NEW ORLEANS – During Ohio State’s run to the national championship in the 2014 season, Ezekiel Elliott took his game to new heights by rushing for 220 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, 230 yards in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl and 246 yards in the national championship game.
In Ohio State’s last two games to get the Buckeyes into this season’s national championship game, Trey Sermon has taken his game to similar levels of greatness.
After rushing for a school-record 331 yards against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game two weeks ago, Sermon followed that up by rushing for 193 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries and adding four catches for 61 yards in Friday night’s 49-28 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.
Following a quiet start to the season for Sermon, the Oklahoma graduate transfer has emerged as a legitimate star in the most important games of the year, and he’s certainly made a big impression on his head coach.
“The last two games, he's been excellent. He's been a difference-maker,” Ryan Day said. “He really wasn't early on. I think he was kind of finding his way. But wow, I mean, whether it's in the pass game, whether it's in protection, and obviously running the football, he's been special.”
Sermon says he has gotten “extremely comfortable over time“ as he’s now played seven games in Ohio State’s offense.
“Just getting used to the flow of the offense and really just getting in sync with the offensive line, each week I feel like I’ve been getting better and better at it,” Sermon said. “I know what I’m doing. I trust my ability. And I’m just letting the game come to me, and just being decisive.”
Olave gets his redemption
There might not have been any player who was hungrier to get a win over Clemson on Friday night than Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave, whose route-running mistake in the final minute of last year’s CFP semifinal against Clemson led to Nolan Turner’s game-sealing interception that ended Ohio State’s season.
In this year’s game against Clemson, Olave achieved redemption, playing a key role in the Buckeyes’ 21-point victory as he led Ohio State with six receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
After Olave tested positive for COVID-19 before the Big Ten Championship Game, there was some doubt as to whether he would be able to play in this week’s game, especially before the Big Ten changed its return-to-play protocol from 21 to 17 days. He wasn’t able to practice much leading up to Friday’s game. But just as he has done in many big games throughout his three years at Ohio State, Olave rose to the occasion against the Tigers, reestablishing himself as Ohio State’s No. 1 receiver after his presence was clearly missed against Northwestern.
“We were really nervous, when we went down with COVID, we weren't going to get him back,” Day said. “He practiced, didn't really practice fully. So it was a little dicey going into the week, but started to get his legs back underneath him towards the end of the week and then comes out and plays the way he does in a big spot.
“One of the more clutch players, I think, as a receiver in maybe the history of Ohio State football when you think back on it. Wow, what a player he is.”
The chance to get back to the CFP and make up for his season-ending mistake last year served as fuel for Olave all offseason long, and making that happen on Friday made all the hard work in a challenging year worth it.
“It’s been a tough year. But just had to fight through adversity, and luckily I came out in the end and had a huge game today,” Olave said. “Just being able to beat these guys and have fun with my teammates, I’m just blessed and proud to be here.”
Three tight end touchdowns
The narrative that Ohio State doesn’t use its tight ends in the passing game as much as it could or should has been a pervasive one that’s surrounded the Buckeyes for years. On Friday, however, tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert had their moment to shine on the biggest stage.
Farrell scored Ohio State’s second touchdown of the night when he snagged a pass through coverage by Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick for an 8-yard score. Ruckert scored Ohio State’s third and fifth touchdowns of the night, both in the second quarter, on passes from 17 and 12 yards out.
Their three touchdowns matched the total number of touchdowns that Ohio State tight ends had all season to date before Friday’s game, as Ruckert had three touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ first six games while Farrell had none. All year long, though, Farrell and Ruckert have never complained about just doing their jobs and functioning as run blockers – which they’ve been excellent at, by the way – and on Friday, they were rewarded with the opportunity to make big plays in a huge game.
“Everything is week to week. Coach Day is one of the best I’ve ever seen at just scheming on defenses and making sure he finds the open play,” Ruckert said. “Our tight end has always been able to be a group to rely on whether it’s in the run game or being able to go make plays, and I think you guys saw it today that no moment’s too big to us.”
Justin Fields was happy he had the opportunity to throw some key passes their way – five in total, as Ruckert had three catches for 55 yards and Farrell had two catches for 11 yards – on Friday night – acknowledging that he hasn’t always done a good enough job in previous games of finding them when they are open.
“I think, throughout the year, I've missed the tight ends a lot on a lot of plays,” Fields said. “So it was pretty much just going back to the basics and seeing the plays that they were open on and kind of utilizing those guys. Those are two of the best tight ends in the country, and I'm just glad we finally got to use them.”
Defense steps up after shaky start
There were tons of questions leading into Friday’s game about whether Ohio State’s defense would be able to get the job done against Trevor Lawrence and Clemson’s offense, and early on, those concerns appeared to be validated. The Tigers scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions of the game, driving 82 yards on their opening series and 75 yards on their third.
From that point forward, however, Ohio State allowed just two more touchdown drives on 10 more Clemson possessions. The Buckeyes forced three straight punts after Clemson’s second touchdown of the game, came up with two takeaways (a Justin Hilliard fumble recovery on a Tommy Togiai strip and a Sevyn Banks interception) in the second half and also forced a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State’s passing defense certainly still took its lumps against the Tigers, allowing Lawrence to throw for 400 yards. But the Buckeyes’ run defense was dominant, holding Clemson to just 44 rushing yards, and most importantly, they did what they needed to do to limit the Tigers’ scoring in the game’s final three quarters, ultimately enabling Ohio State’s offense to take over the game.
The Buckeyes knew Clemson’s offense was going to make some plays on Friday, and that it wasn’t going to be realistic to pitch a shutout or never give up any plays. But the defense responded the way it needed to for Ohio State to still win the game by a comfortable margin.
“Look, we knew Clemson was one of the best offenses in the country,” said Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland. “We couldn’t get down on ourselves. We couldn’t lose confidence in what we were doing. And these guys, throughout this whole process, I think that just shows the character of this group, to just kind of bounce back like that.”
Day said he thought Ohio State’s defensive coaches put together an “excellent” game plan, and he was proud of the way the players executed.
“We knew they were going to make plays. We stuck together, though,” Day said. “We didn't flinch when they got a couple touchdowns. We just kept going after them. Was it perfect? I don't know. But it was gutsy. And they played really good. And we played complementary football tonight.
“I thought what our defense did a good job of, they didn't give up the big play. They kept it in front. They kept making them go one more play, one more play, one more play. And that's the idea. I think we learned our lesson from that Indiana game there. And because of that, we were able to play the way we did and finish the game the way it should be.”