Sermon's record 331 yards lifts Buckeyes to fourth straight Big Ten title

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State's Sermon arrived just when it was needed most.

With its passing game out of sync in the Big Ten championship game against No. 14 Northwestern, running back Trey Sermon came to the rescue to lead the Buckeyes to a 22-10 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon hurdles Northwestern defensive back A.J. Hampton during the second quarter. Sermon's 331 rushing yards set a school record.

Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, ran for an Ohio State-record 331 yards in 29 carries to spark Ohio State's offense. He broke Eddie George's record of 314 set in 1995 during his Heisman Trophy-winning season.

The win gives the Buckeyes an unprecedented fourth straight conference title.

Now the question is whether it will be enough to earn the Buckeyes a spot in the College Football Playoff when that is announced Sunday.

Ohio State Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon (8) rushes for a touchdown ahead of Northwestern Wildcats defensive back JR Pace (5) during the third quarter of the Big Ten Championship football game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. Ohio State won 22-10.

Ohio State (6-0) is No. 4, but critics have questioned its abbreviated schedule. Style points on Saturday would have cemented the Buckeyes' spot.

Ohio State is likely in, but there could be some tossing and turning in bed depending on the outcome of other conference championship games.

"It's the most special group of men that I've ever met in my life," coach Ryan Day said during the postgame celebration. "The adversity that these young men have been through, what (their) families have been through from the start of the season, we can talk about it for an hour.

"This thing has been a journey along the way, and one thing this team has overcome is adversity. I kind of had a feeling it was going to be this way today. It's just the way the season has gone."

As they were against Michigan State, Ohio State was shorthanded because of COVID-19. The Buckeyes were without receiver Chris Olave, linebacker Baron Browning and punter Drue Chrisman, all of whom made the all-Big Ten team. 

Then during the game, Fields injured his thumb, which he said got progressively stiffer and affected his passing. Fields completed only 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards with two interceptions.

Ohio State trailed until a 71-yard touchdown drive late in the third quarter in which Sermon carried for 55 yards, including the final 8, for a 13-10 lead.

The defense closed the door from there. It shut out the Wildcats (6-1) in the second half and got interceptions from linebacker Justin Hilliard and safety Josh Proctor, plus a fumble recovery from Hilliard.

Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard (47) celebrates his fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State limited Northwestern to only 133 yards in the Wildcats' final six possessions of the second half.

Sermon clinched the victory with an 8-yard touchdown carry with 4:03 left. He gained 61 of the Buckeyes' 80 yards on the drive.

Sermon repeatedly ran through gaping holes opened by Ohio State's offensive line. Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere and center Josh Myers returned from missing the Michigan State game. Sermon also repeatedly cutback for additional yards.

"I was able to get in a groove and keep it rolling," Sermon said.

"I just want to thank my teammates and coaches for motivating me and welcoming me to the brotherhood. I'm so appreciative."

It was by far the best game as a Buckeye for Sermon, who was recovering from a knee injury when he transferred. He ran for 112 against Michigan State. His previous best this season was 68 yards as he played behind Master Teague III. Sermon ran for 206 yards against Texas Tech in 2018 as a Sooner.

Ohio State trailed 10-3 at halftime against a Northwestern defense that had yielded the fewest points per game in the country (14.6). On Ohio State's first possession, Justin Fields ran 7 yards into the end zone, but left guard Harry Miller was called for holding. The Buckeyes then settled for a 41-yard field goal by Blake Haubeil.

Haubeil added a 43-yarder late in the half, but that was all the Buckeyes could produce. Ohio State had a chance to take the lead when it drove to the Northwestern 9 in the final minute. Fields threw a fade pass to Garrett Wilson in the end zone, but Northwestern's Brandon Joseph made a one-handed interception, his nation-leading sixth.

Northwestern went 75 yards for a touchdown on its second possession and then added a career-long 47-yard field goal by Charlie Kuhbander for its first-half points.

The teams' offenses spent of the third quarter matching each other's failures. Each team threw an interception and missed a field goal. 

Then came Ohio State's touchdown drives powered by Sermon. The Buckeyes' defense did the rest.