Handing out grades from Ohio State's 42-35 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl

By Zac Ellis
January 02, 2015

Ohio State made a rough week for SEC fans even worse. Coach Urban Meyer’s fourth-ranked Buckeyes won the Sugar Bowl on Thursday with a 42-35 win over No. 1 Alabama in New Orleans. The victory clinched a berth in the national championship game in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12 against Oregon.

As expected, Alabama didn’t make things easy for Ohio State. Quarterback Cardale Jones and the Buckeyes’ offense struggled in the red zone early in the game, settling for two field goals on their first two trips. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide built a 21-6 lead by the second quarter. But Ohio State rallied to score 28 straight points and take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The program will play for the national title for the first time under Meyer.

Report card

• Ohio State QB Cardale Jones: A-

Jones, the Buckeyes’ third-string passer, made just his second career start Thursday but displayed nerves of steel against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted pass rush. He completed 18-of-35 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown while also adding 43 yards on the ground. Behind the sophomore, Ohio State converted 10-of-18 third downs and reeled off 281 rushing yards. Jones’ only negative came on a second-quarter interception. The sophomore is now 2-0 as a starter with a Big Ten title and a Sugar Bowl crown to his name. That’s not a bad résumé.

• ​Alabama QB Blake Sims: D

Alabama’s quarterback had been one of the shining stars of a revamped offense in Tuscaloosa, but he didn’t get it done in the Superdome. Sims started strong as the Crimson Tide built their 21-6 lead in the first half. However, he finished with three interceptions, all in the second half, and struggled to convert on third down, where the Crimson Tide finished a dismal 2-of-13. Sims threw his first interception in the third quarter to Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller, who turned the miscue into a pick-six. The quarterback followed that with an errant pass that was picked off by Vonn Bell just short of the goal line after a bad Ohio State punt had given Alabama the ball with excellent field position. Sims kept the Tide alive on certain drives, but his mistakes negated his own progress in key situations.

• Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott: A

Jones was lucky to have such a quality contributor on Ohio State’s offense against Alabama. Elliott ran for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns. He looked like he’d be in for a long night when he fumbled on Ohio State’s second series of the game but found his footing and became a weapon against Alabama’s defensive front, which allowed less than 90 yards per game coming into the matchup. Eilliott helped the Buckeyes average 6.7 yards per carry on the night.

Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

• Alabama WR Amari Cooper: B+

Cooper was effective in the passing game for Alabama, catching a team-high two touchdowns. The latter of those scores cut Ohio State’s lead to 42-35 with 1:59 to play. But the Heisman finalist was hardly a game-changer and wasn’t his usual deep-ball threat. His longest catch went for just 15 yards. The Buckeyes’ defense did a solid job of keeping Cooper from reeling off too many big plays.

• HAMILTON: Ohio State tops Alabama in rollicking Sugar Bowl

• Alabama punter JK Scott: A

Football can be a battle of field position, and Alabama’s punter proved the importance of special teams Thursday. He punted seven times against Ohio State, landing five of those punts inside the 20-yard line. The true freshman entered the Sugar Bowl ranked second nationally with a 47 yards-per-punt average. He averaged 55 yards per punt on his seven boots against the Buckeyes, knocking one 73 yards for a season-high.

• ​Alabama secondary: C-

The backend of the Tide’s defense has been a head-scratcher for a while, especially considering the team’s talent in the front seven. That was the case again Thursday. Jones hit receiver Devin Smith, in particular, for a number of deep balls, including a go-ahead, 47-yard touchdown on the first series of the third quarter. The primary bright spot for the secondary was a second-quarter interception of Jones by the Tide’s Cyrus Jones. But Ohio State’s quarterback still finished with 256 yards on 6.9 yards per attempt.

• ​Ohio State WR Evan Spencer: A

Spencer earns a high grade for being in the right place at the right time. His versatility was his strong suit even though he only caught one ball for seven yards as a receiver Thursday. Spencer made an impact as a passer on an end-around trick play just before halftime when he found Michael Thomas in the corner of the end zone to lift Ohio State within one point, 21-20. Then late in the fourth quarter with the Buckeyes clinging to a slim 42-35 lead, Spencer leaped high into the air to snatch away the Tide’s onside kick moments before Alabama players arrived to make a play for the ball. Spencer’s multitalented contribution played a major role in Ohio State’s win in New Orleans.

• ​Alabama RBs: INC

There might be a lot of finger-pointing directed at Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin during the offseason. That’s because the Crimson Tide didn’t seem to utilize their running game to its full extent against Ohio State. Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon showed flashes of dominance in the Sugar Bowl, but neither back carried the ball more than 13 times or rushed for more than 95 yards. On an evening in which Sims struggled with his decision-making, the running backs could’ve made a bigger difference.

Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated

Plays of the game

• Steve Miller’s pick-six: After Ohio State had taken a 27-21 lead on its first possession of the third quarter, Alabama searched for rhythm on offense. Instead, Sims dropped back and threw the ball right to Buckeyes defensive end Steve Miller, who powered to the end zone. The score boosted Ohio State’s lead to 34-21. Meanwhile, folks on social media had some fun with the pick-snagging player’s name.

• Elliott’s backbreaker: The Buckeyes wanted to run some clock while holding a 34-28 lead with just under four minutes to play. But instead Elliott broke through the line for an 85-yard touchdown to give Ohio State a 42-28 cushion. The defensive lapse was unusual for Alabama, as Elliott’s 85-yard scamper marked the longest play from scrimmage the Crimson Tide gave up this season.

• ​The final prayer: With less than two minutes remaining, Ohio State botched what could have been the game’s final possession with unusual play-calling and clock management. After attempting to pass on first down and going backwards after, the Buckeyes were forced to punt with about 90 seconds to play and a 42-35 lead.

On the ensuing drive, Sims moved Alabama down the field and took his final snap from the Buckeyes’ 42-yard line with eight seconds left. The Alabama quarterback hurled a Hail Mary, but Ohio State’s Tyvis Powell came down with the interception to seal the win and the spot in the national title game.

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