A trend is beginning to take hold for Ohio State when it comes to qualifying for the College Football Playoff.
Heisman Trophy finalists.
In the two seasons the Buckeyes have qualified for the CFP, they will have played a combined total of seven finalists for college football’s most coveted individual honor.
Three of the candidates came in 2014 while three more have come this season and another awaits.
“Their team finds a way to help them make plays, and then they make plays on their own,” OSU junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan said of what makes Heisman players so special. “When you are playing somebody like that, you know they are going to have the ball in their hands. You just have to stop them.”
Two years ago, OSU faced three finalists in consecutive games.
The first encounter came in the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. Ohio State held the nation’s leading rusher to 76 yards on 26 carries with no touchdowns and one lost fumble.
In the CFP semifinal game vs. Alabama, the OSU defense took on receiver Amari Cooper. He set a Southeastern Conference record that year with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns across the 13 games leading up to the meeting between the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide.
The talented wide out had more of an impact than Gordon did, though. Cooper caught nine balls for 71 yards and found the end zone twice.
After surviving that epic showdown, 42-35, Ohio State was then given the task of handling Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon in the national championship game.
He had the most success vs. the Buckeyes among any of the three Heisman finalists that year. Despite Oregon losing, 42-20, Mariota completed 24 of 37 passes for 333 yards, two touchdowns and one pick.
Mariota finished the season as the country’s top passer in terms of quarterback efficiency (181.8). He threw for 4,121 yards, 40 touchdowns and just three interceptions heading into the national title contest against OSU.
Fast forward to this season.
Ohio State played not one but two eventual Heisman Trophy finalists in the third game of the year at Oklahoma.
The Sooners boasted quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook. Mayfield currently leads the country with a 197.8 quarterback efficiency and a 71.2 completion percentage.
Dede Westbrook, meanwhile, is in the top five nationally for total receiving yards (1,465), touchdowns (16) and yards per game (122.1).
Against Ohio State, Mayfield compiled 226 passing yards on 17-of-32 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the 45-24 loss.
Westbrook had 86 yards of total offense. He reeled in five passes for 51 yards and ran once for a 35-yard gain.
The next 2016 Heisman Trophy finalist that appeared in the Buckeyes’ crosshairs was Jabrill Peppers of Michigan. The do-it-all player has lined up as a defensive back, kick returner, linebacker, punt returner quarterback, receiver and running back at some point this season.
He’s returned a punt for a touchdown in addition to running for 167 yards on 27 totes and three more scores this season.
Defensively, he is tied for second on the team with 72 tackles, 16 of which have been tackles for loss.
Peppers’ lone interception of his career came against Ohio State on Nov. 26. He recorded seven stops in that game as well. It took him four carries to muster a mere 4 yards, however, against the Silver Bullets in the 30-27 double-overtime loss.
“I think I have played a lot of Heisman finalists,” McMillan said Tuesday. “They are great players and we do what we can to get a stop on them. You just have to contain them because they are going to get their plays. They are the most special athletes in the nation. They are going to get their plays, but you have to make sure you contain them and do what you can.”
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson will try to become the first Heisman Trophy finalist in the two seasons to defeat Ohio State on Dec. 31 in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
Watson will be making his second trip to New York in as many seasons. In fact, he is the only Heisman finalist in the program’s history.
The junior gunslinger has piled up 4,440 yards of total offense this year (3,914 passing, 526 rushing) and has accounted for 43 touchdowns.
“I mean, he is a Heisman candidate,” McMillan said when asked if he’s watched film on Watson. “What else can you say about him? He is going to be there Saturday at the Heisman presentation so that says enough about him.”
The only 2016 Heisman finalist Ohio State will not face this season is Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.