Ryan Day and Ohio State had seen what Trey Sermon could do back in 2017, when Sermon accounted for 85 yards of total offense and a touchdown in leading Oklahoma past the Buckeyes 31-16 in just the second game of his college career.
"I remember everything about that game," Sermon said. "To me it felt like my first big college game, so I remember it vividly. I mean, I just remember just being able to make plays. It was just an exciting moment."
Followed by three straight conference games with at least 90 rushing yards, the first half of Sermon's freshman season seemed to signal the start of a brilliant college career.
There's nothing wrong with being very good, especially as one of the key pieces on teams that have made four straight appearances in the College Football Playoff. Sermon has performed at an all-conference level through much of his three years at Oklahoma and this season at Ohio State, where he landed in March as a graduate transfer.
"I just wanted a better opportunity for myself," Sermon said, "and I felt like it was just a good fit for me to come here."
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Brilliance, on the other hand, had eluded Sermon until this past month, when the senior began a run that has written him into Ohio State history and left the Buckeyes one win from capturing the program's ninth national championship.
"It's really remarkable what he's done," Day said. "I think you're seeing the best version of Trey."
Sermon has risen to the occasion during wins against Northwestern for the Big Ten championship and Clemson in the national semifinals, running for a combined 524 yards with three touchdowns and another 65 receiving yards as the Buckeyes have rounded into form amid questions about their postseason credentials.
"Trey Sermon, he set the world on fire," said former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy. "I’ve been watching him all the way. This kid’s got it. He’s got it."
Trey Sermon ran for 193 yards and a touchdown against Clemson. (Photo: Ken Ruinard, USA TODAY Sports)
As much as anyone on the Ohio State roster, Sermon has embodied the team's late-season surge leading into Monday night's championship game against Alabama.
His arrival from Oklahoma, where a knee injury cost him the home stretch of last season, came just as teams across the Bowl Subdivision were shutting down and scattering due to the coronavirus pandemic. Both factors contributed to a sluggish acclimation period for a high-profile transfer expected to play a significant role in helping the Buckeyes replace former starter J.K. Dobbins, who ran for 2,003 yards in 2019.
"It was pretty rough in the beginning, just coming here and not being able to be around everybody, and then everything gets shut down and then picks back up," Sermon said.
He spent Ohio State's first four games in a secondary role behind Master Teague III, never drawing more than 13 carries or exceeding 68 rushing yards, and had just four touches in the second half of the Buckeyes' 42-35 win against Indiana on Nov. 21.
"The start of his career at Ohio State didn't exactly go perfectly," said offensive lineman Josh Myers. "Never not one time did he complain. Never not one time did he ask for more carries. He never had a bad attitude, he just kept coming to work."
The turning point came during practices leading into the Michigan State game two weeks later. Feeling more comfortable with the scheme and in lockstep with Ohio State's offensive line, Sermon earned a larger role in the Buckeyes' game plan and capitalized with his first 100-yard rushing game in more than two years.
"Once I got that feeling, again, I just started to just try to be consistent, continued practicing hard, running a little extra, just doing all of that," he said. "I felt like it translated over, and, I mean, it kind of showed in the Michigan State game."
His season can be split into two: Sermon ran for 232 yards in his first four games and 636 yards in his next three, going from one of the Buckeyes' many options to a critical piece of the offensive puzzle.
Sermon's recent performance has been compared to Ezekiel Elliott's play during the Buckeyes' championship push in 2014, when Elliott put together three straight 200-yard games and 696 yards overall in wins against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. Sermon would need 173 yards against Alabama to set an Ohio State three-game rushing record.
In the game against Northwestern, Sermon went for a program-record 331 yards and two scores to offset quarterback Justin Fields' two interceptions and carry the Buckeyes to a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship. His 193 rushing yards against Clemson teamed with Fields' six touchdown passes to avenge last year's loss in the Fiesta Bowl and set up an intriguing matchup with Alabama to decide the national championship.
The Buckeyes will meet the Crimson Tide's scoring machine with a newfound sense of balance: Sermon and Fields give Ohio State a backfield pairing and offensive identity to match wits with Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, this year's Heisman winner, and teammates Mac Jones and Najee Harris.
"It's a good feeling that everything started to progress as the season went on," Sermon said. "We're all playing well, and we got to where we wanted to get to, so everything turned out pretty good. Now we've just got to finish."
Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
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