USA TODAY US Edition

Buck­eyes’ D couldn’t stop a rolling Tide

- Paul Myer­berg Sports · College Sports · American Football · College Football · Miami Gardens, FL · Miami · Florida · Alabama · Ohio · Ohio State University · Hard Rock Stadium · Michigan · Southeastern Conference · Justin Fields · Clemson, SC

MIAMI GAR­DENS, Fla. – Af­ter one half at Mon­day night’s Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off na­tional cham­pi­onship game against Alabama, it be­came clear that Ohio State’s path to vic­tory hinged on a mir­a­cle or, bar­ring that, the Crim­son Tide be­com­ing lost in the tun­nels be­low Hard Rock Sta­dium and un­able to re­turn for the third quar­ter, giv­ing the Buck­eyes the ti­tle by for­feit.

The Tide found their way back. For the Buck­eyes, the sec­ond half wasn’t much bet­ter.

“Tough night, tough night,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day. “We needed to play our best game tonight against Alabama. And we didn’t.”

There are two dis­tinct classes in col­lege foot­ball: the four or five pro­grams ca­pa­ble of win­ning the cham­pi­onship in any given year, a list that in­cludes Alabama and Ohio State, and then ev­ery­one else.

Alabama’s 52-24 win sug­gests there’s a split even within that elite group – or at least one sep­a­rat­ing the Crim­son Tide and the Buck­eyes.

With the ex­cep­tion of a brief span through the first quar­ter and early into the sec­ond, Alabama put Ohio State into a blender and pureed the Big Ten cham­pi­ons, who went from the high of beat­ing Clem­son in the na­tional semi­fi­nals to the low of be­ing hum­bled on the big­gest stage the sport has to of­fer.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” said Alabama quar­ter­back Mac Jones. “We’re so glad to win this game and put the ic­ing on the cake.”

Af­ter con­vert­ing on an Alabama turnover deep in its own ter­ri­tory to tie the score at 14 with 11:43 left in the sec­ond quar­ter, Ohio State was blitzed by an Alabama run that will go down in post­sea­son his­tory, a 21-3 surge to end the half ahead 35-17. Put into a deep hole, the Buck­eyes’ of­fense was un­able to get into a rhythm and make up ground in a game that had drifted out of con­trol.

Given the stakes, the per­for­mance of the Buck­eyes’ de­fense will go down as the worst in pro­gram his­tory.

The num­bers speak for them­selves: Alabama gained 621 yards on 83 plays, 157 on the ground and 464 through the air, with 33 first downs. The yardage was the most Ohio State had given up in a sin­gle game since al­low­ing 603 to Michi­gan in 2016. Alabama’s 52 points set a play­off cham­pi­onship game record and were the most Ohio State has ever al­lowed in the post­sea­son.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t change what we do, just fun­da­men­tally. But we also had to have some change­ups, be­cause if you just sit there they’ll pick you apart,” said Day. “Clearly, it wasn’t good enough.”

Ju­nior quar­ter­back Mac Jones fin­ished with 36 com­ple­tions for 464 yards and five touch­downs, ty­ing a play­off cham­pi­onship game record for com­ple­tions and set­ting a new mark for yardage.

Run­ning back Na­jee Har­ris had 79 yards on 22 car­ries, an­other 79 re­ceiv­ing yards and three scores, giv­ing him 30 touch­downs on the year to set an Alabama and South­east­ern Con­fer­ence sin­gle-sea­son record.

And wide re­ceiver DeVonta Smith, this year’s Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner, ac­counted for 12 re­cep­tions for 215 yards and three scores be­fore leav­ing the game in the third quar­ter with an in­jury to his right hand, set­ting a slew of sin­gle-game and ca­reer SEC, pro­gram and play­off records.

There might be an ex­cuse for fall­ing flat: Ohio State was down two starters on the de­fen­sive line, negat­ing a team strength when fac­ing the na­tion’s best of­fen­sive front. Alabama’s easy path to 52 points sug­gests Ohio State would’ve strug­gled even at full strength.

Schemat­i­cally, the Buck­eyes were left at a loss.

Alabama’s game plan cre­ated mismatches in the pass­ing game, most no­tably on a 42-yard touch­down pass to Smith in the sec­ond quar­ter that saw the se­nior pit­ted against line­backer Tuf Bor­land. When the Buck­eyes would counter, Alabama would slide Smith into mo­tion and force Ohio State de­fend­ers to make plays in space.

“They had a great scheme,” said Ohio State cor­ner­back Shaun Wade. “They just made plays. They just came out and out­played us.”

With run­ning back Trey Ser­mon out af­ter suf­fer­ing an in­jury on the game’s first pos­ses­sion and the Crim­son Tide pulling away, Ohio State was forced to toss aside the of­fen­sive bal­ance that had de­fined the win against Clem­son.

In what is ex­pected to be his last col­lege game, ju­nior quar­ter­back Justin Fields fin­ished with 17 com­ple­tions in 33 at­tempts for 194 yards and a touch­down with 67 rush­ing yards. If not as cul­pa­ble as the Buck­eyes’ de­fense, the of­fense stood in con­trast to Alabama’s deep and ex­plo­sive group, par­tic­u­larly with Ser­mon side­lined.

“I feel like they did a good job ex­e­cut­ing on de­fense,” Fields said. “Of course they have great play­ers, great ath­letes and they have a great de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, so they did a good job do­ing that.”

There is pride to be had in reach­ing the cham­pi­onship game, es­pe­cially dur­ing a unique year plagued by COVID-19 out­breaks, can­celed games and, for Ohio State in par­tic­u­lar, a start-and­stop road through the reg­u­lar sea­son.

But here’s how it ended: For one night at Hard Rock Sta­dium, Alabama made the Buck­eyes look like the rest of col­lege foot­ball – out­matched and de­void of any an­swers against a su­pe­rior op­po­nent.

“When you’re play­ing against elite play­ers, and this is prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter of­fenses in a long time, the mar­gin for er­ror is tiny,” Day said.

 ?? MARK J. REBILAS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? Ohio State quar­ter­back Justin Fields takes a long, slow walk to the locker room af­ter los­ing to Alabama.
MARK J. REBILAS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS Ohio State quar­ter­back Justin Fields takes a long, slow walk to the locker room af­ter los­ing to Alabama.

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