Not since Jan. 1, 2015 has Nick Saban faced off with Ohio State.
That momentous day in Buckeye football history ended with Urban Meyer’s team knocking off Alabama for the first time ever, earning a ticket to the national championship. Six years later, they’re matched up again, and this time Saban will duel with Ryan Day who just presided over a 49-28 drubbing of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
On Monday, he spoke to the media seven days ahead of the first Ohio State-Alabama meeting with the national title on the line.
“Very challenging game for us all the way around,” Saban said. “But these are the kind of games if you're a competitor you really look forward to playing in, and this is a great opportunity for our players to compete against a great team.”
Here are three of Saban’s first impressions after watching the Buckeyes clock the Tigers three days ago.
Balanced Offensive Attack
Imagine, for a second, trying to defend Ohio State.
You have to key in on Justin Fields, trying to prevent him from eating you up you down the field while also respecting his legs. You can get blown off the ball by an improving offensive line. You have to take Trey Sermon out. You need to do your best to cover Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. And as Friday’s game showed, you can’t let Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell beat you either. There’s a lot to pay attention to.
“They were very dominant in the passing game, in the run game,” cornerback Patrick Surtain said. “Very balanced, very efficient. We know it's going to be a challenge”
Statistics back that up. The Buckeyes rank top-10 nationally both in rushing yards per attempt (6.0) and passing yards per attempt (9.9)
It’s gone to another level lately with Sermon accruing 524 rushing yards across the past two games. Early in the season, the ground game was lacking somewhat, but the former Oklahoma transfer’s ascent has nullified that concern.
“(Sermon’s) playing outstanding football right now. There's no doubt about that,” Saban said. “He had a fantastic game against Clemson. I think they have two really good running backs. Both are very capable. Their offensive line does a really good job of blocking your looks up front, getting a hat on a hat, and the runners are very talented. So the combination of the explosive ability that they have in the passing game, the good receivers that they have outside, the speed that they have, the way they can stretch the field with the playmakers they have, quarterback that can run or pass and can make all the throws.
“It's just a good all-around team and they have great balance, and I think that's what makes them very difficult to defend.”
Well Aware Of The Passing Threats
It doesn’t take long to recognize what Ohio State can do down the field. Saban, noting the fact, pointed to Olave and Wilson without outright naming them.
“Really explosive on offense,” Saban said. Really good skill players outside.”
Surtain added: “They're very finesse type of receivers. They've got speed, vertical threats, but they also run great routes. It's going to be a challenge for us as a secondary and as a unit, so we go and watch film on them and prepare like we need to to focus on their concepts and what they like to do.”
They don’t do it alone, of course.
Saban mentioned Fields can “make all the throws” on the field, noting the Buckeyes have a “great play-action pass game.” Surtain called the quarterback’s arm “tremendous” and “very accurate.”
“He's a high competitor,” Surtain said. “He leads the team the right way. They go off of him, and for him to come back in the game, like I said, that just shows what type of competitor he is and what type of toughness he has. That team success builds around him.”
Tough At The Line Of Scrimmage
The strength of Ohio State’s defense this season has undeniably been its front seven. Specifically, its ability to shut down the ground game – led by defensive tackles Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett – has stood out. It currently ranks 10th in the country, allowing an average of 3.2 yards per carry, a mark that improved on Friday when Clemson managed only two yards per rush.
“Well, they were very impressive on the line of scrimmage,” Saban said. “Clemson had a tough time running the ball. They've got a great back and a lot of quarterback runs that they did a really great job against. They were physical up front. They did a good job of pressing the pocket. I think they played outstanding.”
Lately, though, Ohio State hasn’t just thrived on the line defensively. The Greg Studrawa-led offensive line is hitting its stride, which has caught Saban’s eye.
“They do a great job of running the ball and control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” Saban said.