No. 4 Ohio State upsets top-ranked Alabama to reach title game
NEW ORLEANS — Cardale Jones came through again at the Sugar Bowl. Ezekiel Elliott ran all over mighty Alabama. And Urban Meyer’s quest to turn Ohio State into SEC North is one victory away from a national championship.
Jones turned in another savvy performance in his second college start and Elliott ran for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards, leading the Buckeyes to a 42-35 upset of top-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday night.
Rallying from a 21-6 deficit, the Buckeyes (13-1) advanced to play Oregon in the Jan. 12 national championship game at Arlington, Texas. The Ducks routed defending national champion Florida State 59-20 in the other semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
Jones threw for 243 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown to Devin Smith that put the Buckeyes ahead for good early in the third quarter. He also ran for 43 yards and converted a crucial third-down play with a spinning, 1-yard dive and Ohio State clinging to a 34-28 lead.
On the next play, Elliott took a handoff, broke one feeble attempt at a tackle, and was gone for an 85-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the victory with 3:24 remaining.
Alabama (12-2) was denied a shot at its fourth national title in six years, though the Tide didn’t go down quietly.
Blake Sims threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 1:59 remaining. The Buckeyes recovered the onside kick, but Alabama got it back one more time after some questionable clock management by Ohio State.
The Tide’s final shot ended when Sims’ desperation heave into the end zone was intercepted by Tyvis Powell as time ran out.
"I feel like I’m going to Disney World," a giddy Powell said.
The next stop is Jerry’s World in Arlington.
Meyer, who led Florida to a pair of national titles, left coaching for a year before taking over at Ohio State in 2012. He said his goal was to build the sort of Southeastern Conference powerhouse he had with the Gators, and he knew a faster, more athletic style would be needed to bring the Big Ten school up to par.
Now, after just three years on the job, he’s one victory away from fulfilling his ultimate goal.
"We’re good enough," Meyer said. "That was a sledgehammer game. That was a classic. So, we are good enough."
Jones started fall practice as Ohio State’s third-string quarterback, moved up the depth chart when star Braxton Miller sustained a season-ending shoulder injury, and became the starter for the Big Ten championship game after J.T. Barrett went down with an injury.
A 59-0 rout of Wisconsin showed that Jones was up to the job. His performance against Alabama gives him a chance to go down as one of the greatest replacement players in college football history.
Alabama hardly looked like the defensive powerhouse that coach Nick Saban is used to sending out, giving up 537 yards to the Buckeyes. Elliott scored on a 3-yard run with 2:55 left in first half to spark the comeback, and he wound up averaging a staggering 11.5 yards on 20 carries to earn the award as the most outstanding offensive player.
"He’s probably the most underrated back in the United States," Meyer said.
For the second year in a row, Alabama’s season ended at the Sugar Bowl.
This one was especially painful, costing the Tide a chance to advance in college football’s first playoff. It also means the SEC will not be part of the national title game for the first time in nine years, the surest sign that the guard is changing.
"I’m proud of this team," Saban said. "They excelled all year long and kept Alabama at the forefront of college football."
But he never liked the feel of the game, even after Alabama raced to its early lead, taking advantage of a pair of turnovers and coming up with a pair of red-zone stops.
"We really weren’t stopping them. We had the momentum of the game because of the turnovers," Saban said. "We did not control the football game like we usually do."
Shaking off an interception, Jones led one of the biggest drives of the game at the end of the first half. He completed three straight passes for 37 yards, then broke off a 27-yard run up the middle when his receivers were covered. After a timeout with 19 seconds remaining, Ohio State pulled out a trick play — and Michael Thomas pulled off one of the most spectacular catches of the season.
It started with Jones handing off receiver Jalin Marshall on an apparent end-around to the right. But Marshall flipped it to Evan Spencer coming the other way. Spencer suddenly pulled up and threw toward Thomas, who leaped up to make a twisting catch and somehow get his left foot down just inside the line for a 13-yard score that gave the Buckeyes all the momentum going into halftime.
Ohio State kept right on going in the third quarter, scoring two more touchdowns to complete a stunning 28-0 spurt that pushed the Buckeyes ahead 34-21.
Taking advantage of an Alabama secondary that was vulnerable at times, Jones went deep to Smith for a go-ahead touchdown that looked downright easy when the defender fell down.
Sims, who had played so well after waiting four years for his chance to start at Alabama, handed Ohio State its next score by failing to recognize defensive end Steven Miller dropping into coverage on a third-down play. The pass went straight to the 255-pounder, who rumbled down the sideline with the return for a 41-yard touchdown.
Sims finished 22 of 36 for 237 yards with a couple of touchdowns.
Derrick Henry led the Tide on the ground with 95 yards and a score.