Ohio State's title dreams ended by dominant Alabama, 52-24

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Ohio State overcame so much this 2020 football season.

But fighting the Big Ten to have a season at all and persevering through a schedule and roster ravaged by COVID-19 proved easier than facing mighty Alabama.

The Crimson Tide proved why it's considered one of the best teams in recent history with a 52-24 College Football Playoff championship game victory Monday night in front of 14,926 at Hard Rock Stadium.

The stadium's name was fitting. The Buckeyes looked like they were between a rock and a hard place all night, especially in its futility in trying to stop Alabama's offense.

Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith races away from Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland for a 42-yard touchdown that gave the Crimson Tide a 35-17 lead in the second quarter.

"A tough night," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. "I'm proud of our team, proud of the seniors, proud of the year that we've had. But it was a tough night."

Ohio State (7-1) couldn't cover Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who had 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half before leaving early in the second with an injury. Playing without key defensive linemen Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith because of COVID-19 protocols, the Buckeyes seldom pressured quarterback Mac Jones, and star running back Najee Harris made big plays when needed in giving Nick Saban his sixth national title in 14 seasons as Alabama coach.

The game was a track meet that Ohio State couldn't win, especially after Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon left the game after only one carry with a shoulder injury. Sermon had gained 524 yards in the Buckeyes' last two games, and they were counting on him to carry a heavy load against Alabama.

Given Alabama's dominance, even a healthy Sermon might not have made a significant difference. The top-ranked Crimson Tide (12-0) made the Buckeyes look as slow as Ohio State usually makes its opponents look. Alabama is the only program in college football that consistently has recruited at a higher level than the Buckeyes, and the talent gap showed.

The Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on five of its first six possessions to take a 35-17 halftime lead. Jones threw for 342 of his 464 yards in the first half and finished with 36 completions in 45 attempts with five touchdowns.

Ohio State made only one big defensive play all night. Linebacker Baron Browning stripped Jones of the ball and recovered it at the Alabama 19 early in the second quarter. Ohio State tied the score at 14 two plays later on a Master Teague III run.

Alabama pulled away after that. Harris scored on a 26-yard screen pass to make it 21-14. Ohio State coach Ryan Day then decided to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Jake Seibert – Blake Haubeil was also out with COVID – on fourth-and-goal from the 6.

"I think if it was fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2, fourth-and-3, I think you'd probably go for it," Day said. "But I think it was either on the 5 or the 6, and I think that the percentages there are very low. I just said, let's just take the three points and move on."

That would be Ohio State's final scoring threat of the half. Justin Fields, who was so brilliant in the semifinal victory over Clemson, was rendered ordinary by Alabama's defense. The Crimson Tide pressured him often, and Buckeye receivers didn't get the separation they normally do. Without Sermon, it was simply too much of an uphill battle.

"They're very good schematically, and they have really good personnel," Day said of the Crimson Tide. "It's one thing to have a good play. It's another thing to execute it. We didn't do that well enough on either side of the ball tonight."

Fields didn't show any obvious effects of his injury sustained against Clemson when he was speared in the back. In what is likely his final game as a Buckeye, the junior completed only 17 of 33 passes for 194 yards and one touchdown.

The Buckeyes went three-and-out on their final two drives of the second quarter and couldn't stop Alabama from expanding its lead. Jones threw touchdown passes of 5 and 42 yards to Smith, the latter with linebacker Tuf Borland in coverage deep, to push the Tide's halftime advantage to 18 points.

"I don't know if I've seen one better than that," Day said of Smith. "He just seemed to create a lot of separation. He's obviously very fast. He plays stronger than he looks. He's not a very big guy, but his play strength is significant. He just eats up ground down the field once he gets those strides going. Tremendous ball skills, Heisman Trophy winner and well deserved. He's a great player."

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Smith had 12 first-half receptions for 215 yards. That's more catches than any player has had for an entire game in the CFP championship game. He left the game with an apparent hand injury on Alabama's opening drive of the second half. Alabama drove to the Ohio State 2 before the Buckeyes forced a field goal to make it 38-17.

Ohio State countered with a quick 75-yard drive, highlighted by a 33-yard run by Fields, who then threw to Garrett Wilson for a 20-yard score to make it 38-24.

Realistic hope for a comeback ended when Alabama drove 75 yards without Smith and the resting Harris to push the lead back to 21 points.

When Teague was tackled for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 at the Ohio State 43, and Alabama converted for another touchdown, any glimmer of a chance disappeared.

The Ohio State entered the game hoping to replicate the magic the 2014 Buckeyes showed in upsetting No. 1 Alabama in the CFP. From the start, it didn't go well. Sermon was injured on the game's first snap, a 2-yard carry. The Buckeyes went three-and-out and were playing from behind after that.

They answered Alabama's first score with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert made a one-handed grab for a 36-yard gain that set up an 8-yard Teague score.

The score after Browning's strip and recovery made it 14-14, but Alabama's superiority then took over.