NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State booked its ticket to the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship after coming back from a 15-point deficit to top No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee said the Buckeyes proved they belong among the nation’s elite with the 42-35 victory.
“We’re back. We’re back,” Lee said after his defensive MVP performance. “Those that thought we were gone, we’re back. Be afraid, be very afraid.”
Coach Urban Meyer agreed with Lee and added that his team validated its ability.
“They’re good enough,” Meyer said after the game. “That was a sledgehammer game, that was a classic, so we are good enough.”
After falling behind, 21-6, in the first half, the No. 4 Buckeyes scored 28 unanswered points before holding off a late surge from No. 1 Alabama to win Thursday night in New Orleans.
OSU (13-1, 8-0) extended its national-best winning streak to 12 games as it beat the Crimson Tide (12-2, 7-1) to improve its official record to 2-2 all time in the Sugar Bowl.
The Buckeyes also won the 2011 Sugar Bowl, but the victory was vacated after the “Tattoo-gate” scandal.
Just over two minutes into the second half, OSU redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones found senior wide receiver Devin Smith for a 47-yard touchdown, giving the Buckeyes their first lead since going up 3-0 early.
The comeback run — resulting in a 27-21 advantage early in the second half — came after OSU fell behind, 21-6, with more than eight minutes to play in the second quarter.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said his team took the big lead based off important plays at key moments, but added it wasn’t dominating the game.
“We were up 21-6 because of two turnovers and two stops in the red area,” Saban said after the game. “So, we really weren’t stopping them. We kind of had the momentum of the game because of the turnovers that we got and converted those into scores.”
Despite out-gaining the Crimson Tide, 348-139, in total yards in the first half, the Buckeyes found themselves trailing, 21-20, at the break.
An early 54-yard run by sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott put the Buckeyes in the red zone on their first drive, but the Alabama defense held, forcing an OSU field goal.
After the game, Meyer said he feels Elliott deserves more praise than he gets in the national picture.
“He’s probably the most underrated back in the country,” Meyer said.
The Buckeyes’ next four drives ended with a fumble, another field goal, a punt and an interception, paving the way for the Crimson Tide to take a 21-6 lead with 8:07 to play in the half. But OSU responded with a 12-play, 71-yard drive, capped by a three-yard touchdown run by Elliott, making it 21-13.
Alabama was forced into its fourth three-and-out on the ensuing drive, but pinned OSU at its own 23-yard line with 1:32 to play.
The Buckeyes moved the ball to the Alabama 13-yard line, and OSU called a reverse pass, leading to a 13-yard scoring toss from senior wide receiver Evan Spencer to redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Michael Thomas, which vaulted the Buckeyes to within one point after 30 minutes of play.
Jones joked that he wasn’t pleased with the trick-play call, but added that it shows the all-around talent of his teammates.
“That was our game plan,” he said. “Evan can throw the ball, (redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall) can throw the ball, so I am glad they are on our team.”
The teams traded punts on the next two possessions after Smith’s score before Alabama committed its first turnover of the night. OSU senior defensive lineman Steve Miller intercepted redshirt-senior quarterback Blake Sims and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown. The pick-six gave the Buckeyes a 34-21 lead with 3:21 to play in the third quarter.
Sims responded with a five-yard touchdown run of his own, pulling Alabama back within six points.
The Crimson Tide caught a break with 9:53 to play in the game when OSU sophomore punter Cameron Johnston’s kick traveled just 21 yards, giving Alabama the ball at the Buckeye 23-yard line. But Sims was intercepted by sophomore safety Vonn Bell — a former Alabama recruit — on the first play of the drive, giving OSU the ball with 9:44 to play.
Alabama pinned the Buckeyes at their own five-yard line with a punt with 5:24 on the clock, but Elliott found a hole on the fourth play of the drive and scampered 85 yards for a touchdown. The ensuing 2-point conversion from Jones to Thomas put OSU ahead, 42-28, with just 3:24 remaining in the game.
Sims found junior wide receiver Amari Cooper for a six-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive, but Spencer recovered the onside kick, allowing the Buckeyes to take possession.
Alabama forced another OSU punt, but with eight seconds to play, Sims’ last-ditch attempt from 42 yards out was intercepted by redshirt-sophomore safety Tyvis Powell, sealing the Buckeye victory.
Sims praised the OSU defense after the game and chose to shoulder the blame for his team’s loss.
“Ohio State’s a great defense. They played with a lot of passion today,” Sims said. “The way they played we didn’t have good looks here and there. And the things that didn’t happen good for the team, not good for the team, I take full responsibility for it, because it’s probably something that I could have did better to help my team win. And that’s all.”
Elliott finished the game with 230 yards — a Sugar Bowl record — on 20 carries with two touchdowns while Jones threw for 243 yards and another score. Thomas led the Buckeyes with seven receptions, and Smith led all players with 87 receiving yards.
Elliott — who was named the offensive MVP — said he came in ready to play after hearing praise for Alabama’s running game.
“(Former Oklahoma State and Detroit Lions running back) Barry Sanders said before the game there were two great running backs that were going to play tonight, and they both were for Bama,” Elliott said. “I felt a little bit left out.”
Lee sparked the OSU defense with two sacks and three tackles for loss. All seven of Lee’s tackles were credited as solo stops.
Sims ended up with three interceptions to two touchdowns while Cooper hauled in nine passes for 71 yards and both of Sims’ scores.
OSU is set to take on No. 2 Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m.
The Ducks earned a berth in the title game with a 59-20 victory in their semifinal matchup with No. 3 Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Thursday.
Elliott said the Buckeyes have to turn their focus to the championship right away to finish the season strong.
“Gotta go back out there, grind, finish this how we want to,” he said.