ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Ohio State was done when Braxton Miller got hurt in August.
Ohio State was done when it lost at home to Virginia Tech in September.
Ohio State was done when J.T. Barrett got hurt in November.
A funny thing happened: Every time the Buckeyes looked done, they kept getting better. And in the new era of college football, that was enough to earn a chance to win a championship.
They took advantage of an opportunity they never would have had in the BCS, shrugging off questions about if they belonged among the college football’s final four. Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and the Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff national championship, upsetting Marcus Mariota and Oregon 42-20 on Monday night.
Behind their bullish backup quarterback Jones and the relentless running of Elliott, the Buckeyes (14-1) completed a remarkable in-season turnaround with a dominating performance against the Ducks (13-2).
“Late August, around camp, everybody counted us out when our Heisman Trophy quarterback went down, and then when the first college football playoff rankings came out we was like No. 16 or 17,” Jones said. “Long story short, we weren’t supposed to here.”
Ohio State began the first major college football playoff as the fourth and final seed, and was an underdog against both top-seeded Alabama and second-seeded Oregon. Plenty of people thought TCU or Baylor should have had the Buckeyes spot.
No question about it now: Ohio State is the truest champion big-time football has ever crowned, showered by golden confetti as its band played the school’s unofficial anthem, “Hang on Sloopy,” after the clock hit 0:00.
“This will go down as one of the great stories in college football history,” coach Urban Meyer said.
The Buckeyes overcame two injured Heisman contenders and one awful 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech to win their first national title since the 2002 BCS championship. In the BCS, the early slip to the Hokies could have pretty much eliminated the Buckeyes for the championship race.
Before the BCS’s 16-year stint, it was up to The Associated Press and coaches’ polls to sort out which team was best, with a little help from the bowls. The Buckeyes have three of those championships, too.
Now they can add college football’s newest championship trophy to the display cases at Woody Hayes Athletic Center back in Columbus.
Meyer now has three titles, adding this one for his home state team to the two he won for Florida. He matches Alabama’s Nick Saban as the only coaches to win national championship at two schools. It’s taken just three seasons for Meyer to put the Buckeyes — and the Big Ten — back on top, with a team that looks built to last.
Elliott, a sophomore, was the offensive MVP and ran for 246 yards and four touchdowns on a career-high 36 carries. In the last three games — the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin, the Sugar Bowl semifinal against Alabama and the final against Oregon — Elliott had 696 yards rushing.
“With all the stuff we went through to get here, it’s just crazy,” Elliott said. “It doesn’t feel real.”
Jones, who took over in the Michigan game for the injured Barrett (who had taken over at the start of the season for the injured Miller), passed for 242 yards and a touchdown and ran for score in his third career start. The 250-pound third-year sophomore proved he could keep up with Mariota — at least on this night.
Mariota passed for 333 yards and two touchdowns, but the Ducks’ warp-speed spread offense missed too many red-zone opportunities and couldn’t unleash its running game against linebacker Darron Lee and an Ohio State front seven stacked with future NFL draft picks.
“We fought through a lot of stuff,” Mariota said. “We ended up short tonight, but that shouldn’t take away from what we were able to do this year.”
Even with the benefit of four Ohio State turnovers, the Ducks were held to their lowest point total of the season, four touchdowns below their average coming in. They went 2 for 12 on third downs, with two killed dropped passes in the first half.
“Their front seven is unbelievable,” Oregon receiver Byron Marshall said. “I think we missed some opportunities, and they played a great game.”
Oregon has done just about everything as it has blossomed into a national power over the last two decades, but it will likely continue the search for its first national championship without Mariota. Barring a major surprise, the junior is likely to turn pro — though he wouldn’t talk about his upcoming draft decision after the game.
Elliott scored the game’s last three touchdowns, finishing off the rout with a 1-yarder with 28 seconds left.
While Elliott slipped and darted through the Ducks, Jones pushed them around and shook them off.
When Jones surged and spun his way into the end zone with 4:49 left in the second quarter it was 21-7 Ohio State and the O! H! I! O! chant made the dome in North Texas sound like the horseshoe in Columbus. The Ducks were facing their largest deficit of the season.
If there was any concern that fans wouldn’t travel to the championship game in the new postseason system, the packed house at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, awash in Buckeyes’ scarlet and Ducks’ yellow, put that to rest. The crowd of 85,689 was as charged as any BCS national championship game.
But by the time Elliott went in from 2 yards out with 9:44 left in the fourth to make it 35-20 it was clear this night had turned into a Buckeyes Bash.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/RalphDrussoAP
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