Ohio State defense faces tall task against Alabama’s historic offense

Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes are six days away from facing the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2021 National Championship.

Members of the Buckeyes’ defense took questions on how they can limit an Alabama offense that has tortured opposing defenses all season long averaging 48 points a game, first among power five teams.

“This is a great offense. It is a complete offense,” OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses.”

In order to roll back the Tide, Ohio State must find a way to slow down Alabama’s three Heisman finalists — running back Najee Harris (No. 5 in voting), quarterback Mac Jones (No. 3 in voting) and Heisman winner wide receiver DeVonta Smith.

A unit can’t win an individual award, but Alabama’s offensive line was given the Joe Moore Award given to the best offensive line in college football.

Here’s a a breakdown of Alabama’s offensive line and three Heisman finalists, including quotes from OSU players and Coombs.

DeVonta Smith

Smith is the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard won it in 1991. Smith paces the nation in receiving yards (1,600), receiving touchdowns (20), and receptions (105).

Smith has the most 15+ yard receptions against single coverage since 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Jaylen Waddle, who may return for the championship game from injury, has the most yards after catch (10.0) per reception since 2018, per PFF.

Ohio State’s secondary woes are well known, and Alabama will look to exploit an OSU defense that ranks 116th in the country in pass yards allowed per game (281.1).

The Buckeyes will put first team All-American Shaun Wade on Smith, but Wade has been beat in one-on-one matchups several times this year, including twice against Clemson’s Cornell Powell.

“With DeVonta he’s a great player. Very shifty, fast . . . He can do everything. Really looking forward to that matchup,” Wade said.

Mac Jones

Mac Jones is the most efficient quarterback in college football. Jones has a pass efficiency rating of 203.3, is one of only two quarterbacks this season to throw for more than 4,000 yards and has the second-most passing touchdowns (36) this season.

“The evolution of [Alabama’s] passing game and the passing attack and the variety of things that they do offensively is exceptional,” Coombs said.

Jones is not mistake-prone either throwing 36 touchdowns compared to four interceptions, the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in all of college football. Only Mac Jones ranks ahead of Justin Fields when it comes to PFF’s highest-graded quarterbacks since 2019.

“Trevor [Lawrence] got the ball out fast, and I feel like we kind of have to attack this game the same way,” defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “Just put pressure on him in any way that you can, whether that’s getting hands up, batting balls down, making him feel your presence, collapsing the pocket, really doing anything that you can to make sure the quarterback isn’t very comfortable back there.”

Alabama’s Offensive Line

As mentioned above, Alabama’s offensive line was selected for the Joe Moore Award given to the nation’s best O-line. They give Jones time to throw and allow for an average of 180 yards rushing a game.

“Alabama has a very good offensive line,” Cooper said. “It’s no different from I feel like going against our guys every day in practice. We compete against the best here at Ohio State . . . I feel like we go against an amazing offensive line every day in practice, so I feel like it just makes us even more prepared.”

But Clemson had an effective run game too and the Buckeyes held the ACC’s all-time leading rusher Travis Etienne to 42 yards.

The Buckeyes’ defensive line ranks first among teams in the power 5 (PFF) and they’ll need to have a similar performance against the Tide. Limiting Alabama’s rushing attack can make it one dimensional and force the Tide to throw more often than it would like — a strategy that worked well against the Tigers.

“This is the biggest offensive line that we’ve faced, but they’re also very gifted, very athletic, they can run, and they do a great job,” Coombs said. “It’s going to be really, really important for us to fit the right gaps, that we have inside hands with great pad level because if you misfit a gap or you get high in your pads or your hands are outside, they’re going to take advantage of it.”

“This offensive line that we’re playing, if they’re the best, they’re the best. That just makes me more excited. You want to play the best,” defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “They’re a great offensive line, very athletic, very fast, very big O-line.”

Najee Harris

Harris obviously benefits from the offensive line. But he’s a force out of the backfield and is a problem at the first and second level as shown in this run against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl.

Harris has the most rushing touchdowns (24), third-most rushing yards (1,387), and averages six yards per carry.

“The guys [Harris and Etienne] are a little bit different, but as long as we do what we did for Etienne, then I think we’ll be very good at stopping him,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “Their offensive line, I credit them a lot. But he’s very patient. He’s a very patient back and he finds the holes . . . He’s good at making you miss, and they just do a very good job utilizing him in the run and pass game to make him a real threat from a defensive perspective.”

“Najee is a great running back,” Garrett said. “Great, dynamic running back, very powerful, big running back, great speed. He brings a lot to their offense.”

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