Same Old Lang Syne: Alabama falls in Sugar Bowl again

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Alabama’s Jarrick Williams knocks the helmet off of Ohio State running back Jalin Marshall. CW | Pete Pajor

Sean Landry

NEW ORLEANS | For the second time in a row, the Alabama Crimson Tide started its year in New Orleans, in the Sugar Bowl and in defeat.

For the second year in a row, Alabama’s season ended in the Superdome after a historic powerhouse upset the highly-favored Crimson Tide. This year, it was No. 4 Ohio State downing the top-ranked SEC Champions 42-35.

“We’re very disappointed in the outcome of the game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I take responsibility for that. I think everybody in the organization, from the coaches right on down, has to take responsibility for what they did or didn’t do to help prepare the team to be able to play their best game, which was certainly our goal coming into this game.”

No. 1 Alabama fell behind early to an Ohio State field goal, but the No. 4 Buckeyes looked outmatched through the first quarter and half of the second, when Alabama jumped out to a 21-6 lead after a rushing touchdown each from running backs Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon and a touchdown catch by receiver Amari Cooper. On four drives, Alabama’s defense had forced two turnovers and come up with two stops in the red zone. It wouldn’t last.

“Really, we were up 21-6 because of two turnovers and two stops in the red area,” Saban said. “So we really weren’t stopping them, but we kind of had the momentum of the game because of the turnovers that we got and converted those into scores. But we weren’t really playing and executing the way we needed to even then. I didn’t like the feel of the game even then. So, we just stopped them in the red zone and we got two turnovers and that was the difference.”

By the end of the first half, Ohio State had cut Alabama’s lead to one point, with Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones moving the ball at will against an Alabama defense that had conceded 348 yards by the intermission. The Crimson Tide went into the locker room clinging to a 21-20 lead.

“Defensively we were just trying to be on the same page and on every given play and down, they broke out on some big plays on us and we just couldn’t contain the edge at points,” safety Landon Collins said. “But other than that, we just tried to fight all the way to the end and finish and get the ball back to our offense and to put points on the board.”

In the second half, Ohio State was able to regain its lead, scoring the last two touchdowns of a 28-point run when Jones threw a touchdown pass and Blake Sims was intercepted by Steve Miller, who returned the ball 41 yards for touchdown.

“I think specifically in the game, third down was probably – they hurt us on third down, lots of times on third and longs and converted, and we didn’t do very well on third down, so we didn’t continue drives, and they were able to continue driving and convert scores, specially when we were ahead,” Saban said. “And they scored 28 unanswered points.”

In the fourth quarter, Alabama’s defense awoke, forcing four punts from the Buckeyes, conceding a touchdown on only one of Ohio State’s five drives when running back Ezekiel Elliott ran 85 yards one play after defensive captain Collins left the game with an injury. Sims found Cooper to cut the lead to 42-35 with just under two minutes to play. Sims would get the ball back with a chance to tie, but his Hail Mary was intercepted as time expired.

“We have nothing but confidence in each other and believe that we can do anything that’s possible. We just told each other, ‘Let’s take one play at a time and just move the ball and get first down and get out of bounds,’” Sims said. “Ohio State’s a great defense. They played with a lot of passion today. 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.”

Offensively, Alabama struggled to move the ball for much of the night. Sims went 22-of-36 passing with three interceptions, while Heisman finalist Cooper was limited to 71 yards on 9 catches. Henry was a bright spot for the Crimson Tide, averaging 7.3 yards per carry, but only touching the ball on 15 of Alabama’s 70 plays.

“I was kind of anxious to see us take more shots down the field. I don’t think we, maybe, did that enough early in the game,” Saban said. “I think there’s obviously a lot of things that we wish we would have done differently to attack their defense. Their front did a really good job. We didn’t handle them well in running the football like we thought we might be able to when we spread them out and they did a good job on our perimeter screens and smokes and we made the blocks but they made the plays, and you gotta give their players a lot of credit for the way they executed. But I think that we’re certainly capable of playing a little better than we played tonight, and I think everybody would say the same if you asked them that from player to coach.”

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott was able to run for a Sugar Bowl record 230 yards against an Alabama front that had been ranked top in the nation, while Jones passed for 243 yards against a secondary unit that had struggled to defend deep passes for much of the season.

“I really give their team a lot of credit,” Saban said. “I give their coaching staff a lot of credit. They’re difficult to defend. Their formations and motions they do, they play real sound and solid on defense, really good special teams and their players are all in. They’re committed. They play hard. And it was a great team effort for them and you have to give them a lot of credit, but I think they have a very good team and I think they’re capable of playing with anybody in the country.”

With the loss, Alabama ends its season at 12-2, just seven points short of contending for the very first College Football Playoff championship trophy and bringing home the national championship that has become the standard of success at Alabama. Even so, Saban said this team has over-achieved while reasserting Alabama’s status as one of the preeminent college football programs in the country.

“We’re very disappointed in the outcome today,” Saban said. “It was our goal to play our best in this game, so we would have an opportunity to play in a national championship game. But we obviously didn’t do the things that we needed to do as well as we needed to do them to have a chance to do that.

“But I think there’s a lot of winners on this team. And I don’t think you necessarily have to get a trophy to be a winner.”