The lore of Ohio State’s 2014 title run will forever be centered around Cardale Jones, the accidental third-string quarterback who turned into a folk hero over a three-game stretch.
Jones’ halogen smile, gutty runs and ability to hit Devin Smith on vertical routes remain the familiar snapshots from Ohio State’s last national championship run.
But the reality of that three-game stretch is that it doubled as a career breakout for Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, then a sophomore tailback with modest production. While he’s best remembered for his 85-yard touchdown run that slayed Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Elliott flashed his NFL potential with three consecutive performances that shaped the direction of his career.
As Ohio State enters a showdown with Alabama in the title game on Monday as a touchdown underdog, Buckeye fans are hoping that history is repeating itself. Tailback Trey Sermon has put forth back-to-back games that few could have seen coming. Can he complete the postseason hat trick?
Any path for Ohio State to win the national title includes another monstrous game from Sermon, who ran for 331 yards against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game and combined for 254 all-purpose yards (193 rushing and 61 receiving) in Ohio State’s upset of Clemson in the CFP semifinal.
“Nah,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day, when asked if he’d even seen a sudden breakout like Sermon’s the past two games. “Pretty unique.”
Day was the offensive coordinator at Boston College in 2014 when OSU won its last title. Then-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer drew an immediate parallel when asked if he’d ever seen a flourish like Sermon.
“Yeah, Zeke Elliott,” Meyer said in a phone interview this week. “He’d had a couple of good games before that, but nothing like the last three of his sophomore year.”
Meyer stressed that it’s “not fair” to put them in the same category as tailbacks, as Elliott is one of the NFL’s top backs. But the sudden burst to stardom is strikingly similar, even if their backstories are different.
Entering the postseason in 2014, Elliott had a season high of 182 rushing yards against an overmatched Cincinnati team. In half of the regular season games he’d gone over 100 yards, and in half he’d been under. He wasn’t among the four tailbacks on the first or second All-Big Ten teams, beat out by the likes of Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Minnesota’s David Cobb and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah.
With its top two quarterbacks, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, out of the postseason with injuries, Elliott rushed for 220 yards in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, 230 yards in the CFP semifinal against Alabama and then completed one of the greatest stretches in program history by mowing over Oregon for 246 yards and four touchdowns in the College Football Playoff title game.
Former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones said he sees “parallels” between that breakout stretch by Elliott and Sermon’s march through the postseason.
“This is why they brought him here and were so excited to get him,” said Jones, who is the co-owner of a workout facility in Columbus called Plus 2 University. “He’s in that sweet spot where he can play without thinking.”
Sermon appreciates the comparison, as he recalled watching Elliott’s iconic run against Alabama back in high school. He deflected any praise for his recent production outburst to his offensive line, which dominated the Clemson defensive front in the first CFP game.
“A lot of great running backs … have come through here, and Zeke is one of the best running backs, and just to be in that conversation, it's an honor,” he said. “Those guys are great, and I just feel pretty good about what I've been able to accomplish so far with the help of my offensive line.”
The clunky part of the analogy for Elliott and Sermon is what preceded their breakouts. Elliott was a four-star running back with an offer sheet that included Alabama, Notre Dame and Georgia. He’d been so eager to play as a true freshman that he ran down on special teams.
Sermon came to Ohio State as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, where he starred as a sophomore in 2018, rushing for 13 touchdowns and 947 yards. An LCL injury his junior year and depth-chart competition led to him exploring a transfer, and he ended up joining his old friend Justin Fields in Columbus.
Sermon had been serviceable for the Buckeyes in the regular season, but didn’t truly flash until Dec. 5 when he rushed for 112 yards on 10 carries against Michigan State. Sermon had split carries with OSU tailback Master Teague until the Big Ten title game, when Teague left the first half with an injury.
The rest is current events, as Sermon’s carries leapt to 29 against Northwestern, when he broke Eddie George’s single-game school rushing record of 314 in 1995. Sermon entered the Northwestern game with 344 total rushing yards on the season and came 13 yards from matching that in a single game.
With opportunity has come a swagger, as Sermon is running with confidence, breaking tackles and looking every bit like one of the college football’s elite tailbacks.
“When I came here, my goal was to do whatever I can to help this team out and play for a national championship,” Sermon said. “It's all happened, and it does kind of seem like a dream.”
If he puts on another show Monday and the Buckeyes pull off an upset, the dream sequence will be recalled as a similar one.
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