COLUMBUS — Ohio State played its best game of the year in the Sugar Bowl.
In that 49-28 domination of Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, the Buckeyes showed aspects of their offense and defense they hadn’t previously shown and used heroic performances to make it to the national title game.
But winning the semifinal was never the ultimate goal. This Ohio State team is ready to compete for a national championship.
“I mean, any time you play somebody like Alabama for a national championship, it’s going to be a challenge,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “You know, [the Sugar Bowl win] was an emotional game, it was an emotional win, but nobody said they wanted to come back to just play in this game, they came back to win it.
“I think our guys have the eyes on the prize, and it’s a slow build towards the game. But I think we’re going to come out with our hair on fire and play as hard as we possibly can and go from there.”
Ohio State seemed to play its best collective game to upend Clemson and win the Sugar Bowl semifinal. But if the Buckeyes are going to beat Alabama to capture a national championship, they’ll need to replicate some of those Sugar Bowl performances.
Lettermen Row is looking at five stats that need to be duplicated for the Buckeyes to beat the Crimson Tide.
Ohio State averaged 5.8 yards per carry
In what could be a battle of which offensive line between Ohio State and Alabama plays better, the Buckeyes are entering this national title game with a chip on their collective shoulder, especially up front. Alabama’s offensive line, recently named the best in America, is getting the attention, but the Ohio State line has been dominant all season. If the Buckeyes can control the line of scrimmage and help Trey Sermon find open running lanes like he had against Clemson, some of the load will be eased off Justin Fields. And the Buckeyes offense will run well on the Alabama front.
Buckeyes were 4-of-5 in red-zone attempts
In last season’s College Football Playoff semifinal, Ohio State didn’t execute in the red zone and settled for field goals, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the loss to Clemson. This year, the Buckeyes were nearly perfect in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns on five trips and throwing just one interception to start the second half. Those red-zone touchdowns were crucial for the Buckeyes to build a lead over Clemson. If Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson can help the Ohio State offense to a nearly perfect red-zone percentage, the Buckeyes will score plenty of points and have a shot to win a national title.
Buckeyes tight ends had five catches
Ohio State uses its tight ends all the time in various ways, but the Buckeyes rarely throw to their two talented tight ends. That changed in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson, when Justin Fields found Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell for five catches, 66 yards and three touchdowns. The tight end duo seemed to always be open for the Buckeyes in the first half, and Fields found them easily. Alabama has struggled to defend tight ends throughout the season, and if Ohio State can find its tight ends effectively, it will move the ball well on the Crimson Tide defense.
Silver Bullets defense forced two turnovers
Ohio State had plenty of questions facing its defense before the Sugar Bowl, especially after the inconsistencies in the secondary through Big Ten play. But the Buckeyes corrected many of those mistakes and forced two turnovers by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who had three fumbles and an interception. Ohio State found a way to get stops on the Tigers and turn Lawrence over twice. If Kerry Coombs’ Silver Bullets defense can force two Alabama turnovers, the game could swing in favor of the Buckeyes in a hurry, especially with the way the Ohio State offense is playing.
Justin Fields had his best game
The most obvious performance that will need to nearly be duplicated for the Buckeyes in the national title game is on the shoulders of Justin Fields, who was nothing short of brilliant in the semifinal win over Clemson. Fields had six touchdowns on just 22 completions and threw for 385 yards, most of them coming after he was injured in the first half. Clemson was supposed to be able to rattle Fields and not let him torch such a great defense. That didn’t happen. Will Alabama be able to slow down the Ohio State offense? If the Crimson Tide have to face the same Justin Fields that Clemson did, Ohio State may capture its second national title of the Playoff era.