ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shortly after Ohio State's Eli Apple intercepted Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota's final pass to secure the Buckeyes' 42-20 victory over Oregon in the first College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, and as gold and silver confetti started to fall from the rafters of Jerry World early Tuesday morning, Cleveland's most famous resident pulled aside another hometown boy.
As the Buckeyes celebrated winning a national championship, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James offered a few words of encouragement to Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones.
"He told me this is something for all of Cleveland to believe in and rally around," Jones said.
For the next few weeks, James might not even be the most popular man in Cleveland.
Jones, who started preseason camp as the Buckeyes' third-string quarterback, became Ohio State's most unlikely hero. He was thrust into the starting role in late November after former starter J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan. Before the season even started, Ohio State lost returning starting quarterback Braxton Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive MVP who went down for the season with a shoulder injury.
With Jones under center, the Buckeyes did the improbable, blasting Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game to secure one of the four spots in the inaugural playoff, and then upsetting two higher-ranked teams in the College Football Playoff. Remarkably, Ohio State saved its best for the playoff, as it upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day before routing the No. 2 Ducks on Monday night. Ohio State won its first national championship in 12 years and handed Urban Meyer his third national title as a coach.
"It means a lot," Jones said. "Going back to early August around camp, everybody counted us out when our Heisman Trophy quarterback went down. When the first college football rankings came out, we were like 16th or 17th. Long story short, we weren't supposed to be here. All the odds were stacked against us through the whole season, and for us to be sitting right here as national champs, it not only means a lot to me, but our community, Buckeyes Nation and our hometowns."
Jones and sophomore tailback Ezekiel Elliott were once again the stars in Ohio State's rout of Oregon. Jones, a sophomore making only his third career start, completed 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also ran 21 times for 38 yards and one score.
Elliott, a sophomore from St. Louis, ran 36 times for 246 yards with four touchdowns, his third straight game with more than 200 yards on the ground. Elliott was named Offensive Player of the Game after he posted the highest rushing total by an FBS player in a championship game.
How dominant was Elliott? According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, he had 171 rushing yards before contact, more than Oregon's total rushing yards (132). Most of his damage came between the tackles, where he gained 213 yards, the third-highest total by a player from a Power 5 team this season. Elliott lost yardage on only one of his 36 carries, the best percentage against Oregon in the past 10 seasons among players with a minimum of 20 rushes in a game.
"[He's a] monster," Meyer said. "I love Zeke because he's very humble, comes from a great family and deserves the credit. However, he's the most underrated back in America. He's one of the best post-contact-yard guys I've ever been around. On top of that, he's a great human being, and we've got him for at least one more year, so I can't wait to get back at it."
Oregon took the game's opening kickoff and drove 75 yards for a touchdown, but the Ducks rarely had an answer for Elliott. He scored on a 33-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 7-7 with 4:36 to go in the first quarter, and then started to wear down Oregon's defense from there. Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns in the second half to break the game open.
"I definitely feel it now," Elliott said. "I knew going into the game we wanted to run the ball. We knew our offensive line was bigger and more physical than their defensive line. We just had to punch them in the mouth. Our offensive line came out and played their butts off and paved the way for me. He [Jones] just kept feeding me the ball."
Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead said the Ducks struggled to adjust to Ohio State's game plan. The Buckeyes often stacked three wide receivers to one side, forcing the Ducks to slide their gaps to that side of the field, and then ran Elliott to the other side.
"He's a hard-nosed runner who can break tackles," Armstead said. "When you don't wrap him up, he's going to get extra yards. We just didn't get the job done tonight. When you don't tackle a good back, that's what happens. They had a good scheme. They have a good offensive line, a good running back and a good quarterback. They have a good system, and we lost to a good team."
Making matters worse for the Ducks, Jones was just as effective throwing the ball when Elliott wasn't pounding them.
Jones, who improved to 3-0 as a starter, had to overcome a couple of hiccups early in the second half. On Ohio State's opening drive after halftime, a screen pass bounced off the pads of receiver Jalin Marshall and was intercepted by Oregon's Danny Mattingly. On the next play, Mariota threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Byron Marshall to cut Ohio State's lead to 21-17 with 11:23 to go in the third.
On Ohio State's next possession, Jones dropped the ball as he was trying to throw out of bounds under pressure. Armstead recovered the fumble at the OSU 23. The Buckeyes' defense held the Ducks to a 23-yard field goal, which cut OSU's lead to 21-20. But then Jones directed a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate nearly seven minutes off the clock. Elliott scored on a 9-yard run to make it 28-20 on the final play of the third quarter.
"I wasn't flustered because there [were] mistakes that could have been avoided," Jones said. "They didn't force us to commit those mistakes. It was hard to be flustered or nervous or down when you have the other guys on defense playing the way they're playing, and you've got the guys up front blocking the way they were blocking. We really felt like we could score anytime we wanted. That's no disrespect to the Oregon defense, that's just the time and dedication we put in our offense, starting up front."
After Elliott burst through the line for a 2-yard touchdown that put Ohio State in front 35-20 with 9:44 to go, there didn't seem to be any way the Ducks could come back.
"[Elliott] is a tremendous player," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "When you have him being as fast and physical as he is and then you trump that with a 200-pound-whatever-he-is quarterback, those are three pretty good hammers when you add in the fly sweep and some of the other stuff they're able to do. Their offensive line did a really nice job."
After winning a national championship in Meyer's third season at the school, the Buckeyes should once again be a playoff contender in 2015. Elliott is coming back for his junior season, and so is Jones. He'll battle Barrett for the starting quarterback job in spring practice, and Miller might be a third contender if he sticks around.
Jones has played so well in his three college starts that some have suggested the draft-eligible sophomore might even leave Ohio State for the NFL. After saying earlier this week that he'd be back in Columbus next season, Jones told reporters in the locker room after Monday's game that his decision was "up in the air."
Underclassmen have until Thursday to declare their intentions of entering the draft.
But on Tuesday morning, the Buckeyes wanted to focus on what they'd just accomplished. Especially after they had to work so hard to do it.
"It seems like we've been through everything, and it made us who we are," Elliott said. "This is a surreal moment. It's why we all came here. After all we went through, this is crazy. It doesn't feel real."