By John Garcia Jr. of Sports Illustrated
MIAMI — Things were even, if only for what seemed like a second.
Baron Browning strip-sacked Mac Jones to set up Ohio State’s second score in three drives, tying the game at 14-all. There was a sense that the National Championship game would be the shootout many expected.
There was 11:43 left in the first half, an eternity to play, though the mood would change soon after. Alabama would march right down the field on its next drive, in just five plays, to regain the lead for good.
The scoring play was a Mac Jones to Najee Harris connection on what looked like an impending sack of the UA quarterback. Instead, Steve Sarkisian capped his Alabama run with another signature play-call, a theme unavoidable in this game’s discussion.
“He’s got a great plan and does a great job preparing the players,” head coach Nick Saban said after his latest college football crown. “He knows what the other team is doing, how to attack it and to put the players in the position...he’s just done a fantastic job this year.
“I can’t even put it into words how great a job he’s done.”
The look was built as a half-roll for Jones to his right, with guard Deonte Brown vacating the left side of the line to wall off the right and tackle Alex Leatherwood sliding down and taking the first inside threat in his place. It left a large void on the edge. That unblocked threat is typically left for the running back, Harris, as it was Browning again charging at Jones. But instead of the senior picking him up, as has been shown on tape most of the season, he leaked out and Jones just needed to get the ball over Browning’s out-stretched arms. He did so, allowing Harris to run under the ball and make two defenders miss en route to the end zone.
The misdirection and confusion Sarkisian called for was executed to near perfection by Jones and his targets, something that would reveal itself again and again in the efficient passing onslaught Alabama brought to the Buckeye secondary. By the time Alabama would let its foot off the gas, Jones would sit with 464 yards and five touchdowns while completing 80% of his attempts.
We charted every pass attempt in the game in what would include historic statistical performances for Jones, Harris and wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who finished the first half with a dozen catches for 215 yards and three scores. Each key cog, paired with their play-caller, earned his due on the final night of college football this season.
For Jones, it was decision-making and accuracy, two areas in which he has been at or near the best in all of college football all season long. No QB in the College Football Playoff title game era completed more passes for more yardage and scores than Jones did. He not only made timely throws, but pushed the ball to the third level of the Buckeye defense and used his legs in opportune moments to extend the play in key moments, like moving to his weak side in buying just enough time for a streaking Jahleel Billingsley for 22 yards to move the sticks when the game wasn’t quite out of reach.
Even after Smith departed the game due to a hand and/or finger injury, Jones and Sark led UA to three straight scoring drives, including time-consuming marches with key RPO wins and signature finishing plays to put the game to bed.
Harris helped maintain some balance in the play-calling with steady, strong running against a great front. But it was his impact in the passing game that began to help solidify just how hard it was to stop the Crimson Tide this year. He caught screens, swings and even lined up split outside effectively on the path to seven catches for 71 yards and the score. He added two tough touchdown runs to bookend his workman-like evening, totalling 154 yards on 27 touches.
Smith did what led to his against-the-odds Heisman win -- run great routes, excel at the catch point and especially after the catch. He got behind OSU’s Shaun Wade early in the game and never let up, scoring from several different alignments along the way. The consistency and reliability of Jones’ top target helped to create must-score drives for Justin Fields and OSU every time they gained possession.
Then there’s Sarkisian, who saved his best plays and play-calling for his final 60 minutes under Saban. The new Texas head coach had to have energized that massive fanbase in the creativity he showed throughout the season, but even more so on Monday night.
The first step of efficiency is timing and ease, elements he designed as snap throws for Jones. We charted 13 of these during meaningful snaps. These plays were screens, bubble throws or other schemes set to pass or fail, like the Harris hookup, with the primary option. Four of them, also including two to Smith, went for scores. Sarkisian and Jones utilized about as much pre-snap motion as one would see in a game of this magnitude, revealing the defensive assignments more times than not.
While the jet motions, orbit motions and yo-yo looks before the football was snapped will draw more eyes to Sarkisian’s system, the Joe More Award-winning offensive line in front of Jones made it all work. The easy designs were one thing, but several big plays in the ring-clinching win came due to the amount of time Jones had at his disposal. We had the QB getting to his second read in the progression 16 times and seven more attempts in which the third read was targeted. Five of the seven dropbacks where Jones had considerable time to get to read No. 3 were completed, including on Smith’s 42-yard score.
That late second quarter play, which put Alabama up 35-17, featured a sample of every element we took a closer look at. The offensive line created an ideal pocket versus a four-man rush, Jones stepped up while scanning the left side of the field all the way until locking in on Smith, who was lined up as the No. 3 wide receiver from the outside-in. OSU was in zone coverage, something Jones and Smith recognized immediately and the ball was released just as No. 6 got by linebacker Tuf Borland.
The microcosmic score that made the college football world shake its collective head in reaction to the ease of execution.
Sports Illustrated's John Garcia Jr. wrote this story.