INDIANAPOLIS -- At four minutes past midnight, Cardale Jones had to emerge from obscurity one more time. He stood among dozens of bodies clustered on a dais, buried in a sweaty celebratory mass, and he’d been called to the front. A little more than a week earlier, he was the third-string quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes. A few hours earlier, he remained an enigma, the great unknown set between a program and its championship aspirations. Now, on the stage, the sophomore with 19 career passes before Saturday was the most valuable player of the Big Ten title game. He was a revelation. And he was due a trophy.
Jones nudged his way to the front of the pack, grabbed the award and smiled. Then his eyes squeezed shut.
“Words really can’t explain that feeling,” Jones said. “But I want that feeling again.”
He could do no more to assure he would. Ohio State entered Lucas Oil Stadium and dropped the biggest annihilation in league championship history at the feet of 12 College Football Playoff selection committee members. It was a 59-0 bludgeoning of Wisconsin and it was a flat-out dare to snub them. It was a rousing rebuke of every conceivable doubt applied to the Buckeyes, starting with the backup-to-the-backup quarterback who executed the most efficient performance in league title game history and continuing to a defense that drove a Heisman Trophy candidacy into extinction. It was everything Ohio State could possibly do to shove TCU and Baylor aside and earn its spot as one of the final four.
“Watch the film of what we just did,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “We functioned on all cylinders tonight, and when you see something like that happen, you have to take a step back and wonder, well, who can’t they beat?”
How this came to be defied explanation. The quarterback who was supposed to lead Ohio State’s final push for a playoff spot, J.T. Barrett, watched the action from the sideline, a headset on and his surgically repaired ankle alternately propped up on a chair or on a scooter contraption. The player wearing No. 53 was Bennett, and not Kosta Karageorge, in a walking reminder of what else the Buckeyes had lost. Police found Karageorge, a 273-pound walk-on and former Buckeyes wrestler, in a dumpster near his Columbus apartment on Sunday, dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
It was a suffocating week full of unwanted goodbyes. And at the end came something more than release, more than catharsis. At the end came a reckoning.
Ohio State was a playoff team. Whether 12 people in a conference room agreed was a different matter and a total mystery. “It’s going to be a quagmire all the time when you’re trying to crown a champion,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “I would hope they get in, but they’re already champions. We should celebrate this gauntlet these young men went through. Unbelievable adversity. Injuries to Heisman Trophy candidates. A death. Think about all the tragedy, and they responded. Right now, I prefer to think about the fact that they’re champions in the Big Ten, and hopefully we get a chance to get the national [championship]. I won’t be upset if we’re not in the four. I’ll be a little pissed off, though.”
It all began with Jones, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound, cherubic faced sophomore best known for an infamous 2012 tweet lamenting the “student” part of student-athlete. “We came here to play FOOTBALL,” Jones wrote then, “we ain’t come to play SCHOOL.” He hadn’t been heard from much on any level since. So it was no surprise that Wisconsin won the opening toss on Saturday and deferred until the second half. The Badgers bet on their No. 2-ranked defense and wanted to shove the unproven third-stringer onto the coals.
This did not happen. What happened was more like the Badgers tripping badly, falling into a tub full of nails and broken glass, then falling out of that tub and into another one filled with hydrochloric acid and shame.
Immediately, Jones demonstrated gumption and poise, playing with the assertiveness of a quarterback with 19 career starts, not 19 career pass attempts. His first touchdown pass, a 39-yard strike to Devin Smith on the opening series, was hurled at a receiver who wasn’t exactly open. Jones had the stones to throw it anyway. Jones’ second scoring toss was released with a pass-rusher bearing down on him, and he threw a near-perfect ball over Smith’s shoulder for a 44-yard touchdown. The self-assurance and execution, despite one of history’s most unremarkable track records for a championship game quarterback, was staggering.
“He’s been in the program for plenty of time,” Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker said. “The way we run our system, he gets almost as many reps in practice as the starter does. So I think he’s always been ready. And then J.T. and Braxton [Miller] I’m sure helped him in his preparation. I couldn’t give a really clear-cut answer how he managed it. I don’t think anybody was expecting him to come out and play like that, and it was amazing that he did.”
To begin a late first-quarter drive, Jones attempted to run the option. He stumbled, put his hand to the ground to keep balance, and then fell comically on his backside. He completed passes of 23 and 32 yards, respectively, on the next two snaps. On the second, two Ohio State receivers collided in the middle of their routes, and Jones waited out the action and found Jalin Marshall anyway for a big gain. Even when things went fractionally bad for the Buckeyes, Jones made it look good. He finished 12-of-17 for 257 yards with three touchdowns, and his 255.8 passer rating set a new title game record. The 558 yards of offense more than doubled what Wisconsin had been allowing all season.
“Nobody doubted me,” Jones said. “There was never a panic button pushed. It’s not like my coach says, Cardale, we need you to throw for 5,000 yards or anything like that. Just get the ball to the playmakers. And that was it.”
That was not the end of Ohio State’s cruelty. The defense chopped Wisconsin into pieces, but in an added indignity, it saddled Melvin Gordon with the antitheses of a Heisman moment: A second-quarter fumble by the Badgers’ 2,000-yard tailback was returned for a touchdown by the Buckeyes’ Joey Bosa. That put the score at 38-0 and left Gordon to contemplate how he’ll applaud politely while Oregon’s Marcus Mariota hoists the trophy next weekend.
Maybe that’s the way things were headed anyway, but Gordon’s 76 yards rushing at 2.9 yards per attempt made sure of it. “Best effort we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Everyone was waiting for the ‘Silver Bullets’ to come back, including the head coach. That was a fantastic effort.”
It was celebrated as such. It took three quarterbacks to get here, and on the field after the game, Miller and Barrett took pictures with fans while Jones ran around with a rose tucked behind his right ear. In the locker room, hip-hop and country music played at wall-rattling volume. The agony of a loss to Michigan State in last year’s conference title game was extinguished in magnificent fashion. And now they’d learn if fantastic and magnificent was enough.
That’s the bargain every administrator and every school made by leaving all this to a selection committee. As he stood amid the pink and green and blue streamers, Gene Smith was asked what separated Ohio State from the other contenders for a playoff spot. “We’re better,” the AD said with a smile. Meyer, meanwhile, winced at the what-statement-did-you-make question. “This team, the way it’s playing right now, is one of the top teams in America,” the Buckeyes coach said.
But both the athletic director and the coach and one of the architects of the system understood that was not their call to make, that there is no viable way to predict the whims of a dozen committee members who may or may not be swayed by one night of incredible destructive force.
“How could you be better than they played tonight?” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said of the Buckeyes. “There are only four No. 1 seeds in basketball and there are only four teams in the playoff. They did everything they could possibly do. I think that most people who watched this would walk away saying, hey, that’s a great college football team.”
Ohio State belongs. That was certain as of Saturday night. Their fans chanted “We want Bama!” as time wound down, and the Buckeyes deserve it. Whether they get it is the question, because deserve has everything and nothing to do with it.