Ohio State's journey continues after memorable Sugar Bowl win

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State's journey continues after memorable Sugar Bowl win

NEW ORLEANS – If this is what the new college football playoffs are going to be like, we are in for a fun era.

The Superdome pulsated from the opening kickoff in an epic national semifinal clash between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State. The game had it all. Long passes, spectacular catches, beautiful runs, iffy calls by the officials and a thrown headset that all culminated in a 42-35 upset win for Ohio State that will forever be part of Buckeye lore.

Spectacular.

“I just love these guys,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.

Ohio State’s improbable journey will continue in the national championship game vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12. But there’s no way that game can top this one, is there? And can Ohio State’s magic carpet ride really continue?

“I think they are capable of playing with anyone in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Ohio State entered this game as a nine-point underdog. Few gave the Buckeyes much of a chance to win vs. the Crimson Tide, which has won three national titles since 2009 as college football’s “it” program. This Alabama team was rolling, too, riding an eight-game winning streak into this game.

The Buckeyes? Yes, they were hot, winners of 11 in a row coming into this game. But Ohio State was being captained by a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones. He was spectacular in engineering a 59-0 win vs. Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, earning MVP honors by hitting 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns. But could the sophomore replicate that effort on this stage … vs. an SEC foe … with the stakes so high?

Yep.

Jones was terrific after a sluggish opening quarter when he hit 3-of-9 passes for 47 yards. Over the last three quarters, Jones connected on 15-of-26 passes for 196 yards to finish 18-of-35 for 243 yards with a touchdown and interception to go along with 16 rushes for 54 yards.

Now, Jones and Ohio State will reprise their underdog role vs. No. 2 Oregon, which crushed No. 3 Florida State, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl to advance to the title game. Is anyone going to doubt that Jones and these Buckeyes can win it all?

“They’re good enough,” Meyer said. “That was a sledgehammer game, that was classic, so we are good enough.”

Meyer’s team has a mojo circulating around it. There is a sense of destiny about a team that never has flinched in the face of adversity this season.

First, starting quarterback and two-time Big Ten MVP Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in August.

Second, OSU suffered a surprising 35-21 loss at home to Virginia Tech in the second game of the season.

Third, backup quarterback J.T. Barrett saw his spectacular redshirt freshman season end with a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.

Ohio State answered the bell each time, never buckling, never flinching, never making excuses, just producing. Now, the Buckeyes stand on the precipice of winning their first national title—and the Big Ten’s first—since the 2002 season. That year, OSU shocked the world by knocking off a heavily favored Miami (Fla.) team in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the crown.

“Maybe the Big Ten isn’t so bad,” Meyer said. “Maybe the Big Ten’s pretty darn good.”

He’s right. The conference has taken its lumps in recent years. But the postseason has gone well, with Wisconsin beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl and Michigan State topping Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to go along with Ohio State’s stunning result on this big day.

Give Meyer his props. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better coaching job by him during his illustrious career that has seen him win national titles at Florida in 2006 and 2008. The guy is a master in big games. But he never has faced the obstacles he has had to clear in this fun season.

“This team has such good chemistry,” Meyer said.

For Ohio State to have any chance to beat Alabama, most felt it had to play a near-perfect game. The Buckeyes needed to avoid turnovers, they needed to run well, the defense needed to excel. Most of that happened on this night. But there was a time when things didn’t look so good.

Ohio State had every chance to buckle on this night following a poor start. The Buckeyes fell behind 21-6 at the 8:07 mark of the second quarter. Little was working for the Buckeyes, who had two turnovers to contribute to their misery and saw two trips to the red zone end with field goals. But that’s when things flipped.

Jones started to find open receivers. And running back Ezekiel Elliott was running well, as the Buckeyes closed the half with two touchdowns to cut Alabama’s lead to 21-20. Ohio State was getting stronger, while Alabama struggled to get back on track.

The Buckeyes carried that energy to the second half, which they opened with two more touchdowns to take a 34-21 lead with 3:21 left in the third quarter. Ohio State was really gonna do this? Were the Buckeyes really going to beat the mighty Crimson Tide? And was OSU going to do it with a third-string quarterback?

Bama cut into the lead to make it 34-28 entering the last quarter. The teams traded TDs in the final quarter. But in the end, this game belonged to Ohio State, which finished with 537 yards (256 yards passing and 281 yards rushing).

This was a game of big plays for the Buckeyes. And Elliott led the way. He busted off a 54-yard run in the first quarter. And he iced the game with an 85-yard TD run in the fourth quarter to finish with 230 yards on 20 carries. This came on the heels of his 220-yard rushing game in the Big Ten championship tilt. Add it up, that’s 450 yards rushing in the last two games for Elliott, just a sophomore. A star has been born.

“I was ready coming into this game,” Elliott said. “Barry Sanders said before the game that there were two great running backs in this game, and they were both for Bama. I felt kinda left out.”

No more.

The Buckeye defense also needs to be mentioned. The unit excelled in largely muting a prolific Alabama offense and generating three turnovers on interceptions. The Crimson Tide had 407 yards, but many of those came after they fell behind. Alabama had issues passing for much of the game, rarely hitting any big plays the first three quarters.

But all storylines have to circle back to Jones, the most improbable hero of this 2014 season.

All week, Jones was poked, prodded and scrutinized. How good was he? Jones seemed unfazed by it all. He has an easy-going nature, a fun personality wrapped inside a 6-5, 250-pound body that resembles a linebacker. And the guy can sling it.

“He’s got some good players around him” Meyer said. “The future is bright at Ohio State.”

And it will be even brighter if OSU can bring home a national title.

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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