2015 Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama remains a high-water mark for Ohio State, its fans

Ray Stein
Buckeye Xtra

Jan. 1, 2015 

Each week, Gameday+ takes a look at an Ohio State game played on this date: 

Ohio State 42, Alabama 35

Setup

You are correct, today’s date is not Jan. 1. But the fact that Ohio State never has played on Jan. 11 should not prevent anyone from remembering the unforgettable — the night in New Orleans six years and 10 days ago, the last time the Buckeyes met Alabama in a College Football Playoff game.

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In many ways, the circumstances then are remarkably similar to what they are now. In both seasons, OSU was a longshot, controversial choice to make the playoff — in 2014 because of an early-season blemish, a home loss to Virginia Tech, and in 2020 because of many factors related to the coronavirus pandemic. The virus first prompted the Big Ten to cancel its season, then reverse course and start playing in late October under seemingly random rules how it would determine its champion, then change those rules when Ohio State proved to be the league’s best team despite playing only five games, not enough to qualify for the league championship game under the original format.

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott sets sail on an 85-yard touchdown run that almost, but not quite, clinched the Buckeyes' 2015 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama.

Once ushered into the postseason, however, the Buckeyes have shown their worth, just as they did in 2014. They first displayed their muscle in a Big Ten championship victory over Northwestern (though not as impressive as the 2014 destruction of Wisconsin) and then relied on power and precision in an upset victory over Clemson in a Sugar Bowl semifinal. Ohio State frolicked down a familiar path six years ago against an Alabama team led by standouts including receiver Amari Cooper, running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, and a defense that allowed an average of only 88.2 yards rushing per game. 

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Like Ohio State, the 2014 Crimson Tide dropped an early-season game, at Mississippi on Oct. 4 to fall from No. 3 to No. 7 in the polls, then chewed up the rest of its Southeastern Conference opponents, including five ranked teams, to claim the No. 1 seed in the initial CFP.

Stars

Oh, where to begin? Well, there was the obvious production by Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, who blasted his way to 230 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. And one-time emergency quarterback Cardale Jones was rock-solid with 243 yards passing and another 43 yards rushing to complement a 281-yard ground effort. On defense, Darron Lee was named the game’s defensive MVP with seven tackles, including two sacks, but the whole unit was outstanding.

Defensive end Steve Miller's 41-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Ohio State a 34-21 lead in the third quarter.

Alabama’s star power was tempered by a whole bunch of buts. Cooper had nine receptions — but only 71 yards. Henry had 95 rushing yards — but, inexplicably, only 13 carries. Quarterback Blake Sims had 237 yards and two TD passes — but three costly interceptions.

Turning point

Oh, where to begin? Chronologically, the Buckeyes fell behind 21-6 early in the second quarter despite having two first-and-goal situations that fizzled, leading to field goals. But Ohio State scored twice in the final three minutes of the first half, the second a spectacular toe-tapping catch in the end zone by Michael Thomas on a pass from receiver Evan Spencer.

Ohio State gained invaluable momentum when Michael Thomas (3) came down with a pass from fellow receiver Evan Spencer for a touchdown just before halftime.

OSU then scored the first 14 points of the second half, the second TD on Steve Miller’s 41-yard interception return, to take a 34-21 lead. Alabama made it 34-28 on a Sims scoring run and, with five minutes remaining, forced the Buckeyes to start a drive from their 5. But Jones squeezed out a first down on third-and-1 from the OSU 14 and on the next play Elliott burst through a hole on the left side and shot out of a cannon for an 85-yard scoring run to make it 42-28 with 3:24 left. 

Still, the game wasn’t decided until Tyvis Powell picked off Sims in the end zone on the final play.

Impact

Ohio State had its first-ever victory over Alabama, more than 35 years after the two college football powers played for the first time (another similar thread to the 2020 win over Clemson). But the intensity of coach Urban Meyer’s focus was evident in the black T-shirts he and his team wore after beating the Crimson Tide: Won, Not Done.

Indeed, the mission continued 11 days later in suburban Dallas, where Elliott topped himself with a career-best 246 yards rushing and four touchdowns as the Buckeyes walloped Oregon 42-20 for their first national title since 2002. 

Quotable

“Oregon won by 40? I gotta go. We gotta get ready for that one.” — Meyer, upon hearing that Oregon had won the day’s first semifinal against Florida State by a 59-20 margin 

rstein@dispatch.com

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