MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Alabama started the scoring frenzy a little before the midpoint of the first quarter, and once it got rolling, Ohio State had no answers.
For the duration of Monday’s national championship, the Crimson Tide pushed the ball up and down the field at will while the Buckeyes reached the end zone on only three of their 12 possessions. By the night’s end, Nick Saban had claimed his sixth national title while at the helm of the SEC powerhouse with a 52-24 victory.
“Tough night, tough night,” Day said. “I'm proud of our team, proud of the seniors, proud of the year that we've had. But it was a tough night. A lot to unravel there, but when you look a team in the eye in the locker room after the long season we've been through, it's hard to start focusing on one or two plays or whatever it was because they've been through so much. I'm proud of the legacy that the seniors have left behind. But you've got to give credit to Alabama. Certainly a very good team, and they played really well tonight.”
And that might just be an understatement.
Alabama diced up the Buckeyes through the air seemingly at will. Wideout DeVonta Smith barely even played more than a full half yet recorded 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns before a finger injury sidelined him. Ohio State didn’t remotely cover him.
“Really they just gave him the ball in open space and he made plays,” cornerback Shaun Wade said. “He's a great player and they had a great scheme. They just made plays.”
Wade stuck around Ohio State for the 2020 season in order to both improve his draft stock and win a national championship. Inconsistent play, however, will likely ding him in the eyes of NFL teams, and the Buckeyes fell short of the prize they sought.
So, was it still a good move for him to stay at Ohio State?
“Oh, yeah, definitely it was worth it,” Wade said. “I see myself growing as a man and as a team, and all the young guys growing as men, all the things that we went through, the adversity. I'm happy I came back, and I'm just glad we got here. I'm upset we didn't get the win but I'm definitely happy I came back and accomplished some big things with this team. I'm proud of them. I'm proud of everybody.”
Afterward, he was non-committal when asked whether he’d made up his mind about staying in school for one more year or going to the NFL.
“I really can't say,” Wade said. “You know, I do want to come back and everything. I've got to talk to my parents. It is upsetting that we got here and we just didn't accomplish the goal, and that's just been my goal, winning a National Championship and just winning big games like this. I'll just go back with my parents, go talk to them and just go from there.”
Plenty of Buckeyes will have to ask themselves that question, including a couple who didn’t suit up on Monday. Starting defensive linemen Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith were deemed unavailable for the national title game.
Could their presence have swung a 28-point loss. No. But it might have closed the gap.
“Tommy and Tyreke are unbelievable players,” Borland said. “They showed that ten days ago whenever it was when we played Clemson. Unbelievable players. At a place like Ohio State we always approach next man up, and that's what the case was. Especially in the COVID environment season, everyone has to be ready. Yeah, I mean, credit to Alabama. They have great players. They played really hard. They played well.”
Along with their absences, the Buckeyes had to deal with losing Trey Sermon on the first drive of the game and Wyatt Davis late in the second quarter. The severity of their injuries are unclear.
Sermon’s night ending so early, in particular, altered Ohio State’s offensive game plan. Master Teauge and Marcus Crowley managed just 4.1 yards per carry in his place.
“Trey going out, of course he was hot these last few weeks, but we have the mentality of competitive excellence, and when one man goes down, we have to bring up the next man,” Just Fields said. “But we would've liked to have Trey out there. He's a baller, he's a warrior, but he wasn't able to play with us. But with or without him we've still got to execute.”
Without a strong rushing attack to complement Fields, the passing game suffered. In his first – and only – national championship game appearance, he went 17-for-33 while throwing for 193 yards and one touchdown.
“They just played really strong,” Ruckert said. “They're very sound. They get their plays in early. And they just played really good. And wish it could have turned out different, but I didn't notice anything. I just feel like we got off rhythm a little bit and couldn't get first down. I don't know how much that had to do with the secondary or anything, but much respect to those guys for coming to play.”
Ruckert, along with multiple other teammates, touted the toughness of his quarterback who played at what Day admitted was less than 100 percent health.
“He's one of the toughest players I've ever been around,” Ruckert said. “One of my toughest teammates I've ever seen. He showed that last game and coming back this game, behind the scenes, just 24/7 in our training room, getting his body right and doing everything he can to make sure he's out here. And I feel he didn't even give it away that he was hurt at all. Looked like he was standing in there strong and doing whatever he could to help us win. Great person, unbelievable football player and I'm excited to watch his future.”
“He's a warrior,” Olave said. “I mean, that's a guy you always want on your team. He's a leader on and off the field. And people look up to him. And the season he had this year, the growth he had from last year, it's huge. And I've got all love and all respect for him. Can't wait to see him do big things.”
Unfortunately for those guys, they couldn’t cap off one more valiant comeback with Fields.
The Buckeyes trailed 35-17 at halftime, and Alabama scored 17 more points on its first three drives of the third quarter to start pulling away. Why does Day think Ohio State couldn’t close the gap in the second half?
“I don't think there's one thing,” Day said. “I think it's several things. We didn't finish a couple of those drives, didn't get the 4th down conversion, two of them, and they continued to make big plays. They got up, I think, four scores on us, and we couldn't quite keep up. It was just a combination of things. I thought there was a point there where if we had got a stop and got into the end zone, that we had an opportunity to get back in within a couple scores, maybe get it down to 10, but that didn't happen. I just think it's a combination of things.”
Now, because of the loss, an imperfect season has been capped off by an imperfect ending for those in Columbus.
“This season is just so unique,” Borland said. “You know, in August we didn't even have a season, so I think being here is a great accomplishment. Obviously. We're all competitors. We all would love to have won a National Championship and that's why we're here. We were here to compete for and ultimately win a National Championship. But no one is hanging their heads. We're going to learn from this experience, and I think the guys that come back next year will grow from it and be better from it.”
“First off, I just want to say I'm so proud of my guys and my team,” Cooper said. “I'm so proud of those guys. They're truly special, and I know we didn't win this game and all that, but they're champions in my heart honestly. I'm so proud of my guys. I couldn't be prouder. I give all my thanks to them for letting me play with them, have an opportunity to do this stuff with them. You know, I'm just trying to keep my head held high for them. They deserve it for everything that they've done.
“For us to continually work through all of that and get to this moment right here was an unbelievable success,” Day said. “The goal of the game was not to get here, the goal was to win the game. But all that being said, I couldn't be prouder of our culture, what our kids are made of and where the program is headed.”
For now, though, the program isn’t headed anywhere. It’ll instead take a deep breath after holding the pedal to the metal for months on end.
“We need a break,” Day said. “We need to get away. The kids are – guys are missing their families, and we all just need a break. We've already started to put together the schedule for the spring, but we all need to get away for awhile. This has been a long, long road. Guys miss their families, and they deserve time to be with them. We'll unwind for a little while, have an opportunity to reflect on what the season has been, and then get back into it. But you're right, you can't just go back into work here. You need some time to rest and reflect.”