As Ohio State prepares for its showdown with Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, one thing I keep wondering about is how Nick Saban will approach the game on the defensive side of the ball.
Alabama’s run defense is very good and probably doesn’t need much fine tuning. Opponents average only 2.81 yards per carry against the Crimson Tide.
But Bama has precisely one game film worth of meaningful snaps to try to figure out how to shut down Cardale Jones and the passing attack. I don’t think the Buckeyes will be as stingy with the designed quarterback runs in the Sugar Bowl as they were against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, but I’m more interested in what they’ll see from Jones on tape in the passing game.
What I keep coming back to is the three deep touchdown throws to Devin Smith.
Bama has had a propensity for giving up explosive plays in the passing game this year. They’ve yielded 31 pass plays of at least 25 yards this season. This is despite having a pass rush that has amassed 28 sacks and 50 quarterback hurries in 2014. To put that into perspective, Ohio State has 40 sacks but only 20 quarterback hurries, meaning the Crimson Tide has bothered or gotten to the opposing quarterback 78 times compared to Ohio State's 60, although the Buckeyes have gotten their man more often.
I would expect Kirby Smart and Nick Saban to try to fix their defense’s biggest weakness—as well as the on-film strength of Ohio State’s offense under Jones—and focus on taking away the deep ball. I don’t see any scenario in which Saban isn’t trying to take Devin Smith’s go routes away.
This will be an area of emphasis for the defensive backfield, while the front seven will be charged with pressuring Jones. Alabama will also try to confuse him with different pre-snap looks and mixing coverages.
The Alabama coaching staff is very good at what it does and won’t make it easy on the Jones-to-Smith connection.
How does Ohio State combat this?
The Buckeyes will still need to take deep shots. As Earle Bruce told Tom Herman before the Wisconsin game, they should probably air it out at least once per quarter. That starts with protection up front. Ohio State must test Alabama's vulnerable secondary and keep the safeties honest.
Ohio State's offensive line has come a long way since the Game 2 debacle against Virginia Tech, but this will be the best front four they’ve faced this season, and the best front seven if you add the linebackers. It’s a better front than Penn State's and the Nittany Lions—aided though they might have been by J.T. Barrett’s gimpy knee and conservative play calling—were a pain in the neck.
The deep shots will still target Smith but other receivers will need to get involved down the field as well. Michael Thomas, Corey Smith and Marshall can all move. Dontre Wilson, if healthy enough to play, can also fly. They’ll all need to become threats.
The second thing the Buckeyes can do is shorten their passing game to get the ball out quicker. This is where Marshall, Thomas, Corey Smith and Evan Spencer have to produce. And Ohio State must utilize its tight ends. Short passing will give Alabama’s linebackers more to think about than just stopping the run or rushing the passer.
Thomas finished with 50 receiving yards or more six times in the first nine games of the season. He has not topped 45 yards in any of the last four and he hasn’t scored a touchdown since the Minnesota game on Nov. 15. If the Buckeyes are going to upset the Crimson Tide, a big game out of Thomas would be helpful.
Corey Smith, on the other hand, finally seems to be emerging as the threat we expected earlier in the year. Smith has five catches for 58 yards in the last two games—one of which he got thrown out of before halftime on a bogus targeting call—and, more importantly, is blocking well, not dropping passes, and looking the part overall.
Spencer hasn’t caught more than two passes in a game all season. He has two receptions for 14 yards in his last two games. He’ll always be involved as a blocker, but a big play in the passing game would be most welcome against the Tide.
Marshall has been quiet in the passing game since having back-to-back five-catch, 95-yard performances against Minnesota and Indiana. The redshirt freshman from Middletown has two receptions in each of the last two games for just 45 total yards and no touchdowns. He got 32 of those yards on one play against Wisconsin. He also has only run the ball twice for 12 yards in the last two contests. Either teams are scheming better to stop him, Tom Herman has forgotten about him, or Urban Meyer is saving him for the biggest stage.
Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett have been quiet of late as well. Heuerman had five receptions for 74 yards against Indiana. But since then, he has one reception for 13 yards, and that came against Michigan. Vannett didn't play against Wisconsin but caught two balls for 28 yards and a score against Michigan.
The way I expect Alabama to approach this game, one or more of Corey Smith, Thomas, Spencer, Marshall, Heuerman and Vannett will need to play a bigger role on Jan. 1 than they have in the past few games. All are capable of being more than complementary pieces to Devin Smith.
Who will step up in New Orleans?