Ohio State stuns top-ranked Alabama, will play for title

Ohio State wide receiver Devin Smith (9) just misses a touchdown on a 40-yard pass from quarterback Cardale Jones (12) in the first quarter.
Ohio State wide receiver Devin Smith (9) just misses a touchdown on a 40-yard pass from quarterback Cardale Jones (12) in the first quarter. TNS

The team that ticked off Texas by receiving its playoff berth will head to the Lone Star State to play for college football’s national championship.

No. 4 Ohio State punched its ticket to the next round in the inaugural College Football Playoff by taking down top-ranked Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl.

The Buckeyes (13-1), who passed TCU (12-1) in the final set of CFP rankings to earn the final spot in the four-team playoff bracket, validated their status as a title contender by rolling for 537 yards behind third-team quarterback Cardale Jones in the Superdome.

Jones, in only his second career start, threw for 243 yards and directed six scoring touchdowns (four TDs, two field goals) against Alabama’s vaunted defense. Ohio State will advance to the CFP national championship game, Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington against No. 2 Oregon (13-1).

Alabama, the SEC champion, ends its season at 12-2. The Tide’s departure from the playoff field means the SEC will not produce this year’s national champion for a second consecutive season after teams from that league won seven in a row from the 2006-2012 seasons.

Instead, the title matchup will include the Buckeyes, whose victory improved Ohio State’s record to 1-10 in career matchups against SEC teams in bowl games (including one loss by forfeit).

The Buckeyes, who trailed 21-6 before mounting a second-quarter rally, slammed the door when Ezekiel Elliott rumbled 85 yards for a touchdown with 3:24 remaining to extend the lead to 40-28. A 2-point conversion pass gave the Buckeyes a 42-28 lead to protect the rest of the way. Alabama added a 6-yard scoring toss from quarterback Blake Sims to Amari Cooper with 1:59 remaining but Buckeyes’ receiver Evan Spencer recovered the ensuing onside kick.

Ohio State punted but stopped Alabama’s final drive to seal the win when safety Tyvis Powell intercepted a desperation heave in the Buckeyes’ end zone on the final play of the game.

A second half filled with momentum swings was not settled until the final minutes. Ohio State erased a one-point halftime deficit with a pair of third-quarter touchdowns, including one by the defense.

Jones, who was red-hot on third-down passes through the first three quarters, led OSU to a go-ahead touchdown on the first drive of the second half. He capped the 75-yard march, appropriately enough, with a 47-yard scoring strike to Devin Smith on a third-and-8 play. The touchdown pass marked Jones’ sixth third-down conversion in seven attempts on plays of third-and-8 or longer.

Eventually, the Crimson Tide defense began applying the brakes in that situation. But not until Alabama trailed 34-21, following a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown by Buckeyes defensive end Steve Miller.

The score, with 3:21 left in the third quarter, capped a 28-0 run by the Buckeyes. But it also awakened a dormant Alabama offense, which responded with an 84-yard touchdown drive to close the gap to 34-28 heading into a back-and-forth final quarter. Elliott (230 rushing yards, 2 TDs) finally tallied the game-winner that will send Ohio State to Arlington.

The Buckeyes, who entered as nine-point underdogs, wasted no time in proving they could move the ball against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense with a third-team quarterback (Jones) making his second career start. Ohio State moved 80 yards for a field goal on its opening possession and averaged 7.2 yards per snap throughout the first half (348 yards, 48 plays).

But the Buckeyes settled for chip-shot field goals after two drives inside the Alabama 5-yard line and suffered two turnovers (one interception, one fumble) that set up short-field touchdown drives for Alabama in the first half. The Crimson Tide capitalized, roaring to a 21-6 lead on T.J. Yeldon’s 2-yard TD run with 8:07 left in the half.

That is when Jones turned the momentum in Ohio State’s favor with a pair of pivotal third-down completions to Jalin Marshall. Both covered 26 yards, converting third-and-10 and third-and-9, respectively. Once in the red zone, Jones found Marshall for the score from 1-yard out to give the Buckeyes their first touchdown.

Ohio State added another in the final minute of the first half, cutting the deficit to 21-20 at intermission. The score came on a 13-yard reverse pass from receiver Spencer Evans to receiver Michael Thomas with 12 seconds remaining. Although trailing, OSU headed to the locker room with momentum and a 348-139 advantage in total yards.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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