Last weekend, Trey Sermon put up one of the most inexplicable college running back performances I have seen in my lifetime.
There was so much about watching the Oklahoma transfer run for 331 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship that did not make sense. Sermon did not start this game, he hardly had any impressive showings prior to the Michigan State game the previous week, and Master Teague III performed as the better option for the Buckeyes across most of 2020. But there was Sermon, escaping Northwestern tackle attempts in stride while weaving in and out of gaps with the precision of an overclocked roomba.
It was somewhat poetic given the tumultuous nature the Ohio State offense has had all season. Funny enough, as the College Football Playoff looms, the Buckeye running game that struggled to make strides all year now looks as good as ever. Meanwhile the passing attack—the bedrock of this offense for most of the year—has regressed considerably from earlier in the season.
Ohio State will not beat Clemson without an ability to run the football, and given Justin Fields’ struggles of late to deal with pressure, Sermon will almost certainly have to play a central role in order to achieve a victory. However, there remain important questions that need answering if Ohio State fans are to determine whether or not the Buckeyes have a puncher’s chance of running the ball successfully against the Tigers.
Was Trey Sermon’s historic game a fluke?
Fluke is a strong word, but it would be very hard to argue that anyone expected Sermon to post north of 300 yards in the Big Ten Championship. In fact, Sermon did not even enter this game as a starter, with Teague assuming the front half of the snaps on the first drive before Ryan Day opted to start giving Sermon carries near the red zone.
Ohio State fans that have tuned in for each played game this season are likely somewhat aware of how Sermon has evolved as a Buckeye over the course of the season. Sermon and Teague operated in a timeshare of sorts in the earlier parts of the season, but over the course of the first four games, it certainly appeared that the latter was the superior running back. Sermon had been extremely ineffective as a red zone runner, and Teague simply had an easier time making big plays, such as his 41-yard TD run against Indiana.
Even so, Day and company never abandoned Sermon entirely in any game this season, as the Oklahoma transfer recorded double-digit carries in all but one contest (he had nine versus IU). Back at the beginning of October, running backs coach Tony Alford indicated optimism about Sermon’s fit in Ohio State’s offense, but still expressed that there remained parts of his running style that needed adjustment:
“Well, he’s a little upright at times and we’ve got to get him to drop his pad level a little bit,” Alford said. “He’s kind of a longer-strider guy. He’s a guy who is a little deceptive as far as his speed. It doesn’t look like he’s really going, then you look up and he’s covering ground and he’s covering space. So, he’s a little deceptive that way.”
“He’s a lot longer in his stature than some of the guys we’ve had here in the past. J.K. (Dobbins) and Mike (Weber) were stocky and shorter-built. Even Zeke (Elliott) was real big through his hips and his thighs. Trey is not like that. He’s not as bulky as those other guys and he’s longer. But he presents a lot of issues. Trey does a good job. He’s really good at coming out of the backfield and catching the ball and running routes. And he’s a very willing and able blocker from the film that we watched before he came in here. I think he’s a tough guy, so I’m excited about him.’” — Tony Alford, OSU Running Backs Coach
That early optimism seems to be paying off down the stretch, as Sermon has now led the Buckeyes in rushing yards for two consecutive games heading into the College Football Playoff. In the Big Ten Championship, Sermon pulled off the miraculous feat of rushing for over 300 yards despite not scoring a touchdown from further than nine yards out all day.
Most of Sermon’s production came from chunk plays that drastically changed field position for the Buckeye offense, and ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. There was perhaps no better example of this than the 65 yard scamper Sermon had early in the second half:
Sermon made this play happen almost entirely by himself. Against a seven-man box with two high safeties creeping in late, the Buckeyes ran a read option on first down that probably should have been a loss. As Luke Farrell deliberately lets the weakside defensive end through, Justin Fields incorrectly determines he needs to hand the ball off to Sermon, and the end barely misses bringing him down in the backfield.
Thankfully, Thayer Munford helped pancake an interior lineman before shielding off a next-level linebacker, because Farrell ultimately did not end up making it to his blocking assignment in time. That clearance gave Sermon the moment he needed to stiff-arm the incoming tackle attempt from the left, and it was a race into Wildcat territory from there.
This play was one of the leading reasons Sermon finished the game with an absolutely absurd 190+ yards after contact, which by itself would have been good for the best rushing performance of championship weekend. The slippery nature of his running style would be on full display for the rest of the game:
With Fields running the ball a bit more outside of the red zone than usual in this game, Northwestern had to respect the read option in the second half. The offensive line absolutely mauled their opponents on this play (almost three pancakes), but Sermon’s evasiveness turns this key late-game situation from a third and short into a 1st and Goal.
Sermon is not a burner by any means, but his ability to break his limbs free from weaker tackles without losing much momentum greatly benefits his ability as a running back. That being said, Clemson easily poses the greatest challenge Ohio State has faced since their last meeting, and the Tigers defense will be eager to avenge their performance last year after surrendering 178 rushing yards to J.K. Dobbins in the Fiesta Bowl.
So, is Trey Sermon ready for Clemson after acing his toughest test yet?
How does Clemson’s run defense compare to Northwestern’s?
The issue with drawing comparisons between Clemson’s run defense and that of Ohio State’s previous opponent is the lack of a reliable stress test for either team. The ACC is so shallow beyond the Tigers that only one of their opponents this year—in games featuring Trevor Lawrence—managed to stay within three scores prior to halftime. Nearly every team not named Georgia Tech had to take to the skies to remain merely competitive, and so running the ball against Clemson in most cases became a worthless pursuit.
Meanwhile, as of this writing, Northwestern still plays in the Big Ten West.
Unfortunately, a deeper look at the run defense statistics for both teams reveals the Tigers as clearly superior between the two (an earth-shattering analysis). Prior to the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern actually sported a top 20 run defense nationally at ~122 opponent rushing yards per game—Ohio State’s 399 rushing yards would go on to knock NU down to 53rd. Conversely, Clemson has held steady as a top 10 team nationally in this department all season, with an average of ~101 rushing yards surrendered per game.
Furthermore, an examination of Football Outsiders’ advanced defensive line statistics suggests that the chasm between these two teams is far more pronounced when it comes to stopping the ground game. Clemson ranks superior to Northwestern in all six of the anti-run blocking stats that Football Outsiders tracks for the FBS, and that was still true prior to the Big Ten Championship. Even their current stuff rate—the percentage of running plays a defense brings down at or behind the line of scrimmage (and NU’s best run defense stat)—sits a full percent lower than that of Clemson’s.
There was only one remotely competitive test Clemson’s rushing defense had in all of 2020—at least concerning games where Trevor Lawrence was available on the other side of the ball. That would be the Virginia Tech game, which saw Clemson briefly fall behind in the first quarter and enter the half only up by a touchdown.
Virginia Tech has had a respectable rushing attack for most of the year, as evidenced by having the 10th-highest team rushing yards per attempt in college football this season. The Hokies posted 131 rushing yards as a team—roughly 30 more than Clemson’s conceded average for the season—with their lead performance coming from senior Khalil Herbert.
Taking a brief look at a couple of snaps from this game and the Big Ten Championship, it is not hard to see where Ohio State could have similar success to what Virginia Tech had with respect to running the ball:
Before the ball even snaps, it is important to note the alignment of Clemson’s defense. There are definitively six defenders in the box, but with the Will linebacker cheating a bit off the slot receiver, one could easily tally that total to seven. This is important to note because many of the zone rushing concepts Ohio State uses rely on accurate assessments of defenders in the box to correctly determine blocking assignments. In this case, accounting for that Will linebacker could be what decides whether this play goes down as a gain or a loss.
The key difference between the defenses of Northwestern and Clemson in the above clips is the aggressiveness of the inside linebackers. Clemson’s swarm the line from the moment they recognize the run, while Northwestern’s hang back a bit longer in an effort to reliably determine the play. With Ohio State having far superior talent and threats in the passing game than Virginia Tech, it is not hard to see why Clemson felt comfortable selling out for the run.
One of the reasons Sermon had so much success against Northwestern was because the defense clearly communicated that they were determined to not let Justin Fields be the player that beats them. Clemson’s defense likely will not make their intentions as obvious, but Sermon can absolutely have success on early running downs if the Buckeyes play correct assignment football. Great blocking from positional groups—such as the seal-off Garrett Wilson provides on the high safety in the above clip—will also be a must.
What about short yardage and goal-to-go rushing situations?
Interestingly, the pre-snap adjustment from the Hokies did not adversely affect their touchdown run, despite the fact that bringing two receivers into the backfield actually created more of a scrum. Because one of the interior linebackers ran straight into the middle of the line before diagnosing the play—on top of the weakside safety needing to account for an outside quarterback keeper—the left side of the line suddenly had all the blockers it needed for Herbert to waltz into the end zone.
The defensive set Ohio State faces off against in their clip is probably more likely to represent what the Buckeyes will face in the red zone—at least when lining up multiple outside receivers. Harry Miller probably won’t get away with such an obvious holding call again, but he and Wyatt Davis will continue to have critical roles with respect to reaching the next level and taking linebackers out of the play.
It’s not likely that Clemson’s defenders will play the more conservative style that Northwestern’s defenders executed in the Big Ten Championship. They are quick to recognize play calls, have quality talent in every position group, and are not afraid to sell themselves out in obvious running situations.
Fortunately, the same was true of the Tigers in 2019, and that did not stop J.K. Dobbins from finding a similar success that Trey Sermon will need to achieve:
Normally, I would not include clips from the previous season in a film review. However, considering this is a rematch of a game from last year and Clemson returned all four of their starting defensive linemen from 2019, I figured the comparison would be appropriate.
The two best runs Ohio State had in the Fiesta Bowl last season were both products of every offensive player understanding their zone blocking assignment. In each case, the offense used Fields as a decoy to abandon the weakside defensive end, which allowed all five linemen to focus on opening up the strong side.
What makes the clips above interesting is that Ohio State found rushing success on similar plays despite facing drastically different alignments from Clemson in each case. Dobbins’ touchdown run owed much of its success to Clemson’s defense playing two high safeties, each of which ultimately end up taking themselves out of the play.
When it became evident the defense would have to respect Dobbins as well as Fields, Clemson began collapsing their sets into better-disguised seven and eight-man fronts. Unfortunately for the Tigers, this created a scrum that gave no lanes for the interior linebackers to fill, and by the time they realized they would have to meet Dobbins on the edge, he was already leaving them in the dust.
I am not going to sit here with a straight face and say that Trey Sermon is primed for an Ezekiel Elliot-esque romp through the College Football Playoff. Zeke ripped off roughly 700 rushing yards in the final three games of the inaugural College Football Playoff, and while Sermon has nearly reached half that total after one game, he is not the full package at running back that Elliot was back then.
However, if Ohio State can capture an early lead—or at the very least hold the game to within a couple of scores, I would expect Sermon has a very visible impact on the outcome of the semifinal. He has improved every week this year, the coaches are confident in the diversity of his skill set, he is fully healthy, his performance against Northwestern was absolutely legit, and Clemson’s run defense is not invulnerable by any means.
Now, if Sermon can scamper past the Tigers, maybe then it will be time to start talking about 2014 again...