HE HAD already shattered the stereotype that a Big Ten back couldn't outrun an SEC team in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. Now, with slightly more than 30 seconds left in the first College Football Playoff Championship on Monday, Ezekiel Elliott waited for one final carry in the palace Jerry Jones built in Arlington, Texas. Everyone in scarlet screamed Elliott's name.
The Ohio State sophomore tailback crouched to the left of the third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones. They lined up behind the Slobs, an offensive line that had struggled to replace three guys now starting in the NFL. None of this seemed possible. Had anyone suggested in August that these players would be outracing, outpassing and outmuscling Oregon for the national title, Buckeyes strength coach Mickey Marotti wouldn't just have laughed. "I would have told him to take a drug test," he says.
Jacoby Boren, a runt of a center at 6'1", 285 pounds, snapped the ball to Jones, who handed it to Elliott. The Slobs manhandled the Ducks' defensive line one final time, and Elliott covered the last of his 246 rushing yards and scored his fourth touchdown. When he came to the sideline, LeBron James hugged him. The Buckeyes would win 42--20 and claim the school's sixth championship, the first for the Big Ten since 2002 and the third for coach Urban Meyer, who took two at Florida in '06 and '08.
Meyer envisioned a scene similar to this as he watched Alabama and Notre Dame play for the BCS title two years earlier. After the game he sent a text to the entire team: "The chase is on." The chase ended in a fashion no one, least of all Jones, would have imagined. "Long story short," he says, "we weren't supposed to be here."
OHIO STATE offensive coordinator Tom Herman lounged in his office last April, certain his starting quarterback's temporary setback would produce a stronger offense. "It's a blessing in disguise—certainly for the future," Herman said. "We've identified that both these guys are legitimate Ohio State quarterbacks, and we've identified the areas they need to improve on." These guys were J.T. Barrett and Jones, who had to take the first-team snaps during spring practice as starter Braxton Miller recovered from right-shoulder surgery. Barrett, a freshman, had done enough to make summer camp an open competition for the backup job. Jones? He had evolved from the freshman Meyer had almost thrown off the team to a sophomore Meyer could almost bring himself to compliment. "I hate to say this, because he's been so bad with everything," Meyer said in April. "But you talk about a 180."
That morning Herman and the other assistants had attended a 90-minute session with Columbus-based consultant Tim Kight, 61, who met Meyer at a fund-raiser in 2013 and suddenly found himself and his son Brian advising the Buckeyes on team culture the same way they advised businesses on corporate culture. The Kights had already taught players and coaches that E (event) + R (response) = O (outcome), but in January '14 they began working with Meyer to encapsulate the coach's philosophy. Meyer suffered mentally and physically in '09 and '10 at Florida because he tried to take on too many tasks after losing much of his longtime staff. If he could define the culture, he could indoctrinate new assistants and trust them to deliver the message he desired. The approach was tested in the spring when Chris Ash (co--defensive coordinator and linebackers) and Larry Johnson (defensive line) joined the staff to help coordinator Luke Fickell revamp a defense that finished 112th in passing yards allowed in '13.
On that April day Tim Kight explained to Ohio State's assistants that they had to continuously demonstrate their competence to achieve their goals. "You can only push people to the level that they trust you," Kight says. "If you're my coach and you're an X's-and-O's wizard—the best position coach in the country—but I don't trust you, you can't push me very far."
As the session wound down, no one in the room had any inkling that two E's in the coming months would require near-perfect R's for the optimum O. After Miller's shoulder gave out again in mid-August, Herman would push Barrett to become the Big Ten's best quarterback and a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate. Then, after Barrett broke his right ankle against Michigan on Nov. 29, Herman would have to prepare Jones to win the Big Ten title game and (hopefully) two College Football Playoff showdowns. Meanwhile, the rest of the Buckeyes would have a chance to prove how great the players around the quarterback had become.
Had Herman, who was pulling double duty through the championship after being named the coach of Houston on Dec. 16, not earned his quarterbacks' trust and adapted to their diverse personalities, he never could have kept the offense humming. Miller is a quiet, supremely talented player who doesn't let many people into his inner circle. Barrett may not have the raw athleticism of the other two, but he is a born leader and a coach's dream who fired up the Buckeyes with pep talks before games, even when he wasn't playing. Jones, with his hulking 6'5", 250-pound frame and rocket arm, has the highest ceiling. He also has the lowest floor. Strength coach Marotti remembers Jones's first workout on campus in 2012. The freshman fell out, exhausted, before the Buckeyes finished their warmup. Herman had learned how to manage all three, and they trusted him enough to play the roles they had to play at the time they had to play them. "You rip your chest open, give your heart to somebody and let them have you," Herman says, "they'll do the same for you."
BARRETT DID not start the season looking like a quarterback who would break school and Big Ten records. In his second start, on Sept. 6, Virginia Tech used a Bear defensive front, with a nosetackle lined up over the center and defensive tackles over each guard. This clogged the area between the tackles and disrupted Ohio State's zone-blocking scheme. The Hokies further crippled the run game by bringing their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to cut off the outside lanes. Virginia Tech dared Barrett to win the game through the air, and he completed 9 of 29 passes and threw three interceptions in a 35--21 loss.
But Barrett and Herman kept working, figuring out how to counter such pressure. In the next four games Barrett passed for a combined 17 touchdowns and one interception in wins over Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers. He threw for only 74 yards in an ugly 31--24 double-overtime victory at Penn State, but he ran for a touchdown in each OT. Regret over a blown 17-point lead evaporated as the Buckeyes realized that in spite of the hideous box score, they had emerged with the W. Left guard Billy Price, a freshman who moved from the defensive line shortly after his arrival in Columbus, had opened holes when it mattered most. Barrett raced through them. "I would say 99% of the time you lose that game," Meyer says. "They came back. We fell behind. They scored in overtime, and we had to go down and score with a freshman quarterback, freshman lineman, freshman this, freshman that." The Buckeyes grew up that day, and they took control of the Big Ten East Division on Nov. 8 with a 49--37 win at Michigan State, which left them confident they could beat anyone.
What happened during Ohio State's next visit to the state to the north could have shattered the team's newfound belief. As the Buckeyes nursed a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, Barrett stretched for extra yardage, and his lower right leg got trapped beneath the Wolverines' 6'3", 251-pound junior defensive end Mario Ojemudia. Barrett's ankle was broken. He would miss the remainder of the season. "Seriously? That happened?" Kight says. "The guy who came from nowhere is gone? And now the third guy has to go in there?" Barrett's injury might have shattered the Buckeyes' chances of making the first College Football Playoff had they not been mentally prepared to handle that sort of adversity. After spending time with the team all season, Kight remained confident the players would recall the first three steps (the most important ones) they had been taught to take in response to an adverse event.
• Press pause The players did this when they returned to Columbus, absorbing the bad news on Sunday and taking Monday off.
• Get your mind right This happened on Tuesday and Wednesday, when they went after one another in practice to prepare for the Big Ten championship, where they would face running back Melvin Gordon and a Wisconsin offensive line that averaged 321 pounds. Fortunately for Ohio State, Jones had been getting his mind right all season. A three-star recruit who played at Glenville High in Cleveland, he had seen the way Kenny Guiton prepared as Miller's backup in 2013, watching how the offense flowed seamlessly when Guiton replaced an injured Miller for three weeks. Jones had tried to emulate Guiton's mental preparation since becoming the backup following Miller's injury in August.
• Step up Ohio State did this by blasting Wisconsin 59--0 in Indianapolis. The defense held Gordon, a Heisman finalist who entered the game averaging 8.0 yards a carry, to 2.9. Elliott ran for 220 yards and two touchdowns, while Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores.
When Jones woke the next morning, he couldn't help firing off a tweet: "Soooooo Last Night Wasn't A Dream. Holy S---." Jones might have gotten in trouble for his language had he not expressed the precise sentiment of everyone who had seen the game. Before that week Jones had been best known for a message he posted in October of his freshman year on Twitter: "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS." He got called into Meyer's office. "He's about to kill me," Jones recalls thinking. He also remembers not particularly caring.
That, Jones says, is what changed between 2012 and '14. He began to appreciate what he stood to lose if he washed out of the football program and the university. His girlfriend, Jeaney Durand, gave birth to their daughter, Chloe, in November, and Jones knows every decision he makes now affects two other lives as well. That makes him particularly grateful for Meyer's and Herman's patience and for his own maturation. "I almost became a statistic," Jones says. "I'm glad I'm not."
OHIO STATE'S rout of Wisconsin convinced the College Football Playoff selection committee that the Buckeyes deserved the fourth spot in the bracket. Suddenly Jones found himself on magazine covers and the topic of TV talk shows. "It's unreal," Jones says. "It's weird when they're talking about you on ESPN, because the last time they were talking about me, it was bad."
This time they were explaining how well Jones meshed with receivers Devin Smith, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall. The injuries to Miller and Barrett hadn't stopped the Buckeyes; they had revealed how much talent they had. "While you're busy worrying about [the receivers], you've got Ezekiel Elliott and the Slobs," Ohio State freshman linebacker Darron Lee says. "Then you've got a 6'5", 250-pound quarterback who can run and has a rocket launcher for an arm. You've got your work cut out for you. As a D coordinator, I'd be pulling my hair out too."
In the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, Lee's side would get its due. For the second consecutive game Ohio State's defense would face a Heisman finalist, and Alabama junior receiver Amari Cooper represented the kind of test the Buckeyes had failed in the past. In Meyer's previous two years the D had stopped the run but surrendered huge plays in the passing game: In an Orange Bowl loss to Clemson after the 2013 season Sammy Watkins torched the Buckeyes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. In '14, Meyer wanted his defense to work from the back forward. The linebackers would drop into coverage more often because Meyer believed a line featuring senior tackle Michael Bennett and sophomore end Joey Bosa could slow the run and generate pressure without help. The plan worked. Ohio State allowed 5.3 yards a play in '13 and 4.9 in the first 14 games of the '14 season. More important, it improved to 16th against the pass. Cooper accounted for 71 yards and two touchdowns in Ohio State's 42--35 Sugar Bowl win, but the Buckeyes held him 52 yards below his average.
In previous years confetti would have rained at the end of the bowl game, and the season would have ended. Had the BCS still decided the national champion, Ohio State would have had no chance to play for the title. It still would have faced Oregon but in a Rose Bowl devoid of stakes. According to the BCS formula, Alabama would have faced Florida State for the national title. The Buckeyes, the Ducks and the playoff proved that a mix of polls and computer rankings was not the best method of determining the national champion.
THE NO. 4 team just won the national championship," said Bennett, after he had helped Ohio State's defense hold the Ducks to their lowest point total of the season and stuff them on a second-quarter goal line stand that changed the dynamics of the game. "If we didn't have the College Football Playoff, you wouldn't have realized how good a team we became at the end of the season. I think this is a great idea."
Oregon had turned five turnovers into 34 points in a Rose Bowl win against Florida State on Jan. 1. Ohio State handed the Ducks four turnovers, but Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota could muster just 10 points from them. "Any other day," says Oregon junior defensive lineman Alex Balducci, "we make that 28."
But nothing went according to plan for the Buckeyes in the season's final months. As she stood outside the locker room waiting to go celebrate with her husband, Shelley Meyer looked back on the sheer improbability of it all. "The third-string quarterback won the national title," she says. "Do you get that?" The Meyers have three children and three national championships. Shelley can't pick a favorite child, but this might be her favorite title. "This one was a little different," she says. "Because even I doubted it. I should never have doubted it."
Elliott, who broke his left wrist in August and could carry the ball only in his right hand, averaged 88.6 rushing yards through the first eight games. In the Buckeyes' last three, against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, he rode the Slobs' blocks to 232.0 per game. On Monday, Jones completed 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown. He converted eight of 15 third downs—Mariota was just two for 12—and all three times on fourth down. Trailing by seven and backed up to his own five in the first quarter, Jones completed a 26-yard pass to Corey Smith on third down that kick-started a 97-yard TD drive. The second-string quarterback knew Jones could do it all along. "He didn't have to do anything crazy," Barrett says. "That's the great thing about this team. Nobody is alone."
The next few months could be complicated as Miller and Barrett get healthy and the Buckeyes sort out their embarrassment of riches at quarterback. But they bring back the core of this team, so they don't intend to rest much. Meyer promised his players a few days off to celebrate. Then?
"The chase is on," Jones says.
To scroll through Sports Illustrated's best photographs from the national championship, go to SI.com/photos