Live Updates: Alabama Closing In on National Championship

5 months ago 28

Jan. 11, 2021, 11:01 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 11:01 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

DeVonta Smith heads to the locker room after hurting his right hand.
Credit...Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

DeVonta Smith, the Alabama wide receiver who has poked all sorts of holes in Ohio State’s defense during this championship game, has headed to the locker room with a right hand injury.

It’s not clear whether he will return to the game. He’s logged 215 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches.

A few minutes after Smith went to the locker room, Alabama scored again to push the Crimson Tide lead to 45-24 with 2:52 to play in the third quarter. More than half of Alabama’s plays on the eight-snap drive were runs.

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:54 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:54 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Fields during the third quarter.
Credit...Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Justin Fields had a shaky first half that left him with just 90 yards of passing. It took him and Ohio State just three plays to score on their opening possession in the second half.

Fields started the march toward the end zone with a 17-yard pass to Garrett Wilson. Then he reminded all of us of how he can extend a play and ran for 33 yards. A 20-yard pass to Wilson was good for a touchdown to narrow Alabama’s lead to 38-24.

Fields’s status for Monday’s game was something of a question mark after he took a hard hit during the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. (By night’s end, he had still managed 385 passing yards and six touchdowns against Clemson, which appeared in last season’s title game.)

But Alabama spent much of the time between the semifinals and the title game fretting over Fields. Speaking to reporters last week, Pete Golding, the Alabama defensive coordinator, offered an extended assessment of how Fields has developed since his freshman season, which he played at Georgia:

I think he looks much more veteran. I think he does a good job of getting them in and out of plays. Obviously they’re a big check-with-me team, and based on the shell and the front he can control the run game and the pass game.

So I think he’s come a long way obviously of understanding coverages and fronts and how they fit together. He does a really nice job of getting them in and out of plays. Obviously, I think he’s got a really good arm, a really strong arm, another one. He threw on his back foot 68 yards last week for the touchdown, but I think his accuracy has improved.

I think he’s done a better job of keeping his feet in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield, but he still has the ability to be able to hurt you and tuck it and run. So I really think he’s become a complete quarterback, not labeled an athlete.

I think he can make the throws, can make the checks, understand his coverages, so I think he’s really grown up.

Dylan Moses, a senior linebacker for Alabama, said that Fields reminded him of Cam Newton, the Auburn quarterback who tormented Alabama and engineered an Iron Bowl comeback that makes Tide fans shudder a full decade (and four national championships) later.

“He can deliver the ball to his receivers, has a strong arm, athletic,” Moses said. “He’s everything that you want in a quarterback.”

And now all Alabama wants is for Fields not to be able to come up with a Newtonian-style revival. We’re at about five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:44 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:44 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

It doesn’t happen often, but it has tonight: Alabama put together a scoring drive without a single yard from DeVonta Smith.

Alabama went for 75 yards over nearly seven minutes and hit a field goal to extend its lead to 38-17. But Smith, who wasn’t in the game for the whole of the drive, dropped the one ball that came his way.

Alabama fans will be holding their breath until they see Smith, who retreated into a sideline medical tent after appearing to injure his right hand, line up for another snap. But at least they know their team can score anyway.

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:33 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:33 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Mac Jones had 342 yards passing in the first half.
Credit...Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Lane Kiffin, one of the great offensive minds of his era, knows how to size up a quarterback. And when he looks at Mac Jones, the redshirt junior who takes almost all of Alabama’s snaps, he thinks of a quarterback he coached more than a decade ago: Matt Leinart.

Pretty high praise considering Leinart won the Heisman Trophy in 2004.

“Matt was a great player, won the Heisman, but he had great weapons and a great offensive line,” Kiffin, Mississippi’s coach, said in an interview last week. “That’s what this offense really reminds me of. They have a Reggie Bush, but he’s a receiver, not a running back” in DeVonta Smith.

Please say more, Coach.

“He’s really accurate, really smart, doesn’t turn the ball over, and on top of that, he’s got great weapons,” Kiffin went on about Jones who, like Leinart, is being coached by Steve Sarkisian, Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

The Jones stat file entering Monday night’s game: 5,699 yards of total offense across three seasons at Alabama, with 51 passing touchdowns and a career completion percentage of 74 percent. He stumbled in the second quarter on Monday night with a fumble that set the stage for an Ohio State touchdown, but he recovered minutes later with the engineering of a five-play drive that restored Alabama’s lead.

As Alabama starts the second half with a 35-17 lead, Jones has 342 passing yards and has completed 25 of his 30 passes. Not bad for a guy who was seen as a talented, but maybe not history-making, quarterback when he finished high school.

But he has been a stabilizing, reassuring presence for Alabama throughout the season and placed third in the Heisman voting (Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was second behind Smith).

As Alabama coaches and Kiffin will say openly and frequently, Jones benefits from the talents around him, namely Smith, who had 215 yards in the opening half, and Najee Harris, the premier tailback for the Crimson Tide.

Removing Smith from the equation is no easy task, Kiffin said, as much as Ohio State might want to right now.

“The problem is there are so many weapons,” he said last week. “Everybody said, ‘OK, drop eight and play double cloud.’ Well, the problem is then they just run you out of that because of the offensive line and Najee. They don’t allow you to really take him away because you can, but then you’re just going to die a slower death with the running.”

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:23 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:23 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Coach Tom Allen and Indiana nearly broke Ohio State during the regular season, so I texted him at halftime to see what he made of the game so far.

If you’re an Ohio State fan, it might be best to look away.

DeVonta Smith, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning wideout, and Najee Harris, the starting Tide tailback, “are at another level!!!” Allen wrote, adding that injuries were straining Ohio State. (Before the game, he was effusive in his praise for Trey Sermon, the running back for the Buckeyes who left the game hurt.)

“Bama’s athleticism and power is impressive,” Allen added. “I think OSU must pressure the QB more!!!”

The key so far, as Allen sees it: Alabama’s dominance at the line of scrimmage.

With no sustained pressure, he said, Ohio State has no chance.

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:14 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 10:14 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, celebrates with Najee Harris after scoring a touchdown for Alabama.
Credit...Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Heisman Trophy did not go to DeVonta Smith’s head. His feet just headed toward the end zone again and again.

Smith, the first wide receiver in almost three decades to win college football’s top individual prize, used the opening half of Monday night’s College Football Playoff championship game as if he still had a case to make to voters. He didn’t, of course, but he scored three touchdowns and amassed 215 receiving yards on a dozen catches anyway.

Again, that was in one half. There’s still another to play.

Smith’s graceful, speedy runs were the signatures of yet another offensive outburst by Alabama, which built a 35-17 lead over No. 3 Ohio State at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. But Najee Harris, a tailback, added more moments to his perpetually swelling highlight reel, and Mac Jones, the Crimson Tide quarterback, didn’t let a rare miscue of a lost fumble derail him or the offensive juggernaut that has Alabama in strong position to reign over the sport once more.

For a program accustomed to championships so often built on sturdy defenses, Alabama’s approach to Monday night’s matchup was a departure from so much of its long history — but also in keeping with its recent run of record-shattering, bracingly powerful offenses that produce big plays through the air.

By halftime, Smith had set the record for most receptions in a playoff-era championship game. And Jones had set a first-half record for passing in a playoff championship, upending the mark that Joe Burrow, a Heisman winner, set in last season’s game.

Alabama’s eruption in Monday’s opening half puts extraordinary pressure on Ohio State, which played far fewer games this season and headed to the locker room with just 190 yards in total offense. Alabama posted 389.

The star quarterback for the Buckeyes, Justin Fields, struggled, going 6 for 15 with his passes for only 90 yards. Trey Sermon, a tailback who had made defenders look foolish, left the game early with an injury and was not expected to return. The Ohio State receiver with the most productive night so far? A tight end.

More trouble might be imminent for Ohio State: Alabama will receive the kickoff to start the second half.

“The whole offense is really playing well,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban told ESPN as he headed toward the locker room. And with that, a whole bunch of heads snapped in surprise that the oft-scowling Saban would say something so glowing during a game.

Jan. 11, 2021, 9:39 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 9:39 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Ohio State place kicker Blake Haubeil kicks a 43-yard field goal during the first half of the Big Ten championship.
Credit...Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The list of problems Ryan Day, Ohio State’s coach, wishes he didn’t have during a championship game assuredly includes not having two-thirds of the kickers on his roster absent.

But here we are.

Ohio State announced before the game that Blake Haubeil, who handled half of the field goal tries for the Buckeyes this season, would be out, along with Dominic DiMaccio, who took care of most of the kickoffs. Haubeil said he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The absences left Ohio State with Jake Seibert, a freshman who had missed his only field goal attempt of the season but had a 13-for-13 record on extra points heading into Monday night’s title showdown.

With just over five minutes to play in the second quarter, Seibert got a chance for 3 points. An easy 23-yard kick narrowed Alabama’s lead to 4, and it’s 21-17 as the intermission nears in South Florida.

Jan. 11, 2021, 9:21 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 9:21 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning forces a fumble by Alabama quarterback Mac Jones during the first half.
Credit...Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Coach after coach has insisted that Alabama won’t beat itself.

They might be rethinking that perspective after Ohio State tied the game at 14.

Alabama started a drive on its own 12-yard line, and Mac Jones promptly threw to DeVonta Smith for a 12-yard pickup. On the very next snap, Jones lost the ball for Alabama’s eighth lost fumble of the season.

After the lost possession, Ohio State started its drive on the Alabama 19. A defensive pass interference call against Alabama moved the Buckeyes 15 yards. Master Teague III ran for a 4-yard score and knotted the ballgame with 11:43 to play in the second quarter.

It didn’t last. Alabama went 75 yards on five plays, including a 26-yard touchdown pass to Najee Harris, to seize the lead once more. Jones was perfect on the drive.

It’s 21-14, Alabama, with nine minutes to go before halftime. So maybe the coaches were right, after all.

Waddle in the first quarter.
Credit...Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The early verdict for both teams in Miami Gardens is that Ohio State is down a running back while Alabama is up a long-lost wide receiver.

Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle fractured an ankle while playing against Tennessee in October, requiring surgery. His first play back was a 15-yard catch, putting Alabama in a good position to be the first with points on the board — Najee Harris finished a 1-yarder for his 25th rushing touchdown of the season. Waddle did appear to have some discomfort after his catch.

But Ohio State running back Trey Sermon was sent out after the first possession, grasping his left shoulder and heading to the locker room, then the hospital. Master Teague III, another running back for Ohio State, stepped up in Sermon’s absence, rushing to match Alabama’s lead.

But Alabama’s DeVonta Smith opened the second quarter with a 5-yard touchdown catch at the start of the quarter to put Alabama up, 14-7.

Jan. 11, 2021, 9:00 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 9:00 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

We knew there’d be a lot of scoring. Alabama just made it look easy (again).

And as you’d expect, Mac Jones threw the ball a lot to DeVonta Smith, the winner of this season’s Heisman Trophy.

A 32-yard pass. Then a 12-yard pass. Then someone else — John Metchie III — got to pick up nine yards on a pass before Smith caught another pass for three yards. Alabama pivoted to its ever-mighty running game from there, giving Najee Harris the ball for two quick gains that added up to seven yards and brought the Tide within 20 yards of the end zone.

Another pass to Metchie brought Alabama close to a first down, but Harris ran for 3 yards to sustain the drive. A 4-yard scamper by Harris brought Alabama to the brink of a lead headed into the second quarter, but on the next play, Justin Hilliard, an Ohio State linebacker, tore through the chaos to push Harris back two yards.

And when it came time to score? A 5-yard pass to a largely undefended Smith for a touchdown, completing a drive that went just more than five minutes.

Alabama rolled up 153 yards on its first two drives, including 127 through the air.

And now Alabama leads, 14-7, early in the second quarter.

Justin Fields hands off to Trey Sermon during the first quarter.
Credit...Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Barely minutes into the game, Trey Sermon, clutching his left shoulder, was shuttled into the Ohio State locker room. It was only the first possession but the running back likely will not see any more action on Monday night, as he was then transported to a hospital for further examination.

A deep loss for the Buckeyes, Sermon blossomed in the last few games of the season. In the last two games alone, he rushed for 524 yards. In the first five games of this season, he rushed for a total of 344 yards.

“He’s one of those guys where you give him the seam, he can take it: I think he’s got breakaway speed and then he still has the ability to catch some out of the backfield,” Pete Golding, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, said of Sermon last week.

Luckily, Ohio State had running back Master Teague III, who suffered an injury in the first half of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship win and was unable to play in the Sugar Bowl. Teague was the first player from Ohio State to put points up on the board against Alabama. In the first five games of the season, Teague had 449 yards on 89 carries and six touchdowns.

And he has already proven himself by and large — after the defense forced a turnover, Teague wasted no time for the Buckeyes in landing his second touchdown of the night.

Jan. 11, 2021, 8:43 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 8:43 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Jeremy Ruckert of Ohio State catches a ball for a first down during the first quarter.
Credit...Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Half — half! — of Ohio State’s six passing touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson involved tight ends.

Consider the case of Jeremy Ruckert, a 6-foot-5 junior from Lindenhurst, N.Y. When the Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, he had caught five touchdown passes this season and not one in the preceding three games.

But early in the second quarter that night, when Ohio State took the lead it would hold forevermore, Justin Fields targeted Ruckert with a 17-yard pass for a touchdown. He did it again, this time for 12 yards, just before halftime and finished the night with 55 yards on just three catches.

Ohio State’s reliance on its tight ends has been inconsistent this year. But when the Buckeyes turn to players like Ruckert, they’ve generally had positive results.

“They’ve been effective when used, but not used that often, and I think that’s probably a dimension that really stuck out to me,” Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach, said. “Honestly, you don’t think about taking any of those guys away. You’re worried about all the perimeter guys and you’re worried about stopping the run game. Tight ends, to me, that’s where you can really, truly take advantage of a defense because now you put those safeties and linebackers in conflict.”

Alabama had noticed the tight end play on film, of course. The lone outstanding question heading into Monday’s game was how much Ohio State Coach Ryan Day would use them with a title on the line.

“A lot of tight ends, they may be really physical but not that effective in the pass or only effective in the pass but not effective in the run, but I think he can do both of those,” Christian Harris, an Alabama linebacker, said of Ruckert. “He can kill you any moment of the game, whether it’s the run play, put you on your back or the pass. He’s a great route runner. He’s also got some size on him, so it’s really hard to get around him when he’s trying to make catches.”

Ruckert made his presence known early on Monday with a stellar one-handed catch for a 36-yard gain that set the Buckeyes up for an 8-yard touchdown run by Master Teague III.

Tie game in Miami Gardens with a bit under five minutes to play in the first quarter.

Jan. 11, 2021, 8:36 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 8:36 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Najee Harris of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes for a 1-yard touchdown during the first quarter.
Credit...Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

By the way he gushed last week, you would have thought that Steve Spurrier was Najee Harris’s coach.

“I like their scheme probably better than everyone’s because of the ability to run the ball with Najee Harris,” said Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner who built Florida into an offensive monstrosity with his Fun ‘n’ Gun tactics.

Entering Monday’s game, Harris had 346 receiving yards and had run for 1,387. And Spurrier declared Harris was “maybe the best running back in the country” and the most underrated player on a stunningly talented Alabama offense.

Harris just made the first score of the night, a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal to put Alabama in front, 7-0, with just more than eight minutes to play in the first quarter.

Mark Ingram, one of Harris’s predecessors as Alabama’s starting tailback, fairly argued that for all of the attention Alabama’s passing game has picked up this season, the Tide’s attack on the ground cannot be overlooked.

“That offensive line that they’ve got and Najee and Brian Robinson, those guys have been holding down the ground game all season,” Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, said in an interview. “So you have to respect that, and that allows our receivers, our explosive playmakers on the perimeter to get open, get outside, get one-on-one opportunities, get opportunities to run across the field and make plays because you have to respect Najee, you have to respect our run game.”

Jan. 11, 2021, 8:19 p.m. ET

Jan. 11, 2021, 8:19 p.m. ET

By Alan Blinder

Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai (72) blocks a pass by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence during the second half of the Sugar Bowl.
Credit...Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Indiana gave Ohio State its biggest scare of this season, losing to the Buckeyes by just a touchdown. About seven weeks later, Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach, is still thinking about Ohio State’s defensive line.

“They’re probably not as dynamic as they were a year ago, but they’re very, very good and there’s so many of them and there’s not really one guy who just jumps out at you,” Allen said in an interview. “It’s a group of guys that plays really hard, they’re really well-coached, they do have talent and they are good enough to stop the run game and disrupt the pass game.”

Indeed, Ohio State entered Monday night having given up just 624 rushing yards, holding opponents to about 3 yards a carry. And for as vaunted of a passing offense as Alabama has boasted this season, it is still a team that tilts toward the run, having rushed for 2,414 yards this season, about 5 yards a carry.

“Not a super complicated scheme and they don’t have to be that way because they have great players, but it’s mostly four-down fronts,” Mac Jones, Alabama’s quarterback, said last week. “I’ve been impressed watching them on film — very vertical team in terms of the D-line getting back there at the quarterback, and then obviously all 11 players rallying to the ball.”

Najee Harris, Alabama’s star running back, offered a similar diagnosis before Monday’s game: “They’re really good in dissecting things out, really good at coming down and playing the run and dropping back into coverage when they have to. Really good lateral movement, stuff like that.”

But if Alabama is hoping simply to wear down the Buckeyes, Allen has more bad news: He doesn’t see depth as a particular problem for Ohio State’s line.

“They keep rotating them in, and so they keep guys fresh,” he said. “There’s not much of a drop-off between whoever comes in, and so it’s just like next guy, next guy, next guy.”

Allen's assessment will be tested throughout the night. Two crucial members of the line, the defensive end Tyreke Smith and Tommy Togiai, a defensive tackle, are unavailable for the game, Ohio State said.

Patrick Surtain II making a play during the Southeastern Conference championship against the Florida Gators.
Credit...Adam Hagy/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Patrick Surtain II has the Buckeyes on edge, especially while they are looking to protect Justin Fields’ remaining body parts and relying on his arm.

“Well, you know, his thing is — of course he can do many different things with their coverages and adjustments — but in reality, he’s such a great cover guy that basically you put an ‘X’ on that guy because he’s covered up a lot,” said Kevin Wilson, Ohio State’s offensive coordinator.

“He can play a guy one-on-one, so that allows the defense to then bracket other receivers or that allows the defense then to cheat with linebackers and safeties to outnumber you and out-gap you in the run game,” he added.

The Alabama cornerback, who was named the defensive M.V.P. of the Rose Bowl, had 34 total tackles, 20 solo, 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception, eight pass deflections and one touchdown in 12 games this season. He is up for a slew of awards and is expected to go early in the N.F.L. draft.

Surtain grew up in South Florida, graduating from American Heritage High School and was a five-star recruit to Alabama. His father, who was an N.F.L. cornerback for Miami and Kansas City, was his high school football coach.

Surtain was “a guy we recruited hard,” Wilson said. “I know Coach Coombs was disappointed when we didn’t get half and those guys were dealing trying to get him in here.”

Playing at Hard Rock Stadium for Surtain is a homecoming, and he is hoping to make a certain Surtain Senior in South Florida proud.

“I’m just looking forward to impress him,” he said of his father, adding that his family would be in the stands. “I know they’re going to be happy to see me. I’m going to be happy to see them. It’s going to be a great moment.”

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