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Buckeyes defense hasn't faced any offense like Alabama's

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State faced the best offense it had seen all season against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal last Friday.

The Tigers featured stars in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne. The Buckeyes answered that challenge by holding them to 28 points, about 17 below their average.

Slowing down Alabama in Monday’s CFP championship in Miami Gardens, Florida, will be a significantly more difficult task.

Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith (11) tackles Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence while linemen Tommy Togiai (72) and Jonathon Cooper (0) provide pressure in the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl win. OSU will need another strong effort against Alabama.

The Crimson Tide seemingly have it all on offense. Its top wide receiver, DeVonta Smith, won the Heisman Trophy. Its quarterback, Mac Jones, finished third. Its best running back, Najee Harris, finished fifth. Its offensive line won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best.

Other than that …

“Yeah, this is a great offense,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “It is a complete offense. There are five All-Americans on the offensive side of the ball. They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses. People have tried numerous different things against them, and they always have an answer.”

Alabama averages 48.2 points and is sixth nationally in yards per game (535.0), sixth in passing (349.3) and first in third-down conversions (59.3%). As talented as Lawrence and Etienne are, Clemson’s offensive line and receivers are not in Alabama’s class.

This is a more complete offense than the one Ohio State played six years ago in its 42-35 semifinal win. Jones is a far more effective passer than 2014 Tide quarterback Blake Sims, and in that game then-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin inexplicably featured passing rather than feeding the ball to running back Derrick Henry. Sims threw 36 times, Henry averaged 7.3 yards against the Buckeyes but got only 13 carries.

Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian doesn’t figure to play into Ohio State’s hands like that. He won the Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant coach and Texas thought enough of him to dump former Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman and hire Sarkisian as head coach.

Sarkisian uses motion and unconventional formations to put their playmakers in position to be even more dangerous.

The obvious area for Alabama to probe is Ohio State’s secondary, which has had growing pains this season. Against Clemson, it yielded 400 passing yards, though that’s a bit misleading. Much of that yardage came when the Buckeyes played softer coverage while nursing a comfortable lead. Ohio State didn’t allow a Clemson play longer than 29 yards.

Doing that against Alabama might be impossible, but the Buckeyes will try to make Alabama one-dimensional. Ohio State has been superb against the run this season, particularly down the stretch. The Buckeyes held Clemson to 44 rushing yards.

Alabama running back Najee Harris showed Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl that he can be a threat on the ground or, as it were, through the air.

Harris is a threat to run for that many on seemingly any play. Running behind that powerful and cohesive line, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior has speed, power and shiftiness.

At least the Buckeyes don’t have to worry as much about the quarterback running. Jones has a knack for moving in the pocket to buy extra time to throw, but he’s not the run threat that Lawrence was.

The Buckeyes said it’s essential to play fundamentally sound, with everyone in their proper spot and then swarming to the ball. Their defensive linemen believe that practicing against Ohio State’s offensive line has prepared them.

“It'll be won in the trenches, no doubt,” Buckeyes defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “Games like this will be won up front. If you can't move offensive and defensive lines, then you have no chance at winning, in my opinion.

“Offensive linemen and defensive linemen are unsung heroes. We might not get the glamor, the flash, but it's won up front. The better front is going to win this game.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Ohio State vs. Alabama

What: College Football Playoff championship game

When: 8 p.m. Monday  

TV: ESPN  

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)