In a stunning turnaround for the Big Ten, Ohio State capped a day when Michigan State and Wisconsin notched big New Year’s Day victories with a stirring comeback against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Reversing a 21-6 deficit, the Buckeyes scored 28 unanswered points on either side of halftime to take control of the game in New Orleans and claim a spot opposite Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game.
Ohio State opened the scoring with a 22-yard field goal on its opening drive of the game. The Crimson Tide were forced to punt on each of their first two offensive series, but then Ezekiel Elliott fumbled the ball on the Buckeyes’ second drive. Quarterback Blake Sims rushed for eight yards, then handed off to Derrick Henry for the last 25 over the goal line as Alabama took advantage of the turnover for its first lead of the game.
The Tide let the Buckeyes get back to the redzone but forced another short field goal, then extended its lead to 14-6 on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Sims to Heisman finalist Amari Cooper. Five minutes into the second quarter, Alabama defensive back Cyrus Jones picked off Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and returned the ball to the Buckeye 15. Working with another short field, Sims completed short passes to tight end Brian Vogler before three straight T.J. Yeldon carries put the ball into the endzone for a 21-6 lead.
With eight minutes left before halftime, Urban Meyer’s offense flipped a switch. Jones completed five of his seven passes on the next drive for 70 yards, and Elliott punched it in from three yards out to narrow the gap to eight points. After holding Alabama to a three-and-out on the next drive, Ohio State went to work again before the half. On that drive Jones completed three of four for 37 yards and ran for 27 more before Evan Spencer hit Michael Thomas with a 13-yard pass with 12 seconds left in the quarter. From a daunting 15-point deficit, the Buckeyes pulled within one.
Not only did Meyer’s squad have the momentum, but they also received the ball to begin the second half. Six plays and 75 yards after the kickoff, Devin Smith was celebrating after running in his reception from Jones as Ohio State grabbed its first lead since the beginning of the first quarter. After the teams traded punts, the Crimson Tide found themselves in their own territory facing a critical third down. Sims, taking the snap, failed to read the coverage as he stepped into a throw to his left that flew straight to defensive end Steve Miller. The lineman took the gift ball and rumbled 41 yards along the sideline for the defensive touchdown, and the extra point made it 34-21.
Alabama didn’t relent, though, needing just two minutes in the new high-voltage office Lane Kiffin has installed to go 84 yards to pull back within six points. They had perfect field position to retake the lead with just under 10 minutes remaining after Buckeyes punter Cameron Johnston shanked a punt 21 yards from his own endzone. But Sims threw his second interception of the game on the following play, allowing Ohio State to kill more clock before getting off a better punt.
We saw a lot of Alabama punter JK Scott, who was the Tide’s biggest weapon in New Orleans on New Year’s Day. On a day when Amari Cooper was held to 71 receiving yards, neither Tide tailback went over 100 yards, and Sims threw more interceptions than touchdowns, Scott consistently flipped the field position in Alabama’s favor. The freshman from Colorado averaged 55 yards a punt on his seven kicks, his longest going an absurd 73 yards. Five of his punts landed inside the 20, four fell inside the 10, and three of the seven kicks pinned the Buckeyes on their own 5.
But the Buckeyes engineered enough offense to render the field position issue moot. Elliott sealed the game with an 85-yard touchdown burst with 3:24 remaining, getting a second touchdown on a night where the sophomore carried 20 times for 230 yards — completely outrushing the Alabama backfield singlehandedly in the process.
Still the game was in doubt until the end. Cooper hauled in his second touchdown pass of the game with 1:59 remaining, and a short Buckeye drive shortened by timeouts left 1:33 on the clock for the SEC champion to claim the spot in Arlington on January 12. Sims completed his first four passes of the drive and added a 12-yard run to get the Crimson Tide into Ohio State territory. But an incompletion on third down preceded Sims’ third interception of the game on the final play, and the Buckeyes held on for the upset victory in the Superdome.
Now Ohio State looks ahead to a championship showdown with the Ducks at AT&T Stadium, while Alabama concludes a bowl season for the SEC West where the division finished just 2-5 after qualifying all seven teams for postseason play. The Big Ten is now the phoenix arisen from its ashes, while the SEC is left to put out the flames.