After emotional playoff win over Clemson, Ohio State shifts focus to Alabama

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

The Ohio State football team got over the hump when it beat Clemson for the first time in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Friday.

But the Buckeyes maintain their sights are set on the ultimate prize.

“The goal was never just to beat Clemson,” coach Ryan Day said. “The goal was to win the national championship.”

Shifting their focus to the biggest stage, the Buckeyes are tasked with coming down from the emotional high of toppling a postseason nemesis while preparing for the sport’s biggest heavyweight. The Crimson Tide can win their sixth national championship in a span of 12 years on Monday, an unmatched run of success under coach Nick Saban over the past decade-plus.

Day maintains his team is up for the challenge. As much as players and coaches awaited an opportunity to avenge their previous season’s semifinal loss to Clemson, their ambitions have long been loftier.

“All these guys who didn’t have a season were fighting to get back to play for a national championship,” Day said. “While it was an emotional win, that wasn't the goal. The goal was to win this one. So I'd be disappointed if we didn't play well in this game. This is everything on the line, everything we wanted, and so now all the focus goes on to Alabama.”

Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett leads the Buckeyes linemen out for warmups before facing Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

Focus will be needed. Top-seeded Alabama features the No. 2 scoring offense in the country and came close to becoming the first team since 2013 to average 50 or more points per game. It averaged 48.2 points, led by a pair of Heisman Trophy finalists in quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith.

Running back Najee Harris finished fifth in the voting for college football's most prestigious award; he has run for 1,387 yards, third most in the nation.

The Buckeyes, though, have been previously tasked with slowing down offensive firepower. Against Clemson in last week’s semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, they faced Trevor Lawrence, another Heisman finalist who is considered the top pro prospect for the spring’s NFL draft.

Lawrence passed for 400 yards, but needed to throw 48 times and had two turnovers, throwing an interception and fumble. Running back Travis Etienne was limited to 96 combined yards from scrimmage.

“The most prepared team is going to win the game," Day said, "and we have to prepare like we did the week before. The good news is I think we have a little confidence going into the game that we've shown what we can do, and now we've got to go do it again.”

They have 10 days of preparation between the semifinal and final, to be held in Miami Gardens, Florida. After a light schedule over the weekend upon returning from New Orleans, the team practiced Monday.

The Buckeyes enjoyed a complete performance against Clemson, but Day has reminded them they'll need to be even better against Alabama. 

Linebacker Tuf Borland called the Crimson Tide "an unbelievable team," echoing his coach.

"They've got talent all over the place — big, physical offensive line, playmakers on the perimeter," Borland said. "We're going to have to play our best game this week. We're going to have to find another level, for sure."

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman