Most of the season, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon was a J.A.G. — just another guy, as Bill Parcells described nondescript players.
Then December came.
Suddenly, the Oklahoma transfer became an updated version of former Buckeye Ezekiel Elliott, a bruising and speedy game-changer. In three games, Sermon produced 696 all-purpose yards — 589 combined in the College Football Playoff semifinal and Big Ten title game — and four touchdowns, after managing just 267 yards over his four regular-season contests.
“It’s really remarkable what he’s done,” coach Ryan Day said in the lead-up to Monday’s national championship game against Alabama. “Over 500 yards in two of the biggest games of the year, and he has a chance to go down in Ohio State history as [having] one of the best runs ever if he can have another performance in this game like he did the last two.”
So, what changed?
Day pointed to a few factors. It took the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Sermon longer to adjust to his new surroundings because of the lack of a non-conference schedule and no true offseason program. He was coming off knee surgery. Sermon said he began practicing better, determined to not let his senior year go by without making an impact.
It started against Michigan State on Dec. 5, with Sermon running for 112 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown. In the Big Ten title game against Northwestern, Sermon carried the offense, producing an Ohio State-record 331 rushing yards and two scores. Then, in the semifinal against Clemson at the Sugar Bowl, he had his best game of the season as a receiver, with four catches for 61 yards, and also rushed for 193 yards on 31 carries.
The Buckeyes’ co-starter, Master Teague, wasn’t available against Clemson and only had two carries against Northwestern after suffering an injury early on. Sermon made up for his absence.
“To say I knew he’d be doing this right now, no, this has been a pleasant surprise,” Day said. “When he started to get more at-bats, he started to [drive in] more runs, got into a rhythm of the game, and I think you’re seeing the best version of Trey.”
This last month has been a reminder of what kind of threat Sermon can be. He was the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year for Oklahoma. He rushed for 13 touchdowns as a Sooners sophomore. Then his playing time diminished as a junior and he suffered a knee injury late in the season.
Hoping to make the most of his final year in college, Sermon transferred to Ohio State, which had recruited him out of high school. One of the reasons he picked the Buckeyes was the presence of quarterback Justin Fields, a fellow Georgia native and close friend. Another aspect was the situation in the backfield. The Buckeyes lost J.K. Dobbins to the NFL and Teague suffered an Achilles injury during the spring.
After every win, Fields approaches Sermon with a similar sentiment.
“I told you that you should have came here,” Fields reminds him.
Sermon has certainly done his part, and not just in this three-game stretch. Over the season’s first six weeks, Sermon took a backseat to Teague. It didn’t impact his attitude or work ethic.
“He never came into my office, never said a word, just kept working, and then when his opportunity came to be the guy, he took it and ran,” Day said.
There are a lot of similarities between this Ohio State club and its last champion, the 2014 group. Both teams were doubted entering the playoff, major underdogs in both playoff contests. The 2014 team had Elliott, a star running back who was dominant in the playoffs, running for 476 yards and six touchdowns. Sermon isn’t the same player or prospect — Elliott was taken fourth overall in the 2016 draft and has been selected to three Pro Bowls — but he’s doing his best impression.
“I definitely remember watching [the playoff that year],” Sermon said. “It’s been a lot of great running backs that have come through here, and Zeke is one of the best running backs. Just to be in that conversation, it’s an honor.”