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Alabama vs Ohio State College Football National Championship Preview: When the Crimson Tide has the Ball

Just how much horsepower do the Buckeyes actually have on defense?

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

While the Ohio State offense has been undeniably explosive and efficient all season long, their defense has been a bit inconsistent despite their talent. While they’re averaging 22 points per game (not bad), their secondary had some rather rough outings against Indiana, Clemson, and Penn State and their rushing defense was gashed by Nebraska and, to a lesser extent, Rutgers.

Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was a longtime secondary coach for Ohio State before moving to the Tennessee Titans for a couple of years and returning to Columbus as a defensive coordinator this year. He prefers to run a base 4-3 defense unless the opposing offense absolutely forces him to go nickel.

The defensive line consists of a heavy rotation of two defensive tackles and two edge rushers that tend to try and delay and stunt with regularity. Defensive tackles Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett both lead the team in tackles for loss and are a powerful combo up the middle who can mess up a run game or shrink the pocket on the QB in a hurry. On the edges, Jonathan Cooper leads the team in sacks and is a highly talented edge rusher, while guys like Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison are athletic bookends in their own right. This is easily the strength of the Ohio State defense.

Unfortunately, they’ve also been hit by the Covid, with Ty Friday and Zach Harrison both missing last week and potentially this week, plus rumors abound that Togiai and maybe some others may be out as well.

At linebacker, Pete Werner and Tuf Borland tag-team the middle of the field. Werner leads the team in tackles and is a ferocious hitter. Both are a little on the smaller side and are typically tasked with hook zone coverage and chasing down outside runs, rather than trying to take on blockers up the middle. One or the other will get sent on a A-gap blitz fairly regularly as well, but overall Ohio State rarely sends more than one extra rusher on a blitz.

For the outside strongside linebacker, Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning rotate with each other and are both big, athletic guys often tasked with either coming up to play as a defacto defensive end against the run or drop into sideline and flats coverage against passes. It’s an important, thankless job that doesn’t lend to many highlights, but they each do a good job of rarely being on a lowlight.

The secondary typically works out of a cover-3 shell more often than not and generally leave Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks on their own down the sidelines, expecting the pair of 6’1” corners to hold their own on the deeper balls. Safeties Marcus Williamson and Josh Proctor will rotate who plays the deep centerfield and who comes up to cover someone short, and Marcus Hooker often comes in as the nickel back or will play safety in relief of Proctor or Williamson.

The group is rangy and talented for sure, but have definitely had their struggles in multiple games at actually being able to challenge passes, rather than always playing catch-up.

This is a tough one to preview, as we don’t exactly know who all along that defensive line is actually going to have to miss the game. For the sake of this, though, I’m going to assume that the starting 4 will still be there.

I think the Buckeyes will be able to get pretty good pressure on Mac Jones, and they’ll be relying on that to force Alabama to keep trying quick dump passes across the middle where their linebackers in zone can lay some hits.

With Togiai and Garrett in the middle against Alabama with a back-up center, I worry we may see more of what we saw in the second half of the Notre Dame game: Najee Harris finding no room up the middle. If Sarkisian is determined to force that, especially if Mac is feeling the effects of the pass rush, then it could wind up with a few uneffective drives for the Crimson Tide.

On the other hand, there are yards to be had against this scheme by going off tackle and stressing Borland and Werner to the sidelines. On top of that, the cover-3 is naturally going to give up yards to the sideline comeback routes, while DeVonta Smith and John Metchie will be afforded 1-on-1 opportunities deep to show their mettle if Jones is willing take them.

I don’t expect Miller Forristall to have much breathing room on his usual at-the-sticks converters, but Jahleel Billingsley will absolutely be used to try and slip behind a linebacker on the deep corner routes as the wide receivers try to occupy and distract the deep zones.

And, of course, there’s Jaylen Waddle. If he plays, then the horizontal eye candy from sending him in motion will absolutely cause havoc to those short zone guys, and it will be up to Sarkisian and Mac to make them pay for that.

Overall, I think that, in theory, Alabama’s offense matches up really well here. Their biggest struggles (which, admittedly, is a very relative “struggle”) have come against teams determined to drop multiple safeties deep, and I don’t expect Ohio State to come off of their preferred single-high, stack the box 4-3 base easily. They’ll give up a big play or two, but they will be absolutely determined to keep Najee from absolutely gashing them for 10 yards at a time.

If Alabama stays aggressive on offense, I think they put up easily enough points to win. If they try the Notre Dame second half game plan again, though...