Ohio State entered the Allstate Sugar Bowl as 9-point underdogs to Nick Saban's terrifying Crimson Tide. That spread looked generous early, as Ohio State was forced to settle for field goals on its first two possessions despite having first-and-goal situations on each of those drives. Alabama's offense took advantage of two Buckeye turnovers to jump out to a 21-6 lead.
But the last team into the playoff was not going away without a fight. A great drive led to an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown, making it an eight-point game, and a ridiculous trick play dialed up by Tom Herman brought the Buckeyes within one to close the half. Ohio State opened the second half with another good drive, adding a 47-yard Devin Smith touchdown to its total. Unheralded defensive lineman Steve Miller added a pick-six to bring the Buckeyes out to a 13-point lead.
Blake Sims is still Blake Sims, though, and kept the Crimson Tide alive with a great possession and rushing TD near the end of the third quarter. Things got defensive after that. Ohio State punted to start things off in the 4th quarter, and forced Alabama to do the same on their own first possession. Pac-12 refs are also still Pac-12 refs, and a bad no-call on an obvious Alabama pass interference almost doomed the Buckeyes with 11 minutes to play. Enter former Nick Saban target Vonn Bell. Bell picked off Blake Sims with the Tide knocking on Ohio State's door to keep the momentum alive for the Buckeyes.
And then ... enter Ezekiel Elliott. The most important rushing play in recent memory took the ball 85 yards for six points to put the Buckeyes up two scores against a fearsome opponent with little time left on the clock. Alabama drove down the field quickly and struck with a touchdown to Amari Cooper.
Ohio State got the ball back, but some bizarre play calling ensured Alabama had one final chance. However the Buckeyes were game on a tense final drive and a Tyvis Powell interception as time expired clinched things once and for all. And now they're headed to Dallas-Fort Worth to play for a national championship.
3 things we learned:
1. 2014 Ohio State can play with anyone in the country. This version of Ohio State that played against Wisconsin and Alabama is a much more authentic rendering than the one that played against Virginia Tech. Down 21-6 against the best team in the nation, it would have been understandable for Ohio State to fold. Our 3rd-string quarterback was not looking sharp early, nor was the run defense. But the Buckeyes finished the first half on a furious run, continuing the momentum through the 3rd quarter with a pair of TDs -- including a pick-6 by defensive lineman Steve Miller.
This wasn't Ohio State's most complete game of the year, by a long shot, but it was easily the most troublesome opponent the Buckeyes have had to face. The Buckeyes sprinted out to a 42-28 lead on the back of Ezekiel Elliott, only for Amari Cooper to answer at the other end. A nevy onside kick almost gave Bama the ball back, but a magnificent Evan Spencer grab gave the Buckeyes possession.
2. FEED ZEKE. Ohio State's offense arguably looked its best when the attack was balanced. Elliott, sans a first-half fumble, looked really good on Thursday night.
Granted, Cardale Jones looked plenty good once he found his rhythm. A bad start blossomed into something much better for Jones, who was equally dangerous on the ground and through the air for much of the game. Jones rushed for first downs on four separate third-down plays, which was huge for the Buckeyes' offensive prospects.
But it was Elliott's 85-yarder with three minutes left on the clock that sealed the deal for the Buckeyes. He took off through traffic and found a hole, sprinting up the left sideline without being touched. Holy moly. This guy is good.
3. You can't shoot yourself in the foot against a team this good. Alabama played fine in the first half, but Ohio State's mistakes were the real difference maker through the first 30. The Buckeyes actually did a decent job of keeping all-universe WR Amari Cooper contained, though he did score a touchdown, but it was our own mental mistakes that proved extremely costly. Between Cardale Jones' first-half interception, Jalin Marshall's shaky punt return decision-making, and an Elliott fumble, the Buckeyes were lucky to keep it so close heading into the break.
Alabama forced three consecutive three-and-outs late in the game to make things interesting, and Cardale Jones flirted with his second almost-safety of the day. And those mistakes are what allowed Alabama to hang around in a game that the Buckeyes could have put away early if they had protected the football. They'll need to shore up those weaknesses before they roll into the championship game against Oregon.
Honorable mention: Punters are important. Daaaaang, JK Scott, you scary.