weekends of inactivity, Trey Sermon surged past Hopalong Cassady, Archie Griffin, Keith Byars, Eddie George and Ezekiel Elliott.
All the Ohio State football greats — all the legends of Scarlet and Gray — they will look up to him now because of this one extraordinary day.
Sermon transferred in from Oklahoma to Ohio State for his chance to be a feature running back, and it’s possible no athlete ever conquered greater obstacles to become the hero of a championship game. His school-record 331 rushing yards serve as the evidence of his staggering performance, but this was not some showy stat grab. The No. 4 Buckeyes needed all of them to mount a comeback against Northwestern and secure a 22-10 victory in their closing argument for inclusion in the College Football Playoff field.
Sermon had to overcome more than the effects of the knee injury that ended his junior season with the Sooners last November, the curious offseason enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, a transition to a new offensive system and his role as a backup to Master Teague for much of the year.
First, there had to be a season in which Ohio State could finish as Big Ten champs, and that was a close one: The league canceled its football season in early August, and didn’t change its mind until over a month later. And then the Buckeyes needed to be included in the title game through the elimination of a technicality that could have eliminated them from participating, despite having the league’s only perfect record.
And then there had to be the chance to play, which developed when Teague went down with an injury early in the Northwestern game.
“Trey had a lot of explosive runs out there. He played his ass off,” star quarterback Justin Fields told reporters after the game. “When you have a player that’s in a rhythm like that, you have to keep feeding him the ball. And that’s what we did.”
Bothered late in the game by a sprained thumb, Fields wasn’t at his best, even when healthy. A first-team All-Big Ten selection, he finished 12 of 27 for 114 yards and two interceptions: one in the end zone near the end of the first half, and another in the third quarter, when the receiver ran an incorrect route. The absence of star wideout Chris Olave was obvious throughout the game.
Teague was more easily replaced. Sermon entered in the first quarter and carried five times for 33 yards, and ran twice more for 27 yards before halftime. That was 8.6 yards per carry against the No. 6 rushing defense in the FBS. Still, it took a while before the OSU sideline caught on to the idea of emphasizing its running game in general — and Sermon’s role in particular.
“We’re always going to be aggressive. That’s just the way we are,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day told reporters. “We just didn’t execute great. I think we’ll probably look back and have a lot to coach off of and fix.
“But the run game started to go. . . . We wanted to kind of throw on them early, wear them down a little bit and then run it in the second half. And that’s kind of what played out. Now, it wasn’t clean. Certainly we didn’t execute the way we wanted to.”
As those who mocked the Pac-12 Conference for crowning a champion that hadn’t won either division could tell you, it would have been an empty occasion if the Buckeyes hadn’t been in Indianapolis. That much was obvious as the game developed and, afterward, as they celebrated their fourth consecutive conference title.
There was little doubt Ohio State had been the best team during this abbreviated Big Ten season, but the Wildcats created quite a bit with their unyielding performance through the game’s first 45 minutes. The Big Ten championship became a tense, ferocious football game that ultimately was conquered by a 6-1, 215-pound running back who gained nearly as many yards Saturday as he had through the entire autumn (he had 344 prior to Saturday’s game).
“It was just the best feeling,” OSU center Josh Meyers said. “They allowed 3.7 yards per rushing attempt, and we averaged over 9 on like 40 rushing attempts, or something like that. I can’t even express how happy I am about that.
“With Trey . . . after he broke a couple out even in the first half, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s about to go off.’ I knew it was just a matter of time. And, man, did it feel good.”
After a few weeks of the season, Ohio State wasn’t entirely convinced it would get the best of Sermon, but he gradually became a useful backup to Teague and frequently showed flashes of what he had been — he rushed for 18 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Oklahoma — and could be again. With the offensive line dominating Northwestern’s front, the entire breadth of his talent was on display Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
His touchdown run in the third quarter came on OSU’s fifth trip into the red zone; there had been three field goal attempts and that interception before. That score pushed the Buckeyes into the lead for the first time, and his second sealed it. Along the way, he passed George’s single-game record of 314 rushing yards, which had stood for quarter-century.
“I was able to just really get in a groove and just keep it rolling,” Sermon said. “Our mentality was just to make the most of every opportunity and execute, and I feel like we came out and did that in the second half.”
This was only the second game for Ohio State since Nov. 22, and its third game in six weeks. The Buckeyes’ Nov. 14 meeting with Maryland was called off after the Terps paused activities in their program. With a game scheduled against Illinois after Thanksgiving, OSU was struck with COVID issues that led to cancellation. And then last week, there was no game against Michigan because the Wolverines declared they were not in position to travel.
That left the Buckeyes with five completed games, all of them victories, which was one short of the standard the league had established, upon deciding to launch its season in October, for participation in the Big Ten championship game.
There were many who contended the conference should send East second-place team Indiana to the championship game because the Hoosiers met that requirement. But they had finished second in their division, behind the Bucks, and because of a head-to-head loss in Columbus.
Ohio State embraced this championship with all the vigor it invested in the three previous titles, which followed the customary 12-game seasons. In fact, as Day explained it, this might have been more rewarding.
“What this team has gone through . . . they started off, had two spring practices and then they go on quarantine and go away for a long time,” Day said. “They come into preseason camp and find out the season’s been pushed back. Then a few days later, they find out the season’s been canceled. Then for a month, they don’t have a target. They have nothing to work for.
“And they decided, ‘No, we want to play. We want to play safely.’ And they fought. And they went public. And they spoke up. And Oct. 23 we played our first game. And then everyone in the North goes inside, and the virus spiked. And because of that we had to deal with being out of games.
“And then we get into this game here, and things maybe aren’t clicking as good they usually do. And we find a way to fight back in the second half. In a world where it’s all about wins and losses, this team has learned so much this season. Which is the reason we started playing college football in the first place.
“All I’m going to say is this: People can say whatever they want. They have their opinions. I’m not going to talk about other teams. I’ve got enough to talk about, positively, in our program. But I’ll say this: If we have the opportunity to play anybody in the country in one game, I’m going to take the Ohio State Buckeyes.”