It was 21-6. The noise was raining down from the upper reaches of the Superdome in a deafening cacophony. Ohio State was playing Alabama – THE Alabama, the traditional power brought back to life under Nick Saban, the top-ranked team in the nation and winner of three of the past five national championships.
Cardale Jones led the Ohio State football team onto the field, and the Buckeyes promptly gained a total of zero yards on two plays. It was third-and-10 from the 29 and the Buckeyes were a failed conversion away from perhaps losing the game.
On third down, Jones took the shotgun snap, looked over the middle and found Jalin Marshall wide open on a deep post into Alabama territory. Three plays later, it was third-and-9, and Jones did the same thing, finding Marshall in the middle of the field for another big gain.
By the end of the drive, the Buckeyes were in the end zone for the first time and back in the game. And they did it on the arm of Jones, the third-year sophomore making just his second career start who went into the huddle and decided to bring the Buckeyes back into the game.
“That’s just what he looked like – I am about to take this over,” wideout Devin Smith said. “That’s the look that he had – I am about to lead this team down the field. And that’s what he did, not only with his arm but with his feet as well.”
To hear Jones tell it, that was a different approach than usual – maybe not a huge surprise given his lack of experience.
“My message was completely different because I’m not as much of a vocal inspiration guy as I should be,” he said. “I was just basically telling them now, ‘Let’s do us now, let’s stop pressing, let’s start playing.’ ”
That came in stark contrast to the win vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, a contest in which Jones and the Buckeyes didn’t face much in the way of adversity. The Buckeyes led 7-0 in that game less than two minutes in and never looked back in a 59-0 destruction of the Badgers.
Going into the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, the question was simple – could Jones keep the Buckeyes going if it felt like the Superdome roof was about to cave in on the team? He did more than that, finishing 18 for 35 passing with a touchdown and an early interception on a miscommunication with Smith. Jones added 43 rushing yards on 17 carries but gained a total of 89 yards on the ground, including tough yards in multiple occasions.
He fought his way out of the end zone once when it looked like he was dead to rights for a safety, and the biggest play of the game might have been running over Landon Collins to convert a third-and-1 late in the game with OSU holding on to a 34-28 lead. Collins needed to seek medical attention, and with the All-American off the field, Ezekiel Elliott ran for a game-clinching 85-yard score on the next play.
“I don’t know that was by design more than what the defense was giving us," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said of the game plan that included more runs for Jones. "We weren’t taking the reins off him or anything like that. WE just formulated a game plan and had confidence he would perform within that gameplan.”
Jones also helped change the game with his deep ball, hitting Smith on passes of 40 yards – his first completion after starting 0 for 5 thanks in part to no one to throw to that was open – and a 47-yard TD that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good early in the third.
The Buckeyes now move on to face Oregon, with Jones one game away from winning a national championship in just his third career start after almost three full seasons as a backup.
But that’s not on his mind. It’s just about putting his team in the best position to finish out its quest through bumpy times.
“This is not just my story,” he said. “This is my team. I haven’t just came through a lot, my teammates have dealt with L’s and guys dying on our team and guys getting kicked off the team. It’s been an emotional season for us all.”