Ohio State’s passing defense had problems all season, and those issues ultimately led to a blowout loss in Monday night’s national championship game against Alabama.
In a matchup that looked problematic for the Buckeyes from the beginning, Ohio State fans’ worst fears materialized on Monday, as Mac Jones passed for a College Football Playoff national championship game record 464 yards on a record-tying 36 completions for a record-tying five touchdowns. That enabled Alabama to score 52 points, the most ever allowed by Ohio State in a bowl game, and run away with a four-touchdown victory.
“Clearly, we didn't hold up well enough in the pass game,” Ryan Day said after the loss.
The first half of Monday night’s game was the DeVonta Smith Show, as the Heisman winner caught 12 passes for 215 pounds and three touchdowns before halftime. Ohio State simply had no answer for Alabama’s star receiver and often wasn’t in position to cover him. On multiple plays, Smith was left wide open; on his longest touchdown of the night from 42 yards out, he was matched up with middle linebacker Tuf Borland in coverage, which Borland said was a result of the three-deep zone the Buckeyes were playing.
“We know one of the issues is protecting the seams, so kind of just happened,” Borland said. “He's a Heisman Trophy winner, so give him credit. He's a good player.”
Day was highly complimentary of Smith after the game, saying Smith might be the best wide receiver he’s ever coached against.
“I don't know if I've seen one better than that,” Day said. “He just seemed to create a lot of separation. He's obviously very fast. He plays stronger than he looks. He's not a very big guy, but his play strength is significant. He just eats up ground down the field once he gets those strides going. Tremendous ball skills, Heisman Trophy winner and well deserved. He's a great player.”
Yet even after Smith dislocated his finger and left the game on the opening series of the third quarter, Ohio State’s defense still couldn’t stop – or even slow down – Alabama. While the Crimson Tide scored 35 of their 52 points before halftime, they scored on each of their first three possessions of the second half, after which point the win was well in hand for Alabama.
With the exception of a Baron Browning strip sack early in the second quarter, the Buckeyes never did much to make Jones uncomfortable, and he found holes in Ohio State’s pass defense all night. The Crimson Tide averaged 4.1 yards per carry on the ground, but they didn’t need to do anything special running the ball with how effectively they moved the ball through the air, averaging 10.3 yards per passing attempt.
Seemingly, at least some of the Buckeyes' defensive issues on Monday night stemmed from their scheme, as they spent much of the night playing with four linebackers on the field – which worked decently to limit Alabama in the running game, but left the Buckeyes far too vulnerable to the Crimson Tide's passing attack.
Ohio State defensive coordinator and secondary coach Kerry Coombs, who’s drawn plenty of scrutiny for his unit’s struggles to defend the pass all season long and especially on Monday night, was not made available to the media after the loss. That said, Day said he did not believe the Buckeyes’ defensive struggles against Alabama resulted from poor game-planning, but simply from poor execution.
“We did do some different things,” Day said. “We changed up some of the looks and played some two high (safeties), which is not something we typically do a lot of. Pressured some more the last couple games. So I thought we did mix it up a decent amount. But it's another thing to actually execute it. When you're playing against elite players, and this is probably one of the better offenses in college football in a long time, the margin for error is tiny.”
Ohio State defensive end Jonathon Cooper agreed with Day’s assessment.
“We felt like we did a good job preparing all week,” Cooper said. “I feel like we didn't execute and didn't tackle as well as we should have, as a whole defense. Just had to be better.
“I feel like we had a good game plan. I just feel like we needed to execute better.”
The Buckeyes’ lack of pass-rush could be partially blamed on the absences of starting defensive linemen Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith, who didn’t make the trip to Miami, but Cooper said he didn’t think they should use that as an excuse, either.
“Tommy and Tyreke are great players, but I have to give a lot of credit to the guys that stepped in their place,” Cooper said. “Jerron Cage and Tyler Friday, Javontae (Jean-Baptiste) and Zach (Harrison) and Antwuan Jackson and Taron Vincent … they stepped up and played really well in my opinion.”
While Ohio State was able to overcome its issues on passing defense in its first seven games of the year, it was a glaring weakness all season, as the Buckeyes allowed 304 passing yards per game, more than just five other Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 2020.
Defense wasn’t the Buckeyes’ only problem on Monday, as they also scored only 24 points on a season-low 341 yards, but it was the biggest reason why Ohio State proved to be completely overmatched against Alabama in the final game of the year.