Ohio State's defense is going to have its hands full with Alabama's explosive offense led by the Crimson Tide's three-headed Heisman monster.
The Tide's defense isn't exactly going into Monday night's national championship game headed for a walk in the park, either.
Led by future top-five NFL draft pick Justin Fields, perhaps the best receiver duo in America in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson and an offensive line that has been opening huge holes for the red-hot Trey Sermon, the Buckeyes' offense will pose its own serious threat in Miami.
One day after speaking with an Alabama offense led by players who said the Buckeyes' defense would be "the best we've played this year," the defense took to the podium on Thursday and gave Ryan Day's crew some more glowing reviews.
Can ‘Bama make Ohio State one-dimensional?
Early in the 2020 season, so much of Ohio State’s offense revolved around Justin Fields getting the ball down the field to Olave and Wilson. With the way Trey Sermon has run the ball recently, Alabama wants to put the Buckeyes back in the spot where they have to throw the ball more than they’d like.
“As far as for us, I feel like that's one of the main things we have to worry about, is trying to make Ohio State one-dimensional and stopping their run game, because that's something that's really important just as far as the success,” linebacker Dylan Moses said.
Running behind what Moses called a “really great offensive line,” Sermon tallied 331 yards with two touchdowns in the Big Ten title game before picking up 193 yards and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl. Those back-to-back performances followed him running for 344 yards in the first five games combined.
So, what type of Sermon does Alabama think it will see?
“I think we'll get his best,” Golding said. “We normally get everybody's best, and I think he's playing at a really high level. I think he runs the ball effectively, he runs behind his pads. I think he's explosive. I think he does a nice job understanding their blocking structure up front and follows blockers and has patience when he needs to. But he's one of those guys where you give him the seam, he can take it.”
“A young Cam Newton”
Golding spent his first season in Tuscaloosa as the Tide’s co-defensive coordinator in 2018. While there, Golding and Co. squared up with Justin Fields just one time during the former five-star’s freshman season at Georgia.
Fields was barely used in that December 2018 matchup, throwing an incompletion on his lone pass attempt and finishing with three carries for six yards. So it’s not as if Golding got a fantastic or complete look at Fields as a quarterback, but he still has been able to calibrate the growth Fields has made from his first collegiate season to his third in which he has elevated himself into a top-five NFL draft pick.
“Obviously I think he looks much more veteran,” Golding said. “I think he does a good job of getting them in and out of plays. Obviously they're a big check-with-me team, and based on the shell and the front he can control the run game and the pass game. So I think he's come a long way obviously of understanding coverages and fronts and the how they fit together. He does a really nice job of getting them in and out of plays. Obviously I think he's got a really good arm, a really strong arm, another one. He threw on his back foot 68 yards last week for the touchdown, but I think his accuracy has improved.”
One of the key areas in which Golding has been impressed watching Fields on tape is his ability to make checks at the line of scrimmage, his understanding of coverages and his mobility in the pocket to avoid pass rushers and fluidly move around to create time for his receivers to find openings downfield.
He’s also watched as Fields has hurt defenses with his ability to get out of the pocket and scramble for big gains, saying it all adds up to Fields being “a complete quarterback.”
Golding’s evaluation of Fields was echoed by linebackers Christian Harris and Dylan Moses, with Harris alluding to some of Fields’ big scrambles in the semifinal win over Clemson and his bombs to Chris Olave and Jameson Williams.
Moses, on the other hand, compared Fields to a player who many people (including Fields himself) have compared him to in the past – and for those who somehow don’t realize, Moses was making the comparison in a positive manner.
“I've been watching Justin Fields since he came out of high school. I always had high praise for him,” Moses said. “He kind of reminded me of a young Cam Newton or something like that. The dude has a lot of great talent. He can deliver the ball to his receivers, has a strong arm, athletic. He's everything that you want in a quarterback. Like I said, we respect him, and like I said, we're going into the game confident and knowing that this is going to be a great challenge.”
Impressions of Ryan Day the play-caller
Admittedly, Nick Saban doesn’t know Ryan Day very well. The closest they’ve come to facing each other on the field is when their schools lined up a home-and-home series for 2027 and 2028, and they haven’t established a close relationship thus far away from it all. Perhaps that happens at some point.
But as of now, Saban largely knows Day as a coach based on secondhand information and what he has garnered from watching the Buckeyes on film from afar.
“He does a great job of coaching,” Saban said. “He's a very good offensive sort of play-caller. He's got a great scheme on offense. Certainly does a great job of coaching his players to execute that scheme. They're very well-coached in every phase, and their team plays with great intangibles, discipline, toughness, play hard. Seem to have great togetherness on their team. So I think those are all great indicators of what a great job Ryan Day does as a head coach and as a leader of his organization. I think he's taken advantage of a great opportunity and certainly done an outstanding job with it.
“They've got one of the best teams in the country, no doubt about that.”
As an offensive coach and play-caller, Day has forced his peers – including Saban and defensive coordinator Pete Golding – to take notice. Ohio State’s offense has steadily improved since Urban Meyer brought him in as a co-offensive in 2017 after his team put up a goose egg in the College Football Playoff. Now, with Justin Fields at quarterback and a rushing game that ranks third nationally with six yards per carry, he has things humming in Columbus.
What Golding – a 36-year-old in his third season coordinating Saban’s defense – has seen of Day’s offense has impressed him greatly.
He pointed to how Day manipulates defenses with formations, moving guys around to get them isolated in matchups where Ohio State thinks it has individual advantages. Golding noted Day’s check-with-me system at the line of scrimmage and mentioned how the head coach sometimes fakes that.
“I think he's done a really nice job of complementing those two things and staying pretty balanced with it,” Golding said. “And then mix in the tempo game on top of that to where they'll create an explosive play and then they'll hurry up, and then now they'll hurry up and then they'll snap it and go. And then they'll go, ‘Hurry up, kill, kill, kill, what are you in, let's call the right play. Here is two-out, here's a quarters-beater, let's run double posts and take the shot.’ Obviously I think a lot of things complement each other in the look and the run game and the pass game, and based on what you're in, they've got the best play for that front in the run game or for that coverage in the pass game. So I think you've got to do a really nice job of changing that up.”
“I just had to make the best decision for me”
Even if Jordan Battle hadn’t flipped to Alabama on early signing day two years ago, he still could have been playing in this season’s national championship game.
The No. 2 safety in the recruiting class of 2019, Battle initially committed to Ohio State in June 2018. After continuing to visit other schools, though, Battle ultimately opted to sign with Alabama that December, shortly after Urban Meyer announced his retirement as Ohio State’s head coach.
Given the inconsistent play Ohio State has had in its secondary this year, Battle presumably would have had a major role in the Buckeyes’ defensive backfield this season. That said, the sophomore safety has a major role on the back end of Alabama’s defense, starting all but one of the Crimson Tide’s 12 games this year. He’s recorded 63 total tackles, four pass breakups and three tackles for loss and had a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown against Kentucky.
Battle has no regrets about the decision he made to join the Crimson Tide over the Buckeyes.
“I had to make the best decision for me,” Battle said. “Obviously you see I did make the best decision for me, and that's all it came down to.”
Battle said he doesn’t remember much about the recruiting process now that he’s been at Alabama for two years. But he still holds Ohio State in high regard even though he’ll be trying to beat the Buckeyes on Monday.
“I give all praise to Ohio State,” Battle said. “Great coaching staff, great players. I just had to make the best decision for me toward the end to come to Alabama. I give all the praise and all the excitement and joy in Ohio State, as well.”