Those in Columbus won’t ever forget what went down in New Orleans late last week. Not after Ohio State got over the hump to beat Clemson and earn a trip to the national title game.
Numerous plays in Friday night’s Sugar Bowl will live in highlight reels for decades to come. Justin Fields uncorking a 56-yarder to Chris Olave for a touchdown, Trey Sermon scampering for a 32-yard score to begin the onslaught and the throwback touchdown pass to Jeremy Ruckert will live forever in the minds of Buckeye fans, and for good reason. Those were each backbreaking moments against a highly-regarded Tigers defense in the 49-28 victory.
One play that will largely be forgotten in the hoopla, however, stands out as perhaps the most underrated: A 10-yard run late in the second quarter. Does that ring a bell? Maybe, maybe not. But if you remember what came after – and perhaps just as importantly, what didn’t come after – then you’ll realize exactly what made it such a big deal.
Let’s set the scene.
The Buckeyes are holding a 28-14 lead at this point after having scored touchdowns on their past four drives. It’s 3rd-and-9. They have the ball at their own 39-yard line with 1:46 remaining in the first half and the clock is stopped. Clemson, hoping to get one more offensive drive, just called a timeout after Fields tried to scramble and ended up in a crumpled heap when Baylon Spector drilled him as he tried to slide, further causing pain to his ribs. A first-down conversion right here would put Ohio State around midfield with a good chance at getting points on the board to make it a three-score game entering halftime. Failing to pick up at least 9 yards would give the ball back to Clemson with a minute and a half to go.
With all of that in mind, head coach Ryan Day dialed up his tried and true mid-zone run to the right with Sermon getting the handoff in an attempt to move the chains.
From both available All-22 angles, here it is:
That, right there, is the exact type of play-call that often drives fans nuts. On an important third down, Ohio State went with a run while needing 9 yards to convert a first down rather than dialing up a pass with one of the nation’s best quarterbacks and best wide receiver duos. Do you remember when Sermon got a handoff on 3rd-and-8 from Rutgers’ 40-yard line and gained 1 yard earlier this year? Folks weren’t particularly thrilled.
Except this time going to the tailback worked.
Did Day call a run because he really believed Sermon would pick up at least 9 yards, or did he do so because he was worried about Fields getting hit again? We might never know. But the outcome was in favor of the Buckeyes.
Ohio State was working with an optimal tackle box that included six Clemson defenders for the six Buckeye blockers to handle. The idea is if each player wins their one-on-one matchup, the running back should have a chance to get to the second or third level and will have some space to try to make a linebacker or defensive back out of the box miss.
Up front, Ohio State blocked it beautifully. Right guard Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers reminded people why they’re viewed so highly by handling defensive tackle Tyler Davis and defensive lineman Bryan Bresee to create a running lane for Sermon. Backup left guard Paris Johnson locked on to safety Ray Thornton creeping toward the line of scrimmage, keeping him unable to get to the ball-carrier.
And, of course, Sermon showed once more why he has made so many jaws drop over the past couple of weeks. He quickly recognized the hole, exploded through it and finished the run, spinning off of an attempted tackle by linebacker Trenton Simpson while maintaining his footing to gain an extra 3 or 4 yards that made the difference in whether or not he moved the chains.
If Sermon didn’t convert the first down, Clemson likely would have called a timeout, Ohio State would have subsequently punted and the Tigers would have had the ball with about 90 seconds left with one more timeout on their pocket. Had they gotten something going, they could have turned it into a 28-21 game with a touchdown or 28-17 score with a field goal entering halftime.
Instead, the Buckeyes quickly moved the ball down the field for a drive that ended with Fields finding Ruckert for a 12-yard touchdown to increase their lead to 35-14 as the first half concluded. Getting the ball to begin the second half, too, they were off to the races.
So, so many plays from the Sugar Bowl victory will live forever in the annals of Ohio State history. This 10-yard jaunt from Sermon won’t be among them. Rather, it's one of the dozens of plays integral to what will be remembered as a legendary win in Buckeye history.
Who know what would have happened if Sermon fell short of the marker? Would Clemson have managed to score late in the first half to close the gap and gain a much-needed confidence boost? Ohio State, because of the effort and execution of Sermon and the offensive line, will never have to fine out.