Cardale Jones, welcome to college football history. Making just his second career start, the man they call 12 Gauge shot No. 4 Ohio State out of a 15-point deficit into a 42-35 Sugar Bowl victory over No. 1 Alabama on Thursday night.
The Buckeyes will meet No. 2 Oregon, 59-20 winners over No. 3 Florida State earlier today, in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship next Monday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Defying the keyboard warriors (myself included) determined to declare the game over at 21-6, Ohio State came roaring back. The Buckeyes closed the first half with two straight touchdowns and opened the second half in the exact same fashion. Jones marched the Buckeyes 75 yards in six plays, connecting with Devin Smith for his customary deep touchdown catch (this time 47 yards) to give Ohio State a 27-21 lead, and then defensive lineman Steve Miller stepped in front of a Blake Sims pass for a 41-yard pick-six to push the lead to 34-21 at the 3:21 mark of the third quarter.
Needing a response badly, Alabama returned to what worked back when it was scoring points in the first quarter: handing the ball to Derrick Henry. The sophomore rumbled for a 52-yard catch-and-run, setting Sims up for a five-yard scoring dash to pull the Tide within six with 1:01 to play in the third quarter.
Alabama then had a golden opportunity to take back the lead with 10 minutes remaining, taking over at the Ohio State 23-yard line after just a 21-yard punt by Cameron Johnston. But Sims was intercepted on the first play of the possession, as Vonn Bell snagged a pass intended for tight end O.J. Howard near the Ohio State goal line.
Ohio State went three-and-out, its third straight, and returned the ball to Alabama in good field position, but the Tide’s third-down issues arose again as Sims was stuffed for a loss of three yards on a third-and-six. J.K. Scott, arguably Alabama’s best player on the night, pinned Ohio State at the five – its fourth straight starting position inside its own 10, but a banged-up Crimson Tide could not stop the Ohio State running game. Playing without two linebackers and with safety Landon Collins playing on an injured shoulder, Alabama surrendered a first down on three straight runs – its only first down allowed sine the middle of the third quarter – and then its longest play of the season, an 85-yard dash to pay dirt by Elliott. Jones hit Thomas for a two-point conversion to give Ohio State a 42-28 lead with 3:24 to play.
Alabama moved 65 yards in just 86 seconds, highlighted by a 52-yard strike from Sims to DeAndrew White and Amari Cooper‘s second touchdown grab of the night, to pull within 42-35 with just under two minutes remaining, but Ohio State recovered the onside kick. The Buckeyes gave the Tide another shot, though, using only 18 seconds after accepting the ball near midfield, which gave Alabama the ball at its own 18 with 1:33 to go.
However, Sims’ Hail Mary was intercepted on the final play of the game, and Ohio State advanced to its first title game since the 2007 season.
Jones completed 18-of-35 passes for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception and rushed 17 times for 43 yards, while Elliott set a Sugar Bowl record with 20 carries for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Ohio State rushed for 281 yards and 6.7 yards per carry against a defense that came in ranking first in FBS in rushing defense and second in yards per carry. Smith caught two passes for 87 yards and a touchdown, moving Ohio State to 21-0 all-time when he catches a touchdown pass.
For Alabama, questions will abound about why Henry didn’t get the ball more. The sophomore rushed 13 times for 95 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 54 yards. Sims completed 22-of-36 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, with Cooper hauling in nine receptions for 71 yards and both scores.
Ohio State out-gained Alabama 537-407 and held enormous advantages on the ground, out-rushing the Tide 281-170, and on third down, converting 10-of-18 chances compared to Alabama’s 2-of-13. Ohio State also won the turnover battle, 3-2.