Revisiting the Top Ohio State Football Moments and Performances of 2020

By 11W Staff on December 31, 2020 at 1:05 pm
Trey Sermon

2020 wasn't fun, but there were silver linings.

As we put a tumultuous, trying and oftentimes downright terrible year to rest, it's time to look back at some of the bright spots, including some comeback stories and epic performances.

Here's a look back at 11 of the top moments in Ohio State football this year.

Sermon breaks Eddie’s record

Trey Sermon will play a maximum of eight games in his only season at Ohio State, but his performance in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern firmly entrenched his place in Ohio State history no matter what happens in the College Football Playoff.

On a day where Justin Fields and Ohio State’s passing game never got going, Sermon led the Buckeyes to their fourth straight Big Ten championship – bringing them back from a second-half deficit to a 22-10 victory – by rushing for a whopping 331 yards, the most ever by an Ohio State player in a single game.

In the process of breaking the school record, which was previously 314 yards by Eddie George against Illinois in 1995, Sermon averaged 11.4 yards per carry, had six runs of more than 20 yards and scored Ohio State’s only two touchdowns of the game against a Northwestern defense that had allowed just 3.8 yards per carry for the season before playing the Buckeyes.

LJ’s moment to shine

In his 25th year as a college football coach, Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson finally got the opportunity to be a head coach for a day when Ryan Day was unable to make the trip to Michigan State due to a positive COVID-19 test. Johnson made history in the process, becoming the first Black man to ever serve as Ohio State’s head coach for a football game.

Despite being without Day, three assistant coaches and several starters on the field (including three starting offensive linemen), Ohio State played its most dominant game of the season, defeating Michigan State 52-12. And as is customary to celebrate a big win, the Buckeyes doused Johnson with a bucket of Gatorade to celebrate his historic victory.

In a year full of adversity for the Buckeyes, this was one of the best silver linings, as it gave Johnson – who’s already a legend as one of the greatest defensive line coaches in college football history – a well-deserved moment in the spotlight and an opportunity to show just how great a leader he is at a moment when Ohio State needed one to step up.

Day, Dennis snatch Ewers from Herman, Yurcich

Ohio State became a national storyline in the spring by landing what felt like 2 billion commitments in an eight-week span, including the nation's No. 1 running back in TreVeyon Henderson, the Buckeyes' third-highest-ranked running back recruit in program history.

But no commitment this year was bigger than the commitment of five-star quarterback Quinn Ewers in November.

Ryan Day and Corey Dennis snatched Tom Herman and Mike Yurcich's lunch money by getting what was essentially a Texas flip from Ewers, the Lone Star State’s top-ranked 2022 prospect who had been committed to the Longhorns for nearly three months. In the process, they did a few things:

  1. May have vanquished any chance of the Herman Era being any type of success and sunk the Buckeyes’ foot even further into the Texas recruiting ground.
  2. Took the next step in accomplishing one of Day’s main objectives as Ohio State’s head coach by turning it into QBU – a goal he has talked about since taking over as the Buckeyes’ CEO, notably with the quarterbacks he’s recruiting such as Kyle McCord.
  3. Brought in the highest-ranked prospect in Ohio State history, as Ewers was recently given a 1.0000 (aka perfect) rating. That’s higher than Terrelle Pryor from the 2018 class.

Smith-Njigba makes Buckeyes’ catch of the year

If you’ve somehow never seen Keanu Reeves’ bullet-dodging acrobatics in The Matrix, don’t worry. You saw his greatest impersonator in Ohio State’s season opener.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba is only 18, but he made a play reminiscent of a guy like six-year pro Tyler Lockett when the Buckeye freshman stalled himself in mid air, reached down to the last millimeter of red turf in Ohio State’s end zone and toe-tapped his way to his first career touchdown.

Just a week before Smith-Njigba enrolled early as a freshman in Columbus, he told Eleven Warriors in an early January interview that he wanted to “retire my family” by coming to Ohio State, ascending as a top pass-catcher and getting drafted out of the Buckeyes’ “get paid factory.”

Though he hasn’t shown those same Week 1 fireworks throughout the rest of the season (with some of that likely being COVID-related), he showcased exactly the type of talent that made him a five-star recruit and why there are expectations he could become one of the Buckeyes’ next draft picks at receiver down the line.

Chase Young and Jeff Okudah go No. 2 and No. 3 in the draft

At this point, Buckeye fans should be used to the NFL draft serving as one giant Ohio State infomercial, but that was especially true this year.

Following dominant seasons where both were named unanimous All-Americans, Chase Young and Jeff Okudah were selected with the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in the 2020 NFL draft, marking the third time in program history that Ohio State has had two players selected in the first five picks of the draft – the most of any program in NFL draft history.

Even more impressively, another former Buckeye player – Joe Burrow – was selected with the No. 1 overall pick, meaning the first three picks in the draft all played together at Ohio State. It marked the first time in NFL Draft history that three former teammates were selected with the first three picks of the draft.

Wyatt Davis and Shaun Wade return 

Opt-outs were a regular part of the college football season this year as many top players across the country chose to focus on NFL Draft preparation instead of playing under the uncertainty of a season altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At one point, it looked like Ohio State was going to be impacted by opt-outs, as well, with Wyatt Davis and Shaun Wade each announcing their intent to leave the team and prepare for the draft. Their departures were short-lived, however, as both elected to return to the team after the Big Ten reinstated the 2020 football season.

Both Davis and Wade returned to Ohio State to compete for a national title, citing unfinished business after last year's loss to Clemson. After an unprecedented season, they'll now get that chance.

Haskell Garrett's comeback story

Less than two months before Ohio State's football season began, Haskell Garrett was shot in the face while trying to break up a fight. He suffered injuries on both cheeks, lost five of his teeth and had to undergo several surgeries to repair his mouth, including a bone graft.

Despite all of that, Garrett was back in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center less than a week after the incident and was on the field for the Buckeyes' season opener against Nebraska less than a month later.

Simply playing at all this season would have seemed like a miracle in the immediate aftermath of the incident, but Garrett didn't just play this season, he's been dominant. Emerging as the team's top 3-technique defensive tackle, Garrett has been one of the most disruptive interior linemen in the country this season.

Garrett has collected a number of All-American accolades this season, including first-team All-American honors from CBS Sports and Pro Football Focus, as well as second-team honors from the Associated Press and Sporting News.

From a potentially life-threatening situation to an All-American in a few short months – it's a wild story.

Justin Fields' high-effort block

Though Justin Fields created countless explosive plays with both his arms and his legs this year, his most memorable and talked-about play this year is a downfield block.

In the third quarter of Ohio State's blowout win over Michigan State, Trey Sermon broke loose for a big run and had one man to beat on his way to the end zone. Nobody would have batted an eye if Fields stayed back and celebrated from behind the play, but he didn't.

Instead, Fields took off downfield and – despite a 10-yard head start – caught up to both Sermon and the Spartan defender and threw a block to ensure Sermon made it to the end zone.

There's a good chance Sermon would have scored anyway, but the effort was there and Fields' coach and teammates took notice.

“That's what being a leader is all about,” Day said the following week. “I tell you, that was special. And when everyone on the team can see the quarterback doing something like that, that's special.”

Tommy Togiai's three-sack performance

The defensive tackle position was seen as one of Ohio State's biggest questions entering this season after the Buckeyes lost DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers to graduation. But it didn't take long for it to become clear that the interior defensive line was actually the team's strength.

Tommy Togiai entered this year without a single sack to his name, but in just the second game of the season, he notched three along with seven total tackles to help lead Ohio State against Penn State.

The three sacks are more than any other Buckeye player has had in total this entire season, and Togiai did it in a single game. It was an absolutely dominant performance.

Justin Hilliard's huge game

Justin Hilliard's Ohio State career has not gone the way he had hoped. The one-time five-star prospect has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, including a torn Achilles and torn biceps in both arms, and has seen first-team action sparingly in his extended six-year career.

But in Ohio State's Big Ten title game win over Northwestern, Hilliard finally looked like the five-star athlete he always had the potential to be, racking up a team-best nine tackles with two coming for losses – nearly doubling his previous high of five tackles.

Hilliard also finished the game with two turnovers, pulling down a crucial interception in the end zone and recovering a fumble in the second half.

“Oh my God,” head coach Ryan Day said of Hilliard's performance. “How about the interception he had in the one-on-one? I mean, he played his tail off.”

“Oh my gosh, man,” Hilliard said. “This whole journey, man, it's been tough but it's been such a blessing at the same time. I know earlier this week I was able to talk to the younger guys at Senior Tackle and that was just so emotional for me because just the journey I've been on and the guys that have been here with me to stick with me and push me through some of those tougher times.

“I knew I had to step up today in a bigger role and I'm glad I was able to.”

The Big Ten season gets reinstated

For about a month, it looked like Ohio State would not have a chance to play this season at all after the Big Ten decided to postpone all fall sports back in August. But after a month of lobbying from players, coaches, parents and fans, the Big Ten elected to reinstate the football season.

With the season reinstated, Ohio State's goals of competing for a fourth-straight Big Ten title and a national championship were resurrected, and the Buckeyes have made the most of them so far. They'll look to keep their championship quest going when they play Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Friday, the first day of 2021.

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