MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As a jalopy of a college football season in a pandemic managed to lumber to a finish Monday night, it also managed to showcase a player so dazzling and precise he looks like he never spent a moment lumbering, not even in practice — no, especially not in practice.
Somehow, with the football kingdom of Alabama claiming a sixth national championship in the past 12 seasons by 52-24 over Ohio State, and with Coach Nick Saban claiming a record seventh within the same lifetime, one player shined. Somehow, with Alabamian excellence stretching as usual from the players to the coordinators to probably the water staff and surely back to the coach, one slender marvel of a 175-pound player radiated.
Wide receiver DeVonta Smith didn’t act alone in the Alabama symphony at Hard Rock Stadium in the College Football Playoff national championship game before a scattered 14,926, but he did epitomize a mastery of detail and standard that helps mark the Saban era. The first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 29 years did run his clever, pinpoint routes and flash his frightening speed as the Crimson Tide proved confounding to the Ohio State defense and to anyone trying to keep stats.
Smith kept lining up on this side of the line or that side, turning up on this side of the field or that side. It began to look like there might be three of him.
By the end of the first quarter, he had caught five passes for 78 yards. By halftime, he had caught 12 for 215, the numbers ringing like machines in Las Vegas.
By the end, even while missing almost the entire second half and going to the locker room and returning with a bandage on his right hand, he had the 12 for 215 on his way to the record books and the NFL.
“Smitty obviously had a great . . . half,” Saban said, stopping himself before noting his star played only half the game after dislocating a finger. “. . . Heaven knows what he’d have done if he’d have played the whole game. You’re talking about the ultimate warrior.”
He caught a five-yarder that he carted inside the left pylon after a nifty plot in which he edged toward the backfield early in the play, then floated quickly out to the left to field Jones’s flip. That gave Alabama a 14-7 lead.
He caught another five-yarder that he carted inside the right pylon after a presnap bit of candy during which he motioned right, then motioned left behind the offensive line, then motioned back right to catch the quick pass. That gave Alabama a 28-17 lead, and that’s not to be confused with the beauty just before that, 44 yards to Smith from Jones up the right sideline.
And he caught a 42-yard touchdown on which he lined up left of Jones, then wound up lost to the Buckeyes on the deep right hash mark, blazing behind linebacker Tuf Borland to take a flawless throw from Jones. That gave Alabama a 35-17 halftime lead.
“Just with covid and everything going on, it just made things tougher,” Smith said in an on-field interview with ESPN as the confetti fell. “It just made us more together as a team, being around each other more, waking up in the morning and getting tested, just being there for each other and keeping our bubble small. Just the discipline of this team is just like no other. We just finished writing our story.”
If the college football viewer in 2020-21 had to cope with sudden cancellations and postponements here and there and over there and over there, too, and had to cope with sudden lineup changes because of positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing, at least the sight of some of the most artful passing and catching yet played in college made itself available. It made itself so gleaming Monday night that, by halftime, Smith already had surpassed the record for receptions in a championship game in the seven-year College Football Playoff concept, ahead of Hunter Renfrow’s 10 for Clemson in 2017, a mighty effort that did require four quarters.
So the game ratified Smith’s Heisman Trophy, and it upheld the Alabama offense as a starship that hovered over all its games, and it furthered a season in which Alabama fans felt barely a palpitation. During 13 wins, the Crimson Tide trailed in just two games — against Mississippi in the first half (before winning, 63-48), and against Georgia in the first half (and at halftime — before winning, 41-24). Other than that, it stayed ahead or tied.
Beyond that, the events of Monday night also exemplified a misshapen season in which depth charts kept getting jostled moments before kickoffs. That happened to Ohio State (7-1), which had to type out a 13-strong list of unavailable players, including two starters along the defensive line, nose tackle Tommy Togiai and end Tyreke Smith. Not only had those players helped cook up the pressure that inconvenienced quarterback Trevor Lawrence in Ohio State’s 49-28 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl of Jan. 1, but full strength remains a good policy when coping with an award-winning Alabama offensive line and the Smith-Harris-Jones (and others) beast it protects. On the plus side, defensive end Zach Harrison did return, having missed the New Orleans frolics in the Clemson backfield.
And on the other side of that, it seemed hard to imagine anyone pressuring Jones much anyway given the way he let go of the football with such accurate haste. Often he threw pop passes along the line, and often those went to Smith, including the lid-lifter on the second play. That one went quickly out to the left, where Smith caught it and made a breathtaking passage around three Ohio State defenders in the last little prism of space available on the left side of the field, stopping only 22 yards later.
Ohio State’s offense did okay but couldn’t keep up. It got help early in the second quarter on a fantastic defensive play by blitzing Buckeye Baron Browning, who hugged Jones briefly, popped out the ball and hopped on it himself at the Alabama 19 to set up a touchdown. Running back Trey Sermon, with 524 rushing yards in his previous two games, exited after one carry for two yards with an injury, but previous starter Master Teague III returned and performed credibly.
“They’re very good schematically,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said of Alabama, “and they have really good personnel.”
Quarterback Justin Fields, so smashing with six touchdown passes in the Sugar Bowl, passed for 194 yards and rushed for 67 while operating with a heartless margin of error. Any stall of any possession seemed lethal given the opposition ready to take the football and dazzle.
Story by Chuck Culpepper. Updates below by Des Bieler...
Ohio State fails on fourth down after losing TD on review
Replays aren’t being much kinder to Ohio State than Alabama is. One play after an apparent touchdown catch was overturned on review, another would-be score was upheld as an incompletion, and then the Buckeyes threw an incomplete pass on fourth down, turning the ball back over to the Crimson Tide at the 6-yard line.
Ohio State had driven 69 yards in 17 plays, but all that accomplished was burning more time off the clock for an Alabama team holding a 52-24 lead. After getting to the 6, Ohio State thought it had scored on a pass from Justin Fields to wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, but officials ruled that the freshman bobbled the ball as he crossed the goal line.
One play later, Fields almost hit wide receiver Chris Olave in the back of the end zone, but it was not to be. However, Ohio State forced Alabama into a three-and-out and got the ball back at the Tide’s 47-yard line.
Alabama stopped Ohio State on a fourth-down play, then needed just six plays to get another touchdown, pushing the Crimson Tide’s lead to 52-24 early in the fourth quarter.
Running back Najee Harris scored from one yard out for his third trip to the end zone, after Alabama began the drive at Ohio State’s 43-yard line. The Buckeyes tried to run the ball on a fourth-and-one play, but they lost two yards when Tide defensive lineman Christian Barmore dropped Master Teague III in the backfield.
Quarterback Mac Jones played through a leg injury he picked up during his team’s previous drive, which also saw wide receiver DeVonta Smith go out with a hand injury. At this point, Alabama does not appear to need either player to ice a national championship, which would be its sixth since Coach Nick Saban took over the program in 2007.
No DeVonta Smith, no problem for Alabama, at least on a third-quarter drive that resulted in a touchdown and a 45-24 lead. With the Crimson Tide’s Heisman-winning wide receiver in the locker room with a hand injury, quarterback Mac Jones connected with little-used wide receiver Slade Bolden on a five-yard scoring play.
Jones also threw passes to wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and Jahleel Billingsley on the eight-play, 75-yard drive, which also saw backup running back Brian Robinson Jr. get some usage as Alabama gave Najee Harris a breather.
It was the first touchdown catch in the college career of Bolden. The sophomore receiver came into the game with 23 catches for 288 yards.
DeVonta Smith questionable to return with hand injury
ESPN reported that Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who went to the locker room with his right hand wrapped, was questionable to return with a hand injury. Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy last week, torched the Ohio State defense in the first half with 215 yards and three touchdowns, but he got hurt on an incomplete pass early in the third quarter.
Ohio State gets quick TD, cuts Alabama’s lead to 38-24
After a poor first half, Justin Fields got off to a strong start in the second. The Ohio State quarterback used his legs and arm to help get his team a quick touchdown on its opening possession of the third quarter.
Fields connected with wide receiver Garrett Wilson on a 20-yard pass play that, following an extra point, cut Alabama’s lead to 38-24. Earlier in the three-play, 75-yard drive, Fields broke off a 33-yard run, after completing a 17-yard pass to Wilson.
After ending the first half with a punt, Alabama began the second with a field goal, thus getting a mere three points out of its past two possessions. Of course, the Crimson Tide scored five touchdowns in its first six possessions, so it can afford a certain lack of perfection while building a 38-17 lead.
Will Reichard connected from 20 yards out, capping a 16-play, 75-yard drive. Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who racked up 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, did not touch the ball on the drive, getting just one opportunity on an incomplete pass. ESPN’s telecast showed that Smith was checked for a finger injury.
DeVonta Smith, Alabama hold 35-17 lead over Ohio State at halftime
Ohio State finally forced a punt, and Alabama settled for taking a 35-17 lead to the locker room at halftime. The Crimson Tide’s previous six possessions resulted in five touchdowns and a fumble, and wide receiver DeVonta Smith put on a clinic.
Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning star torched the Buckeyes for 215 yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches over the first two quarters. By comparison, Ohio State had 190 yards as a team.
While Tide quarterback Mac Jones completed 25 of 30 passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns, OSU counterpart Justin Fields, who threw for six touchdowns against Clemson in their CFP semifinal game, could manage just six completions on 15 attempts for 90 scoreless yards.
Running back Master Teague III, filling in for an injured Trey Sermon, was a bright spot for the Buckeyes, rushing for 62 yards and two scores on 12 carries. However, he was outplayed by Alabama back Najee Harris, who posted 111 yards from scrimmage, along with his own pair of touchdowns.
Facing the best offense among Power Five teams this season, OSU came into the game needing another big performance by Fields, plus a few stops by its defense. The Buckeyes have gotten very little of any of that, instead being served a heaping helping of Smith.
We have a hat trick for the Heisman winner, with two quarters still to go.
DeVonta Smith scored on a 42-yard grab from Mac Jones, running past the Ohio State defense for his third touchdown and helping give Alabama a 35-17 lead. The Crimson Tide needed just three plays to go 60 yards and put the Buckeyes into a world of trouble as the teams vie for a national championship.
Alabama got the ball after a three-and-out by Ohio State, whose star quarterback, Justin Fields, has been struggling. The Buckeyes will need Fields to hit on some big plays, and get some more on the defensive end, to overtake Alabama on the scoreboard.
DeVonta Smith’s second TD helps Alabama to 28-17 lead
DeVonta Smith is continuing to make it look far too easy to get open, and he’s showing why he was more than deserving of the first Heisman Trophy awarded to a wide receiver in 30 years.
Smith scored his second touchdown of the CFP championship game, this one from five yards out. That capped a five-yard, 75-yard drive in which Alabama again moved downfield with little apparent obstruction from Ohio State defenders.
After benefiting from a very consequential penalty call, Ohio State stalled near the goal line and settled for a 23-yard field goal from Jake Seibert. That made the score 21-17 in Alabama’s favor, in the second quarter of the CFP championship game.
Four plays earlier, on a third-and-11 play from Alabama’s 16-yard line, Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert had the ball dislodged on a crossing pattern, but Alabama safety Jordan Battle was flagged for targeting. Battle was ejected from the game, and the Buckeyes got a first down at the 8.
It remains to be seen if Alabama will ever punt in this CFP championship game. A second Najee Harris score made for a third touchdown for the Crimson Tide in the first half, with its other possession having ended quickly on a fumble.
Harris showed off good hands, speed and elusiveness in pulling in a lofted pass from Mac Jones before going around and through Ohio State defenders en route to the end zone. The running back’s 26-yard touchdown helped give his team a 21-14 lead.
Alabama went 75 yards in just five plays on that drive, showing off a seemingly unstoppable offense much as it had in the first half against Notre Dame in their CFP semifinal game. With nine minutes left in the second quarter, Jones has completed 16 of 18 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns, while Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith already has nine catches for 124 yards and a score.
Ohio State turns Alabama fumble into TD, ties game at 14-14
Ohio State forced an Alabama fumble and took full advantage. Taking over at the Crimson Tide’s 19-yard line, the Buckeyes quickly got the ball into the end zone to tie the CFP championship game at 14-14.
Running back Master Teague III, filling in for an injured Trey Sermon, punched it in from four yards out for his second touchdown of the game. The play was set up by a 15-yard pass interference penalty drawn on the previous snap by wide receiver Jameson Williams.
ESPN reported on its telecast of the CFP championship game that Ohio State running back Trey Sermon was on his way to a hospital with an apparent collarbone injury. Sermon had been shown heading to the locker room after the Buckeyes’ first drive of the game, during which he was gang-tackled by Alabama defenders after a short run.
If Sermon cannot return to the game, that would be a major blow to OSU’s offense, given that he was the team’s leading rusher. The senior back had caught fire of late, with 524 rushing yards in the Buckeyes’ past two games, a span that included wins in the Big Ten championship game and in a CFP semifinals upset of Clemson.
However, Master Teague III showed that OSU has an impressive backup plan, if not a Master plan. He ran for an eight-yard touchdown on the Buckeyes’ second drive and a four-yard score early in the second quarter.
On a drive that heavily featured Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, the Alabama wide receiver scored an easy-looking touchdown to help give his team a 14-7 lead over the Crimson Tide. Smith was left essentially uncovered as he flared out to the left side, where quarterback Mac Jones found him with a flip of the ball, after which Smith trotted in for the score.
Running back Najee Harris, who scored Alabama’s first touchdown on fourth down from the 1, converted another fourth-and-one play, this time from the OSU 10-yard line, to set up a first-and-goal situation from the 7-yard line.
Over three of Alabama’s first four plays on the drive, Smith caught three passes for 47 yards before the Crimson Tide began grinding out yards with Harris.