What if I told you that a team lost two Heisman quarterbacks in a matter of six months?
If you didn’t read that in a made-for-documentary voice, now would be the time to start.
What if I told you that this same team was left for dead in Week 2 after a grueling loss at home to Virginia Tech and then once more against Michigan State? And then again against Wisconsin. And again against Alabama. And again, once more, with feeling, against Oregon.
Don’t stop now; this is the best part.
What if I told you that a third-string quarterback—an unknown giant by the name of Cardale Jones, known for a controversial tweet and his near-dismissal from the program—would lead this team to the first-ever national championship of the College Football Playoff era and take out all three Heisman finalists along the way?
Oh, and the head coach responsible for such wizardry is the prodigal son of Ohio State football.
It’s a nice script, isn’t it? In fact, it’s almost too nice, which is why you couldn’t possibly acknowledge its existence before Monday night’s national championship game between Ohio State and Oregon.
Unpredictable is one thing; unreasonable is another.
As a Jumbotron the size of Rhode Island posted the final score of 42-20 in the Buckeyes' favor, however, the most unlikely run the sport has ever seen was fulfilled. And yet, the most shocking development to come from Dallas wasn’t that this somehow all came together for Urban Meyer; it was that the margin of victory wasn’t larger.
“This will go down as one of the great stories in college football history,” Meyer told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi moments after the game ended. Oh, will it ever.
There have been better championship games; look no further than the 2006 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas. There have been other unlikely champions; Auburn, behind quarterback Cam Newton in 2011, certainly comes to mind. But there has never been a path quite like this one; an outcome that seemed unthinkable from the very beginning, again during the middle and again all the way until the very end.
If Monday night was the first time you watched the Buckeyes this season, the outcome wasn’t the least bit surprising.
The better team—the one led by the nation’s ultimate puppet master, a jet-packed-equipped bowling ball at running back and a rocket-armed, tank-like quarterback under center—looked every bit the part of a national champion.
The Buckeyes made an electric Oregon offense and an above-average defense look utterly helpless in their efforts. The Ducks’ running game, outside of a perfectly executed opening drive, never found its rhythm, finishing with just 132 yards on 33 carries. Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota looked human for one of the few times all year.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, destroyed everything standing in their way. Despite turning the ball over four times in a handful of drive-killing, creative ways—keeping Oregon in the game deep into the third quarter—the Buckeyes still accounted for 538 yards of total offense.
Cardale Jones, still without a regular-season win on his resume as the starter, threw for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception that should have been a simple catch from his wideout. He also ran for 38 yards on 21 carries, a statistic that doesn’t do his impact on the ground justice. Jones moved large defenders backward with regularity, picking up key first downs on short-yardage plays all night.
The star of the show, however, was the one we should have seen coming: Ezekiel Elliott, coming off consecutive performances with more than 200 yards on the ground, went for 246 yards and four touchdowns.
Over the final three games—the Big Ten Championship, the Sugar Bowl and the title game—Elliott totaled 696 yards rushing and scored eight times.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Elliott said on the broadcast after the game. Oh, but it was.
Ohio State didn’t just kick off the College Football Playoff era in tremendous fashion; it rewrote college football history as it justified the College Football Playoff concept by winning from the No. 4 spot in unexpected, spectacular fashion.
Even with 5-star players scattered across the field and the nation’s best coach overseeing it all, a run like this never seemed feasible. Not when the Buckeyes fell lifelessly to Virginia Tech back in early September, a game in which Elliott carried the ball just eight times for 32 yards.
It was at this moment that we collectively pronounced them dead, a ritual we would get cozy with. Without Heisman quarterback Braxton Miller, perhaps it was unreasonable to expect anything more.
Once it clicked for J.T. Barrett, Miller’s replacement, we still didn’t believe it. It’s why the Buckeyes debuted in the first College Football Playoff Top 25 outside of the Top 15. They gave us plenty to think about—handling Michigan State in its own building—but all hope was lost (again) when Barrett went down with a season-ending injury against hated Michigan. At that point, the focus turned to the future.
When your first-string quarterback goes down, you panic. You don’t lose all hope, but you plan for the appropriate reaction when you eventually do. When your second-string quarterback is lost, you abandon the ship and save yourself. You don’t look back and grab your things; you leave and don’t tell anyone you’re gone as the third-string quarterback loosens up.
You certainly don’t win national championships; that’s not how this goes. That’s not how it has ever gone, and it’ll probably never happen again in your football lifetime. Not like this, at least.
Can anybody even name Oregon's third-string quarterback? Anyone?
The man who orchestrated the whole thing admitted as much as the reality of it all started to set in, per Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod:
Urban Meyer: “This team wasn’t supposed to do this.”— Ben Axelrod (@BenAxelrod) January 13, 2015
This was supposed to be the end result for Ohio State next season, especially with so many meaningful pieces poised to return. We started making plans for 2015; we just didn’t expect them to come so early in the calendar.
Meyer, having capped off a run that will live on for eternity, couldn’t help but kick-start the journey ahead. Although he has a quarterback controversy the likes we’ve never seen awaiting him at his desk, there will be time to sort out this rich-man’s problem in time.
“Let’s get back here again next year,” Meyer said, as an Ohio State-heavy crowd erupted following the win. Oh, why not?
Given the talent likely to be featured on the Buckeyes roster in 2015, this lofty rallying cry seems reasonable. Trying to top this script, now that’s a different story entirely.