Joe Burger, class of 2012, has just gone through one of the most remarkable years imaginable. It all started awhile back. Joe had a great senior year at La Salle. He played on a basketball team that went 21-1 and won the city championship.
However, it was at football that he excelled. At middle linebacker he was voted GCL Linebacker of the Year; he was also voted first team all-city and all state. Probably his most prestigious award came when he was chosen "That's My Boy" for the greater Cincinnati area from all of the athletes in all of the high school sports that year. The award not only takes into account athletics, but also scholarship and service to the community.
For college, Joe had a couple of MAC offers and was especially interested in Miami of Ohio. Late on in the process he received an offer from the University of Cincinnati. He also had walk on offers from the Notre Dame and Ohio State. He felt some pressure to follow in the footsteps of his family and go to Notre Dame. His dad played football at Notre Dame, as did Joe's brother, but Joe wanted to forge his own path, and Ohio State looked like a great place to do it. Joe really liked Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer from the first time he met him. Joe also liked Meyer's history of winning, so he decided to become part of Urban Meyer's first recruiting class.
As a preferred walk-on he didn't have to worry about making the team. He was already on the team, which helped Joe because he was able to come in early and train with the team. He got to meet the guys and find out what the culture was.
Early on, it was pretty tough. Sometimes he wondered why he was there. Joe commented, "I was a young 18. I didn't turn 18 until June. There were guys going against me that were 22-23-years old that had been working out for four years. They were more mature and more developed. I took my beatings. It was part of the process. Everyday I was going against Carlos Hyde who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers; or I went against the three linemen who are now in the NFL: Jack Mewhort who plays for the Colts, Andrew Norwell for the Carolina Panthers, and Cory Lindsley who starts for the Green Bay Packers. Every play was a challenge for me. In the long run it did help with my development."
Joe chose to redshirt his freshman year. He worked on the scout team feeling he needed that year to develop physically, and also it gave him time to work on his technique. He also had to make the adjustment of better balancing his time. Technically, he practiced 20 hours a week, but it became a lot more. If he started at 1:00 PM he would have to be there at noon. Getting there by noon require time and so on. He took 14 credit hours of class in engineering and had 8 hours of required study hall. For Joe, having that first semester of not traveling to away games gave him a little time to adjust to campus life.
Joe's sophomore year he played enough hours to earn a letter. He got to start the Illinois game. Ohio State had a couple of guys go down at linebacker and he was the guy the coaches plugged in. Joe said of his performance, "I was solid. The competition was intense that week. I spent a lot of extra hours. I met with coaches during the day. I watched a lot of extra film. I was confident in my playing ability, but to say I wasn't nervous, I would be lying to you. The guys around me helped me, even the guys who were hurt, helped."
That brings us to Joe's incredible junior year. It looked like the football team was going to be outstanding, and expectations were high. Joe put it this way, "At Ohio State, the goal and expectation every year is to win the national championship, especially with coach Meyer. You always think you have a chance, and we had plenty of talent. We were ranked 4th or 5th going into the season but we didn't have our quarterback."
[Braxton Miller was injured before the first game and out for the season.] Joe went on, "That sent shock waves throughout the entire team. Miller had won the Big 10 Player of the Year two years in a row. It made everyone appreciate what we had the two years before. We had won 24 straight games and now we were going to start a quarterback that had no playing experience. Our offense wasn't looking very good at camp. Our defense was dominating. We all took it upon ourselves to pick our level of play up, and I think in the long run it helped us out."
The team only had three weeks to prepare without Miller for the first game. J.T. Barrett was moved into the starting position. It didn't surprise Joe that Barrett was chosen. He said, "J.T. is a consistent, smart, ready player. You can plug him in and he will learn his role. Besides being smart, he really worked hard. So I wasn't surprised with his success."
The #5 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes opened their season with a 34-17 victory against Navy in Baltimore. The next week they played Virginia Tech at home. In a stunner they lost 35-21. The Hokies led 21-7 at halftime and never looked back.
Just two weeks into the season it appeared the Buckeyes' dreams of making the playoffs were dashed. Reality began to set in. Maybe they were not that good. Joe explained, "In August we were focused on how we get to the national championship. In September we were focused on how we get to the national championship. When you lose to Virginia Tech, you feel everything just got ripped away from you. After that game, nobody thought we had a chance of getting in the college football playoffs. That just made us focus more on who do we have next week. We focused more on the journey than the end goal. We decided our defense had to get better. The next week we got better at something else. Then gradually over a five or six week period we kept getting better and better and we started building up momentum."
Ohio State defeated Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State and Illinois in a row. Joe went on, "After Virginia Tech we had dropped to # 22 in the polls. We didn't think we had any shot at the playoffs. We decided, 'Let's just get better today and then all of those weeks just came together.' We got to 7-1 and then we could start feeling the momentum. Virginia Tech was really a reality check telling us we needed to get a lot better."
It all came down to the Michigan State game. Ohio State had moved up in the rankings to #13. They were #16 in the first playoff rankings. Michigan State was ranked #7. The game was being played in East Lansing on national television.
When asked when Joe felt they still had a chance at the playoffs, he said, "After we beat Michigan State at Michigan State and Minnesota at Minnesota. Those were two very tough away games in hostile environments. We really beat Michigan State pretty good. Our defense didn't play well or we could have made it even worse. We also beat a very good, underrated, Minnesota team. After that I thought maybe we had a chance. A lot of teams in front of us still had to play each other. We started playing better every week. Michigan State was the turning point. After that we started to believe we had a pretty good team."
After defeating Indiana and Michigan in consecutive weeks, the Buckeyes moved up to 7th in the AP poll and 6th in the Playoff poll. In the final week, Ohio State would play Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship. The Badgers came into the game ranked 11th in the nation.
Late in the Michigan game the week before, Ohio State's quarterback J.T. Barrett injured his leg and was out for the season. Cardale Jones, the third string quarterback, would be making the first start of his career. Ohio State had to have a big win to have any chance at jumping over two teams and making the playoffs. They crushed the Badgers 59-0.
Joe commented on the game, "One of our players Kosta Karageorge died the week before, and our quarterback was injured and out for the season. Those two things just brought us together. I don't think we could have had a tighter team than we had after those things that happened to us. Everyone rallied together and we played the game of our lives. Our defense played inspired and Cardale threw perfect balls. It was the perfect storm."
When asked if he was surprised how well Jones did, Joe replied, "Yes. I don't think anyone could have predicted that he would be projected as a second round draft pick after just two games. You always knew he had the physical ability. He was the most talented player in college football. He can throw the ball 80 yards, he can run a 4.5-4.6 40 and he weighs 260 lbs. To Cardale's credit, when he was called he was ready."
Joe didn't find out Ohio State was in the playoffs until Sunday after the Wisconsin game. Joe described the thrill, "I was with three of my closest friends on the team. We were all sitting there in the living room watching the TV. They announced the first three teams that were in and then there was a pause. Even the announcer didn't know who the 4th would be. We were all sitting there waiting with the TV turned up full blast. When they announced that Ohio State would be the 4th, we all jumped up and celebrated giving each other hugs and high fives. It was a surreal moment. We didn't know. Nobody knew. Coach Meyer didn't know; he found out on TV. That was a cool moment. Everyone jumped up at the same time and we were screaming. That was a whole year's work."
Ohio State's first game was against Alabama who was ranked #1 in the country. The game was close throughout, with Alabama leading by a point at halftime. This was only Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones' second start of the season. Joe's thoughts before the game were, "We knew we were playing against one of the most talented, physical, and fast teams in America. When we watched the film we saw they were extremely good, but we thought we had a good chance to beat them. We heard all of the hype about the SEC, but earlier in the day Wisconsin beat Auburn and Notre Dame beat LSU. That made us think they are human too."
Joe went on," When Zeke Elliott ran the ball down to the 1-yard line on our first drive, we knew we could play with these guys. We got down two touchdowns but we were not concerned. We had confidence in Coach Meyer and ourselves. The Sugar Bowl was about a 50/50 split of fans and every play was like a complete battle. The intensity of that game was on another level."
When Joe was ask what the mood was in Ohio State's locker room at half time was, he replied, "Although we were down a point, we had outgained them 150-200 yards, we turned the ball over twice, we played sloppy and we didn't finish in the red zone and still we were only down one point. We thought we had a pretty good notion for what they were going to do offensively, so we had all of the confidence in the world at halftime." Their confidence was rewarded. They went on to defeat Alabama 42-35.
Up next was the College Football Playoff National Championship game against #2 ranked Oregon. Oregon had easily defeated Florida State in the semi-final game and most football analysts were picking Oregon to win by about 7 points. Joe said, "The key to the game for Ohio State was not letting quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota beat us. He was the best player in the country and we were not going to let him run the ball and complete easy passes. If their running back beats us or their wide receiver does something spectacular we can live with that. Our whole game plan was centered around stopping Mariota."
At halftime, the Buckeyes were up 21-10. The mood in the locker room was great. Joe explained, "We realized the third and fourth quarter was when Oregon really puts a hurting on people because of their tempo. They would get that lull and all of the sudden they had put the game away. They could score so fast. Teams get caught up in the moment and Oregon would quick strike them. Our biggest thing was we had to stay locked in the whole game because if you let up for one moment, they will score. We had to stay focused. They ran a play every 12-16 seconds. We thought we were physically superior. If we did our job we would be just fine."
Ohio State was up eight going into the 4th quarter. When Joe was asked what put the game out of reach, he replied, "They couldn't stop our running game. They couldn't stop Elliott. We also got a couple of good hits on Mariota, which took them out of the game a little bit. We let them know we were the more physical team and we were going to go get them." The game ended Ohio State 42, Oregon 20.
Joe thought for the year, Mariota was the best player they faced and Alabama was the best team. Joe played in every game and was in for over 200 plays.
As a result of winning the National Championship, Ohio State was invited to a Cincinnati Reds game and Joe was one of the players given the honor of throwing out the first pitch. He elaborated, "I found out about two weeks before that I was going to be one of the guys throwing out the first pitch, so I immediately got my glove and started practicing because I didn't want to screw up this opportunity. I threw with my brother and I threw at Ohio State. I was going to be ready. Kris Negron was my catcher. I threw it right to him and afterward he came up and gave me a handshake and he said congratulations. That was really cool."
Another perk for winning the National Championship was the whole Buckeye football team was invited to the White House to meet President Obama. Joe described his day, "We knew when we won that we would get to meet the President. The coolest part was walking into the White House and taking in all of that history. When you see a painting of Abe Lincoln it is hard to imagine all of the history that has happened in that house.
Then when President Obama walked into the room and you hear his voice, I got star struck. There is not a better-known person in the world than him; and when he came to shake my hand, I said, 'I'm Joe Burger' and he said 'Congratulations'. That was pretty cool. He is such a good public speaker it is unbelievable. He was funny. He had the speech in front of him but he didn't look down once to refer to it. In the team picture, I was only two spots away from him."
Joe also got to go to the Martin King Jr. memorial and visit the floor of the House of Representatives. The team got to visit the State House in Columbus. A lot of opportunities will also open up in the future as a result of winning the national championship. For Joe, all in all, it has been quite a remarkable year.