Fair or not, the burden of proof lied with the Buckeyes.
They knew the belonged in the College Football Playoff, but most of the world outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center picked against them in Friday's game against Clemson.
They had only played six games, just five in the regular season. They hadn't played a game on consecutive Saturdays since Halloween and the first Saturday or November. They hadn't been tested against a Big Ten that wasn't very good this year.
The Buckeyes heard all those narratives and so many others, but they didn't care. They just wanted a chance to show they were worthy of a College Football Playoff selection. No matter what everyone else thought, as long as the 13-member selection committee agreed they were good enough to compete for a national title despite their truncated schedule, they didn't really care if you liked them or not.
Thankfully, they got their chance and delivered one of the all-time best curb-stompings in program history. Never beaten Clemson before? You wouldn't have known it last night when the Buckeyes pounded a team into submission that everyone said would torch Ohio State through the air. That was a national championship-caliber performance. Here are five things that really stuck with me after a glorious short night sleep ... that was better than Christmas Eve as a kid, wasn't it?
Here are five things that really stuck with me after a glorious short night sleep ... that was better than Christmas Eve as a kid, wasn't it?
Justin Fields, Heart of a Lion
That's exactly how Ryan Day described Fields to ESPN's Maria Taylor after winning the Sugar Bowl last night. What a great reference. We may or may not wind up learning about the extent of Fields' injured ribs, but considering the audible groans he let out as he tried to sit down / stand up for his postgame press conference (and the near constant grimacing fans saw on camera throughout the game), his pain was obvious.
You felt it in your living room last night when he first got hit, didn't you? Linebacker James Skalski, the heart and soul of the Clemson defense, delivered a bone-crunching hit into Fields' rib cage that got him ejected and left the Buckeye quarterback laying on the turf unable to get up.
But Fields refused to throw in the towel. From that point forward in his record-breaking night, he completed 11-of-14 passes for 222 yards and four touchdowns to cap off an historic night. It was as gutsy of a performance as I've ever watched.
Line of Scrimmage
It was a fair fight, but it was a lopsided one.
Both Ohio State and Clemson have NFL talent in the trenches. Games of that magnitude are often won by the team that has the best chance to control the line of scrimmage. I was so impressed with Ohio State on the offensive side - and you can probably thank Indiana for that, because the ridiculous constant pressure that Fields was under all game that November night prepared the Buckeyes to handle anything that Clemson could throw at them.
The offensive line depth was tested in a big way and the group delivered. The 639 yards of total offense and five consecutive touchdown drives were as much a testament to their collective play as any of the skill position players. Without Harry Miller and with All-American Wyatt Davis for periods in the second half, Matthew Jones, Dawand Jones and Paris Johnson Jr. all saw meaningful minutes and played admirably.
As they prepare to play Alabama, this offensive line told everyone in the country that their group is as good as you'll find.
Trey Sermon is a Beast
Without feature back Master Teague as he still deals with the side effects of a concussion that he suffered against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, Trey Sermon got his chance to shine on the game's biggest stage.
He ran for a program-record 331 yards and two touchdowns against the vaunted Wildcats defense. How in the world could he top that performance?
With the need to develop a presence on the ground early and often, Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson called Sermon's number 31 times. He rewarded them with 193 yards and a touchdown, making it now more than 500 yards on the ground in his last two games.
But the play that stuck out most to me was the one erased from the box score. Sermon was tackled after picking up a first down on a tough third down run, but as he was tackled, he thought his elbow and knee hadn't touched the ground as he rolled over a defender. While replay clearly showed that he was down by contact, Sermon raced 70+ yards toward the end zone and the play was ruled a touchdown on the field. He didn't hear a whistle and he wasn't going to be denied. It's really hard to coach a player to do that. You have to want that inside of you because it manifests itself in moments where you don't have a chance to really think about it.
Sermon is a first year Buckeye that put his head down and worked like crazy. His big break hadn't come as fast as he might have liked, but he's been precisely what this team needs. And now he's got a chance to play in the national championship game in what could be his final college football game.
That was as hard-hitting a game as I've seen Ohio State play in years. They delivered and absorbed right hooks and upper cuts that questioned their toughness all night. I can't imagine how many times some of those players walked away from a play feeling the sting of a brutal blow. But you often hear coaches say: you don't rise the the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.
Ohio State had spent 370 days thinking about this game and training for moments exactly like the one they had yesterday. I'm not slighting Clemson - they're a darn good team and they're better than just about everyone in the country - but they are not tougher than the Buckeyes. The Scarlet and Gray flat out wanted that game more. Every single time they got knocked down to the mat, the Buckeyes popped back up and invited the contact so more. They broke Clemson's will, and watching it on the faces of Trevor Lawrence, Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables (among others) was something Ohio State fans won't soon forget.
Ohio State Rush Defense
If I told you before the game that Trevor Lawrence was going to throw for 400 yards and two touchdowns, you might've believed Ohio State was in for a long night. But that wasn't the case. The Silver Bullets did exactly what they needed to do: prevent big, game-changing, momentum-swinging plays. Clemson's longest play of the night was 29 yards - not a single play over 30 yards. (By contrast, the Buckeyes offense had seven such plays). What a huge difference from the narrative in games past.
But the primary reason for their success came between the tackles. The Buckeyes absolutely stuffed Travis Etienne, the all-time leading rusher in ACC history. In fact, it was to the point where they stopped trying to run him. Clemson very clearly wanted to try to play with the Bucks out on the boundaries. Etienne finished the day with 10 carries and 32 yards. He did have four catches for 64 yards, but he never broke off a play longer than 26 yards. Kudos to the Buckeyes front seven for bottling up one of the all-time great running backs in recent college football history.
A special tip of the cap to defensive ends Jonathon Cooper and Tyreke Smith, who played more football last night than at any point this season because Tyler Friday and Zach Harrison were unavailable. If they fatigued, they didn't show it. They both absolutely wrecked Clemson's offensive line all night long.
And one bonus thought ...
It's hard to understand the depth of feeling this team has for each other. The "brotherhood" is how they describe it and what many of those players have referenced when they've been asked why they've sacrificed so much this year. The story has been told throughout the year, often unfolding publicly when body-blow after body-blow seemed to land within Ryan Day's program. And worst of all, they've largely been things well beyond their control.
But the unbreakable bond and love for each other has brought this team together in a way that we probably can't comprehend from the outside. The mantra "fight" has defined their mentality all season long. Even last night when they had a commanding 3-touchdown lead at halftime, I was so impressed with the way they played in the second half. It was very clear that the Buckeyes knew they were playing a championship-caliber team and it would take a full 60-minutes to knock off one of the great quarterbacks in college football history.
And with the biggest game of them all still to come, you can bet this team has a lot of fight left in them.
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