Ohio State's unsung but irreplaceable tight ends get rewarded with a sizable share of the spotlight
Justin Fields jogging off the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf gingerly holding his side after throwing one of his Sugar Bowl-record six touchdown passes will likely be the lasting image from Ohio State’s masterpiece Friday.
But right there with him should be the outstretched arms of senior tight end Luke Farrell after his game-tying first-quarter touchdown reception on a different pass. The 6-foot-6 former Perry High School (Ohio) basketball star literally rips the ball away from a helpless defender, then raises the ball in almost incredulous celebration as if to ask: “Did that just happen?”
It just happened.
For all the top-level talent and championship-caliber teams it’s produced in the modern era of college football, Ohio State hasn’t exactly been a bastion of tight end prowess. And yet an important wrinkle from Buckeyes coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson vaulted Ohio State’s offense into the Jan. 11 College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama.
Luke Farrell with his 1st touchdown catch of the season! pic.twitter.com/ICZOIGDZTj
— Locked on Buckeyes (@lockedonbuckeye) January 2, 2021
Farrell and fellow tight end Jeremy Ruckert came into New Year’s Day with just 12 combined catches and 3 touchdowns — all by Ruckert — in six games. They nabbed 5 catches and 3 first-half scores in the Buckeyes’ 49-28 victory over Clemson.
Wilson, who also coaches the position and has been in this business for 36 years, calls this tight end group the best he’s ever overseen. And yet during a COVID-riddled Big Ten season that almost didn’t happen, Farrell, Ruckert and Jake Hausmann’s contributions were more subtle as Ohio State tried to put together its complete offensive package.
Farrell’s 8-yard snare helped the No. 3 Buckeyes keep pace during a helter-skelter first-quarter shootout that saw each team score on both its possessions. Then Ruckert caught a 17-yard out on a wonderfully drawn-up roll-out by Fields, who fooled the entire Clemson defense by darting to his left then throwing back to his right.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 2, 2021
A 12-yard pop pass to Ruckert with 11 seconds left in the first half capped a 12-play, 80-yard Ohio State drive and gave it a 35-14 halftime lead.
Fields’ 22-for-28 night — much of which came after taking a viscous hit in the midsection, causing his ribs to throb — will go down in Ohio State history. Trey Sermon’s 193 yards rushing, too.
So will the crushing finish to Trevor Lawrence’s illustrious career. And Tigers coach Dabo Swinney’s motor-mouthed escapade to de-validate the Buckeyes’ place in the Playoff, including ranking them No. 11 in the final coaches’ poll.
“We’re really just trying not to let it affect our preparation,” Farrell told reporters this week when asked about Swinney’s claims Ohio State “was not qualified” for the final four because it played so few games thanks to COVID. “We know what we’re capable of, and that’s what matters.”
And in what was somewhat of a year of the tight end in college football, Ohio State’s big guys that line up next to the tackles took their turn.
Justin Fields DIME to Jeremy Ruckert! pic.twitter.com/r4TQAB8q7S
— Buckeye Videos+ (@BuckeyeVideos) January 2, 2021
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts finished 10th in the Heisman voting and tied for third nationally with 12 touchdown catches. BYU freshman Isaac Rex was one of the other guys with 12 scores. Boston College’s Hunter Long caught 57 passes, good for 23rd in FBS. Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely averaged more than 20 yards per reception, the country’s 12th-best mark. And Ole Miss’s Kenny Yeboah was a key piece in the FBS’s No. 6 passing offense.
Somewhere, Mike Ditka, Ozzie Newsome and John Mackey have to be smiling.
Ohio State has had just two tight ends — Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman — drafted since 2004. Farrell could be out to change that after receiving an East-West Shrine Game invite.
Ruckert is a junior from Lindenhurst, New York, and is likely to return next season. 247Sports ranked him the No. 2 tight end in the 2018 class.
He and Farrell could provide an edge against No. 1 Alabama, which has been susceptible to the tight end passing game at times this year.
It was certainly a key, even if not readily apparent, factor in setting up that national championship matchup.