Record-breaking Sermon delivering for Ohio State football at just the right time
Trey Sermon accepted the challenge with four simple words.
“I got you, coach,” he told Tony Alford.
That’s all he said. That’s all he needed to say.
It was the first half of the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 19, and Ohio State’s offense was struggling. Wide receiver Chris Olave was out with COVID-19, and quarterback Justin Fields and the passing game was out of sync.
Northwestern led, and starting running back Master Teague III had left the game with an injury. A fourth consecutive conference title and return trip to the College Football Playoff was in jeopardy.
Alford, Ohio State’s running backs coach, found Sermon on the sideline between series.
“He pulled me to the side,” Sermon recalled, “and was like, ‘The great running backs here, they thrive in situations like this. I need you to take over the game.’ ”
Sermon smiled and said those four words. Then he made history. He would run for 331 yards and two touchdowns to lead Ohio State to a 22-10 victory, securing a spot in the CFP semifinals against Clemson on New Year’s Day.
In Ohio State’s 125-year history, no Buckeye had run for that many yards. Not Hopalong Cassady. Not Archie Griffin. Not Ezekiel Elliott. Not Eddie George, who held the record for 25 years with a 314-yard game in 1995 on the way to winning the Heisman Trophy.
“The running back tradition here is phenomenal,” Sermon said. “Just to be in the category with those guys, it's a great feeling. I came here to be a great running back. I came here to be a part of this tradition. Just being able to be put in that category with those guys, it's an honor.”
To understand Trey Sermon, it helps to know about his mom, Natoshia Mitchell.
“Oh, she’s awesome,” Alford said.
Mitchell is a clinical research analyst for cancer patients at Emory University in Atlanta. She is also finishing her PhD and hopes to start a nonprofit program focusing on domestic violence next year.
“I want to be able to help families that can’t afford funeral services or bereavement programs and help them rebuild their lives,” Mitchell said.
For Mitchell, it’s personal. When she was a teenager, her first son died 27 years ago as a victim of domestic violence when he was a toddler. She wrote a book about her experience, “When My Soul Cried: Healing, Forgiveness and Releasing.”
“My mom, she's overcome a lot,” Sermon said. “She's been through a lot of adversity in her lifetime, and that's why she's my role model. She showed me how to just battle back and be strong no matter what.”
Sermon has needed that resilience. Ohio State recruited him out of Sprayberry High School in Georgia. He and Alford became close, but the Buckeyes’ interest cooled after he injured his back early in his junior year. Ohio State signed J.K. Dobbins instead in its 2017 recruiting class.
“It was pretty tough because Ohio State was my No. 1 school,” Sermon said. “I wanted to come here.”
He wasn’t bitter about it, and he maintained a relationship with Alford after signing with Oklahoma. Sermon had his moments as a Sooner. His first college touchdown came in Oklahoma’s victory over Ohio State in 2017, the game in which Baker Mayfield planted the flag on the Block O. Sermon ran for 205 yards against Texas Tech in 2018.
But Sermon wasn’t able to establish himself as the No. 1 running back. He wanted a chance for more in his final college season. When he decided to transfer in March, Ohio State was happy to take him.
It seemed like a perfect fit. Dobbins’ presumed successor, Teague, had torn his Achilles tendon on the first day of spring practice.
But Sermon’s acclimation to Ohio State was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Woody Hayes Athletic Center closed. Players scattered. Sermon, whose 2019 season was cut short by a knee injury, rehabbed and trained in Texas.
He moved to Columbus in June, but even then was limited by COVID restrictions. He had little chance to bond with his new teammates. His meetings with Alford took place outside the coach’s house.
Sermon spent most of his time studying the playbook, mostly isolated except for his puppy, a blue nose pitbull named Lucky. Sermon had so much time on his hands that he was able to train Lucky to ring the doorbell to their apartment when he needed to be let out. That might be an impressive feat, but it wasn’t what he came to Columbus to do.
Even when the Big Ten canceled the season in August before reversing itself the next month, Sermon said he never second-guessed his decision to transfer to Ohio State.
“I never thought about transferring anywhere else,” he said.
Sermon looked like a player adjusting to a new program when the season belatedly started. He didn’t run for more than 68 yards in any of Ohio State’s first four games.
Alford understood that the adjustment process would take time, but it didn’t sit well with Sermon. Mitchell said her son is a perfectionist. When things aren’t going well, he tends to get down on himself. It affected his relationship with Alford.
“Trey Sermon basically stopped talking to me after about the second game,” Alford said. “He would talk to me when he had to. But he used to just come by my office or he would call me or text me all the time. I’d get late-at-night text messages all the time. But then all of a sudden, that stopped.”
Sermon said he just needed time to process and work through his struggles.
“It was definitely just a frustrating time,” he said. “But I knew that I was going to come out the back of it — more positive, happier, and things were going to align.”
Alford took the distancing in stride, understanding that it’s part of the coach-player dynamic. He said the turning point might have been when Sermon received an invitation to the Senior Bowl. After that, he began practicing better. Against Michigan State, Sermon ran for 112 yards and he repeatedly ran through tackles and showed shiftiness.
It was just a prelude of the Northwestern game. Alford noticed on Sermon’s first two carries for modest yardage that the running back was accelerating into contact and moving the pile. He could sense something special brewing.
At halftime, Sermon had 60 yards as Ohio State trailed. Then, as Alford had asked, Sermon carried the Buckeyes to victory, gaining 271 yards in the second half.
“As a runner, when you have a good feel for the game and catch the flow for it, it's a great feeling,” Sermon said. “It's the best feeling in the world. You're just seeing everything so clear.”
Sermon wasn’t aware that he’d broken George’s record until after the game. He was appreciative of the congratulations from so many family and friends, as well as from Mayfield, Eddie George and LeBron James, among others.
Sermon has always had confidence in himself, but he has a quiet demeanor.
“He’s very quiet and extremely humble,” Alford said. “He’s very thankful for what's around him and the people who are around him – his family, and he loves his teammates. He has really embraced this culture that we have with just being one of the guys.”
Alford said Sermon has a 4.0 grade-point average as a grad student studying sports coaching.
The spotlight will be even bigger against Clemson. No one expects him to run for 300 yards again, but the Buckeyes will need everyone at their peak.
“I know that I'm going to have to play my best game,” he said. “I believe in my ability, so if I play my best game, it'll be more than enough. I don’t have to do nothing crazy, nothing extra. Just do my job to the best of my ability.”
No matter what happens in the Sugar Bowl, Sermon has made an unforgettable mark. He said it has begun to sink in that he did something no other Buckeye ever has.
For his mom, it might have been even sweeter.
“I was screaming at the TV,” she said. “Words could not express how excited I was for him. I cried. I even woke up the next day still crying. But I was really excited for him, that he really had the opportunity to show the world the Trey Sermon that we all have seen.”
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson
When: 8:45 p.m. Friday
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)