Yes, the goal in Tuscaloosa is still a national championship. Now the goal is a national championship in 2015, and while that's a nice goal to have - and it is not an unrealistic goal - this period of moving away from the goal of winning a championship in 2014 is . . . well, it is. It is what it is.
And yesterday was what it was. When a game starts out with a senior who has been returning kickoffs for three years generously offering a free touchdown to the other team, you probably shouldn't really expect the squad to be fully in sync, especially when the team has been so on-again/off-again all year. As it turned out, while Alabama had plenty of chances to win the game, it would be a real stretch to say Alabama played a better 60 minutes of football than Ohio State did.
Give Ohio State credit for turning the Tide's biggest strengths, rushing defense and offensive third-down conversions, into weaknesses, as the Buckeyes held Bama to 2 for 13 on 3rd-down conversions and rushed for 281 yards (327 if you take away Cardale Jones' 46 yards of sacks and losses on various ill-fated scrambles).
But there's no getting around the fact that Alabama did a fair bit of the damage to itself. Quarterbacks have run with abandon up the middle of the field against the Tide all year long - it has been the only real running option for most of Alabama's foes - and the Bama staff has never come up with a schematic answer that works with the personnel they have on the field to stop that. As of late, much of this scrambling and successful improvising has come on third down. And as for the Sugar Bowl, even though halftime defensive adjustments are one of Saban's strongest coaching suits, this time he did not find a way to stop Cardale Jones and his third-down scrambling.
Unlike most other teams Alabama has played, however, Ohio State's running was not limited to the quarterback. The Buckeyes were also able to run Ezekiel Elliott up the middle or on the corners against the Tide D with fairly regular success. It wasn't just the 54-yarder or the 85-yard TD, either: on his 20 totes, Elliot had 6 runs of 10 or more yards, 9 runs of 7 or more yards, and 12 runs of 4 or more yards.
Meanwhile, Alabama's attempt to fight the deep ball by playing its safeties up to 30 yards off the line in the two deep did no more than allow Cardale Jones to find and exploit huge gaps in zone coverage, frequently - again - on 3rd and long. Nor did it keep the Tide from giving up two damaging deep passes.
With the defense being gashed from every direction, the talented Tide offense couldn't afford to turn in stretches of listless ball, but it did. The lack of a killer instinct on offense has been perhaps the one persistent weakness in the Alabama program under Nick Saban and on Thursday both the game plan and the execution of it seemed passive. Alabama didn't run any trick plays, threw few deep balls, and play-calling seemed to fall into a conservative pattern of runs and bubble screens, with the occasional slant or out on 3rd down. Five times in the first half Alabama had to punt after it gained 5 or 6 yards on first down, ran up the middle or threw a bubble on second down for from 0 to 2 yards, and then on 3rd down either ran up the middle or threw a low-percentage pass. The first possession was typical: a bubble screen to Cooper for 5 yards on first, Henry up the middle for 2 on 2nd, and then a very odd 3rd-and-3 play call where Cooper ran a fade to the sideline and no other receiver went out past the line of scrimmage.
A fade is a low-percentage play and to run a 100% fade/no option play on 3rd-and-3 is a real head-scratcher from my perspective. And that's how Alabama opened the game. Almost as if a first down here would be nice, you know, but it's no big deal.
And so it went. The first half consisted of the occasional touchdown drive interspersed with a frustrating series of three-and-outs where it rarely looked as if Ohio State stopped Alabama so much as it looked like Alabama just didn't quite get the urgency of getting this first down right now. As a result, Ohio State ended the half with momentum and brought it to the 3rd quarter with them. Alabama fought back and snatched Ole Mo briefly before throwing it away, but State couldn't put Bama away either. It finally took the clock to do that: after the Tide got the ball back with time to score, Alabama committed the cardinal scramble drive sin of completing a pass in the middle of the field short of a first down - two plays in a row. Just like that, combined with some refs who were very prompt about restarting the clock after a first down, it was no longer a realistic drive, it was a Hail Mary situation. And Mary didn't hail back.
It has been fun watching Blake Sims come out of nowhere and almost have a great season, but on the other hand it wasn't too shocking to see Blake's season-long string of always playing his best ball in the clutch come to an end. It's great to believe in heroes, but stuff like that ends, it always does. . .
I digress. While Sims has put up some very nice overall stats, if you drill down you'll see that they don't represent consistently good play, but instead a mixture of brilliance and mediocrity, and you just had to figure that Blake would eventually run into one of those strings where he just couldn't get the offense going even when the defense was saying "you'd better." It was definitely in the clutch yesterday, and the game was riding on his shoulders, when Sims failed to see a 260-pound defensive end standing right where he was about to throw the ball, and it was definitely in the clutch when Sims badly underthrew an open O.J. Howard and found an Ohio State defensive back instead. No, it couldn't last forever.
One reason it ended is that Sims wasn't accustomed to seeing as much pressure as he saw yesterday, and he did not always react well. A couple of his scrambles didn't really look under control, and at other times he didn't get his feet set before throwing.
But the man is a competitor, doubt that not. There was no question in your mind, after he threw the pick six that gave OSU a 2-TD lead, that Blake was going to be out there driving the team down the field on its next possession, and so he did. But in the end it wasn't quite enough, and Sims wasn't quite enough, and the guy we all hated on so much for the last couple of years came that close to proving us all wrong - but didn't. How sweet it would have been.
It was a tale of two backs here, not three, and that's my first question: where was Tyren Jones?
One thing yesterday's game plan did well was utilize T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry for what they do well. Yeldon was obviously on a pitch count, and he got the ball when it was time for a power run or a little inside muscle. Meanwhile, Henry primarily ran sweeps, mostly to the left, where he could get the 3 steps of running room he needs to transform into the nuclear weapon that he is at high speed.
But Bama got most of what it could get out of both those guys. Henry ran about as many sweeps as you can get away with running before the other team starts absolutely blowing that mess up with run blitzes. And Yeldon presumably hit his pitch count.
So where was Tyren Jones? The running game was working just fine, averaging 5.0 yards per pop compared to the seasonal average of 5.1, while the passing game got only 6.6 yards per attempt compared to an average of 8.6, but if you think that meant Alabama would lean on the run more heavily than usual, you would be mistaken. Perhaps the reason the Tide didn't run more is that Kiffin thought he couldn't get many more effective carries out of Yeldon and Henry, but that doesn't explain why Jones didn't get a few more.
Anyway, Derrick Henry is one of the few Bama guys that came out of the game smelling like a rose. Yes, he's still not great at running into a clogged line, but he looked like a guy who recognized his weaknesses and was trying to deal with them. Instead of stopping short to change direction he would try to circle so he didn't lose all his momentum, and when he got hit low and went down, he used his height to tumble forward. He's still not the guy I would choose on 3rd and 1, but he did what he could in no-running-room situations. And as far as when he got the running room? Oh yes, this guy can go big. Here's to him going big next year.
As for Yeldon, he ran hard in the few carries he got but he wasn't himself. It may not have been the greatest idea to rotate him into the game for pass protection on third-down plays, as he whiffed on blitzers twice, killing drives on both occasions. T.J.'s Bama career is almost certainly over, and it ended anticlimactically. But then again, most careers do.
Both Henry and Yeldon ended their seasons just short of the 1000-yard mark. Henry got 990, Yeldon 979.
And so it ends for one of Alabama's greatest players, not with a bang but a whimper. Amari Cooper put up respectable stats - 9 catches for 71 yards and 2 TDs - but never made a big play and never got loose with the football. Cooper looked healthy and caught everything thrown within catching range, so you can either blame the Ohio State defense or Alabama's conservative game plan for his moderate output.
Despite the moderate output, Sims and the gameplan were as fixated on him as ever. Until DeAndrew White caught a deep ball late, the rest of Alabama's wideouts had accounted for only 14 yards. For my money, White's 3rd-down drop of an easy first-down reception late in the first half may have been the biggest play of the game. OSU had just scored to cut the lead to 21-13, and the catch would've given the Tide the ball with a first down out across its 30 with about 2 minutes left and 2 time outs. If Bama answers the TD there before the half, even with a field goal, maybe the momentum never goes to Ohio State and maybe we have a totally different ballgame.
On the 4th-quarter interception play, O.J. Howard was open behind Vonn Bell. If Sims had put some air under that ball and put it in the back of the end zone, it would've been a touchdown.
Arie Kouandjio ended his Tide career with one of his best run-blocking games. He pulled, he walled off linemen, he got downfield and he did not give up a sack.
Kouandjio pulled every time the Tide ran the sweep left, its most successful running play. Ryan Kelly mostly pulled on that play, too and Cam Robinson led the way. On one first-quarter play when Robinson was on the OSU defensive end, Robinson caught the guy taking an inside pass rush route, just pushed him along his route from behind and peeled out to get a linebacker, freeing Henry for a 12-yard run.
Most of the short-yardage runs were behind Leon Brown, but the success rate was mixed.
Austin Shepherd mostly won the pass-blocking battle against Joey Bosa. Michael Bennett got around Brown once for what was partially a coverage sack, and the other two sacks came from blitzing linebacker Darron Lee, and are mostly on Yeldon. But while the Buckeyes didn't straight-out beat their man on the rush very often, they frequently got a push, disrupted the pocket and caused Sims to bail out.
Maybe Ohio State's offensive line is just that good, but for whatever reason guys who had been stoutly denying the run all year were getting shoved to the side and people were running through. Either that or Bama's linemen were losing one-on-one battles with Ezekiel Elliot and Cardale Jones. The result was a qualitatively different running game than any team had achieved against Alabama during the season, even running teams like Arkansas, Mississippi St. and Auburn.
If anybody on the defensive line had a good day, it was probably Xzavier Dickson, who had 5 tackles, a near-safety sack, a tackle for loss and a hurry, and was generally bothersome. But even Dickson was called on a facemask on Jones after he released a pass - the penalty meant little because the pass turned into a TD, but it would've been huge if Bama had stopped that 3rd-and-8 play.
Jonathan Allen had an important sack but he also got burned badly by Jones when Jones only had a small window to maneuver in on the 27-yard run just before the first half that set up a huge Ohio St. TD. A'Shawn Robinson was only in on a couple of tackles. Jarran Reed had two tackles, but the normally sure tackler let Jones surge forward out of the end zone when he had a shot at a two-pointer.
Ryan Anderson was notable primarily for gator-arming tackles around the line of scrimmage on two big Ohio State plays, the 54-yard run by Elliott on State's first drive, and the 27-yard scramble by Jones that set up the huge touchdown before the half.
Reggie Ragland was back to mid-season form, suggesting that his late-season struggles may have been injury-related. Ragland had 7 tackles, 2 for loss, and played his normal physical game. One of his TFLs was on a rare stop 2nd-half 3rd-down stop of the Buckeyes, and Ragland was also one of three guys who knocked Jalin Marshall's helmet off during the game. Ragland was effective inside and out, and it's not surprising that Ezekiel Elliot ran 85 yards for a touchdown right through his hole after he left the game with a late concussion.
Trey Depriest had 6 tackles, but they were mostly of the downfield variety. As the middle linebacker, the buck stops with Depriest on all those quarterback runs up the middle.
Injuries to Ragland and Dillon Lee saw Rueben Foster and Shawn Dion Hamilton in the game late. Foster made a solid tackle on a short run, but the next run was through Hamilton's hole and he was not there, having been blown up by a wideout. The result was the 85-yard Elliott touchdown.
The 54-yard run on Ohio St.'s 5th play from scrimmage was well-defensed schematically, but the players didn't get it done. Eddie Jackson was on Ezekiel Elliot in the backfield, and while you can't really blame a cornerback for not taking a strong running back down one-on-one running laterally like that, you can sure blame him for pawing high, getting his hands slapped away, and not even slowing the guy down. Landon Collins was in better position five yards downfield to stop the play cold, but lost his balance and fell on his face at Elliot's feet, leaving a wide-open hole for Elliot to streak through. Ryan Anderson, trying to tiptoe around the fallen Collins, reached feebly at Elliot, who was off to the races.
In addition to getting beaten very badly deep twice, Jackson was called for pass interference on a 2nd-and-goal play in the 2nd quarter where he was in great position to bat the ball away but decided to go through the receiver instead. State would convert the opportunity for a touchdown, making three TDs that were at least partially attributable to Jackson's play. Eddie did cause an early fumble, but even that good play was more a matter of poor ball security from Elliot as Jackson didn't touch the ball, just hit Elliot's arm. He did make a nice play to bat away an out pattern in the 2nd quarter, but otherwise this was the second game to forget in the last three for #4.
Landon Collins was active and physical, showing his outstanding tackling form. He led the team with 12 tackles and was all over the field when he wasn't out nursing an injured shoulder. However, as is his tendency, he was more involved in run defense than pass defense; no matter how good a tackler he is, and Collins is a very good tackler, there's a limit to how much you can praise a free safety whose team is continually getting lit up by the deep ball.
Perry waved ineffectually at Cardale Jones on the 27-yard scramble that set up the Ohio St. TD just before the half. He kept receivers in front of him and was in on 6 tackles, but he didn't defend any passes or otherwise make any big plays, as he had consistently done over the last few games.
Cyrus Jones had one gift pick and almost made a sensational 2nd pick when he jumped a bubble screen, but he slightly overran the ball and couldn't hang on. Jones also was credited with no less than four pass breakups, as Cordale Jones kept going after him deep, but to no avail. Overall, Jones is one of the few Tide defenders exempt from criticism on the affair. He played a fine game.
Jabriel Washington was unsuccessful in giving deep help to Eddie Jackson on OSU's first long completion. Geno Smith had 6 tackles, but some of them were on receivers well downfield after he didn't stop a completion.
I've heard people call a punter or a field goal kicker a team's MVP for a game quite a few times, but I think it's usually hyperbole when folks say that. Not this time. I mean really? A 55.0 average and 5 punts downed inside the 5? J.K. Scott was incredible: I think they're going to have to give Ray Guy the J.K. Scott Award next year.
Adam Griffith didn't get a chance to be an MVP field goal kicker, but hats off to him for that onside kick. Unfortunately, despite the perfection of the bounce, it went right to where Ohio State's Evan Spencer was waiting for it. ArDarius Stewart made an aggressive and athletic play on the ball, but Spencer made a great play himself to beat Stewart to it.
Stewart also made a nice hustle play to down a punt at the 2-yard-line. Stewart may get more opportunities to do that sort of thing next year folks, because it is time to wave goodbye to the best punt gunner you'll ever see. Landon Collins made a great wrap-up solo tackle on J.K. Scott's first punt, the only opportunity for heroism Scott would give him. Landon, it has been a rare pleasure to watch you covering punts.
Jarrick Williams made the hit of the night for Bama on Scott's second punt
Christion Jones' bonehead play on the opening kickoff was the beginning of a mediocre return night. Other than the semi-squib kick at the end of the first half, Jones only made it past the 21-yard-line once, was stopped inside the 20 four times, and averaged a paltry 14.6 on kickoff returns and 5.0 on punt returns.
Maurice Smith earned a taunting call after another destructive Rueben Foster kick-coverage hit. Geno Smith got away with a terrible blunder when he avoided the roughing call on a 4th-quarter hit on the punter just when it could not be afforded.