It was 2002 the last time Ohio State had a shot at the national championship with a freshman running back. The Buckeyes were playing in the Fiesta Bowl that year, preparing for the Miami Hurricanes and all-American senior running back Willis McGahee. The headline of that game was OSU’s freshman phenom from Youngstown, Ohio, Maurice Clarett, versus future first-rounder McGahee.
This time in Glendale, Arizona, the showdown is between quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Barrett and Watson have been the ores that have steered their respective teams through the 12-game gauntlet of the regular season to the College Football Playoff. However, the clash of redshirt freshman Mike Weber and the Tigers’ halfback Wayne Gallman is a matchup worth noting on Dec. 31.
The redshirt junior from Clemson has complemented Watson well in the backfield. Gallman has gained 1,002 yards on 196 carries this year, his second consecutive season with over 1,000 yards rushing. The 6-foot, 210-pound back runs downhill and doesn’t shy away from contact, similar to OSU’s Weber. But with his size, Gallman runs more upright than the 5-foot-9 Detroit product.
“Wayne Gallman, man, he gets their offense going,” said junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan. “He sets the tone on offense. He runs the ball hard.”
Gallman has 15 touchdowns this year, two more than he did last year, but 47 fewer carries than he did at this point. In 2015, Clemson was No. 1 in the country with an unblemished record heading into the playoff. Gallman was a key contributor to an offense that averaged over 510 yards of offense per game in 2015, never having less than 13 carries in one game.
Like OSU (11-1), the No. 2 Tigers (12-1) narrowly won in games that many thought would have a lopsided margin of victory. One common theme the Buckeyes might learn from film is that when Clemson struggled, Gallman struggled.
In their Oct. 15 win over North Carolina State, Gallman incurred a head injury early in the game and didn’t return after just two carries and a catch for 32 total yards. NC State missed a 33-yard field goal from the middle of the field as time expired, which sent the game to overtime where Clemson prevailed. Gallman had just 34 yards on eight carries in a narrow victory over Troy, and gained just 36 yards on 18 carries in the Tigers’ lone blemish against Pittsburgh.
For an incumbent starter, inconsistent performances aren’t unheard of, but they’re certainly not expected. As a redshirt freshman, it was unfair to expect the same dominating performance from Weber week in and week out. But the freshman All-American was as crucial to the Buckeyes as Gallman was to Clemson in producing a desired balanced offense.
In the offseason, redshirt senior center Pat Elflein and Barrett often worked out with Weber fully knowing he would assume the duties at some point in the near future. Elflein said it was evident after the end of last season’s Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame that Weber’s demeanor changed and matured when the team needed him to.
“He’s made big plays in just about every game,” said OSU co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner. “The way he has approached football and the way he has approached practice, just his growth in all areas has carried over to the field. He’s been a great asset for us.”
Weber accumulated over 1,000 yards in his first season at running back with nine touchdowns. He is averaging 6.1 yards per carry and four games with over 100 yards rushing. Weber scored the game-winning touchdown at Michigan State, converted a critical fourth-down run in the fourth quarter against Michigan and completely took Michigan linebacker and Heisman finalist Jabrill Pepper out of the play with a block on junior H-back Curtis Samuel’s game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Weber’s impact was expected in the running game, but to attack tacklers in the blocking game is a testament to his maturity. Weber said that to this point in the season, he’s played well to his standards, yet knows there’s untapped potential. When he and Gallman take center stage on Dec. 31, Weber could be the difference maker, much like Clarett was in 2002.
“Mike Weber, he’s like a bowling ball,” McMillan said. “He’s in there, hard to bring down, hard to tackle. When he gets going, it’s hard to stop him.”