INDIANAPOLIS – For a multitude of reasons, Ohio State needed Trey Sermon to be at his best in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
And boy, was his best something special.
In a game where Justin Fields suffered a thumb injury and threw for a career-low 114 yards, Master Teague left the game with an undisclosed injury after just two carries and star receiver Chris Olave was unavailable to play, Ohio State had to lean on Sermon to run the ball repeatedly in order to win the game. And Sermon answered the bell by delivering a performance that was entirely unprecedented in Ohio State history.
On 29 carries – more than twice as many as he had in any previous game this season, and also far more than he ever had in a game at Oklahoma before transferring to Ohio State – Sermon ran for 331 yards, breaking Eddie George’s previous single-game school record of 314 yards against Illinois. He scored both of the Buckeyes’ touchdowns to lead them to a 22-10 victory over Northwestern and their fourth straight Big Ten championship.
Sermon, who obviously earned Big Ten Championship Game MVP honors, ran through Northwestern’s defense all game long, averaging 11.4 yards per carry with six runs of more than 20 yards.
“When I’m in the zone, I just feel like personally, everything just really slows down,” Sermon said. “The game really slows down, and I’m able to just see everything develop and just continue to be decisive and just make the right reads, make the right cuts.”
Early on this season, Sermon didn’t look like a running back who was capable of a record-breaking performance like he had Saturday. In Ohio State’s first four games of the year, Sermon often looked tentative, rushing for only 58 yards per game and scoring no touchdowns. Even Ryan Day acknowledged after Saturday’s game that the Buckeyes had their doubts about Sermon after his underwhelming play earlier in the season.
“There was a time probably after Week 2 or Week 3, we really weren’t sure what’s going on, just maybe not hitting the hole right, didn’t have a lot of confidence and we didn’t know Trey, so we weren’t sure exactly what we had there,” Day said of Sermon, who arrived at Ohio State as a graduate transfer this summer. “And then to see him persevere again through all that, to play the way he did in this game and break records like that, that’s tremendous. Against a really good run-stopping defense.”
In Ohio State’s final regular-season game against Michigan State, however, Sermon finally started to look like the back the Buckeyes thought he could be, running for 112 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. And on Saturday, it was evident from early in the game that he had the Wildcats’ number.
“After he broke a couple (of long runs) out, even in the first half, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s about to go off,’” said Ohio State center Josh Myers. “I knew it was just a matter of time.”
Despite that, Ohio State didn’t commit to the run for most of the game’s first three quarters. Even though he averaged 8.6 yards per carry in the first half, Sermon received only seven carries before halftime. Most of his long runs early in the game were wasted as drive after drive stalled due to Ohio State’s struggles in the passing game on a day where Fields completed only 12-of-27 passing attempts and threw two interceptions.
While that kept Ohio State from scoring a touchdown until late in the third quarter when the Buckeyes reached the end zone by running the ball on seven straight attempts including five by Sermon, Day defended his offensive game plan after the game, pointing out that most opponents had struggled the ball to run this year against Northwestern, which had allowed just 3.8 yards per carry before allowing the Buckeyes to run for 399 yards on 44 carries – 9.1 yards per attempt – on Saturday.
“We’re always going to be aggressive, that’s just the way we are, and we just have to execute better,” Day said. “We gotta coach better, we gotta execute better. But against this team, you have to get them on their heels a little bit. If you don’t do that and loosen them up, it’s a long day running. Not too many people run the ball against Northwestern. And the only way to do that is to go after them and be aggressive. And we didn’t hit those shots, but what we did is we backed them up, we loosened them up and then I felt like we were able to run the ball and control the ball in the second half.”
It wasn’t just Sermon, of course, who was responsible for Ohio State’s success running the ball on Saturday. The Buckeyes’ offensive line did a fantastic job driving defenders off of the line of scrimmage and opening up holes for Sermon, and he expressed his gratitude for them in his postgame interview session.
“It was amazing, man,” Sermon said. “Those guys played their tails off. They fought hard from start to finish. I’m just grateful. They made my job easy. Just moving the line of scrimmage, and controlling it, and just dominating up front.”
After Ohio State’s running game drew some scrutiny for its underwhelming play early in the season, Myers felt a sense of vindication after Saturday’s game.
“I gotta tell you guys, it was just the best feeling,” Myers said of Ohio State’s running performance Saturday. “I can’t even express how happy I am about that … man, did it feel good.”
Before his record-setting performance on Saturday, Sermon’s lone season at Ohio State looked like it had the potential to be forgettable, if only for the fact that the shortened regular season limited his opportunities to really make his mark.
Thanks to his record-setting performance on Saturday, though, Sermon ensured that he will have a permanent place in Ohio State lore, even though he’s only played six games for the Buckeyes and will only get to play one or two more. And based on what his teammates had to say about him during both postgame interviews and on social media after the game, it was clear they were proud to see his hard work pay off.
“He played his ass off,” said Fields, who grew up in the same county of Georgia as Sermon. “I’m very proud of him. We’ve been working out since junior year of high school. We played against each other in high school. So just seeing him, his hard work pay off, I know the kind of guy he is. I know how hard he works. So just seeing that he’s having success on the field is just great to see.”