Ohio State preview: Focus is on Meyer-Saban, but game will be won elsewhere

 

By Jess Nicholas

TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Dec. 25, 2014

Much has been and continues to be made of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban renewing old rivalries in the inaugural semifinal matchup of college football’s new final four playoff.

Those stories continually miss the point.

Saban and Meyer are unquestionably among the top five coaches currently working in the sport. They may very well be ranked No. 1 and No. 2, with more than a few Ohio State fans (and possibly Florida fans, also) making the argument that the order should be switched.

But the question of which team wins this game and advances to face the Oregon-Florida State winner has much less to do with Meyer’s days at Florida and more to do with the actual, on-field matchups in this game – particularly the trench matchups and how Alabama’s backs will fare against Ohio State’s linebacker corps.

OFFENSE

Ohio State runs Urban Meyer’s familiar spread-option attack, although this year’s version is substantially more balanced than some incarnations have been, although that might have something to do with the level of opponent the Buckeyes have faced. Ohio State ranks 8th in total offense, 10th in rushing offense, 49th in passing offense and 5th in scoring offense. The key, of course, is how the Buckeyes will do in just the second game of QB Cardale Jones’ career as a starter. Alabama will use its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 15th in total offense, 32nd in rushing offense, 21st in passing offense and 16th in scoring offense. Both teams often make use of tempo in their philosophies.

QUARTERBACKS

With J.T. Barrett knocked out for the year with a broken ankle, Cardale Jones took over in the Big 10 Championship Game and was an immediate success as the Buckeyes rolled over Wisconsin, 59-0. Jones is the biggest quarterback Alabama will have faced since Cam Newton in 2010; he’s bigger than Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott at 6’5”, 250 pounds. Pegging what kind of passer Jones is, however, is difficult; he’s thrown only 34 passes so far this season. But his running ability is already a known quantity, as Jones is averaging more than 6 yards per carry on 34 totes on the season. If Alabama should happen to knock Jones from the game, Ohio State could be in real trouble. Jones was already third on the depth chart headed into the fall behind Barrett and Braxton Miller, who was also knocked out for the year. The backup would be either Jalin Marshall, currently at H-back, or Stephen Collier. Both are freshmen, and neither has completed a collegiate pass. Alabama will counter with Blake Sims, who made some Heisman Trophy ballots and whose dual-threat, big-play ability has steadily grown in effectiveness as the season has gone along. Backup Jake Coker has thrown almost twice as many passes as Ohio State’s starter for this game. This one becomes hard to pick simply because of a lack of information. Jones no doubt possesses raw skills and looked superb in his only start, but Sims’ experience counts for much more, and there’s a decent chance Coker is also better than Jones. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS

While Alabama split carries most of the year between T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, Ohio State focused its efforts on getting Ezekiel Elliott the ball. Elliott responded with 217 carries for 1,402 yards (6.5 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. At 6’0” and 225 pounds, Elliott possesses more than enough bulk to get the job done between the tackles, and his speed is more than acceptable. Backup Curtis Samuel only averages about 4 or 5 carries a game, but when he does get opportunities he makes the most of them. Samuel carried 56 times for 376 yards (6.7 avg.) and 6 touchdowns. Meyer’s version of the spread-option often makes use of an H-back who can run and pass, and Jalin Marshall fits that bill. He carried 20 times for 131 yards (6.6 avg.) and a touchdown, and also threw the ball twice (neither was completed). In other words, the potential for the Tim Tebow duck-and-jump pass at the goal line is alive and well. Alabama counters with the two-headed rotation of Yeldon (184 carries, 932 yards, 5.1 avg., 10 TD) and Henry (159 carries, 895 yards, 5.6 avg., 10 TD), which was tilted more Henry’s way in the SEC Championship Game on account of a laundry list of nagging injuries for Yeldon. Yeldon has been shielded from full duty the last couple of weeks in practice, but don’t expect Alabama to hold back much in this game. Tyren Jones (36 carries, 224 yards, 6.2 avg., 2 TD) will be the third wheel, while Altee Tenpenny provides further depth. Jalston Fowler will start at fullback and can also work a bit at tailback; Michael Nysewander backs him up. Taking the top two runners from each team into account, the total rushing yardage is about average, but the health and durability of Yeldon will be the eventual deciding factor. Razor-close here. Advantage: Ohio State

WIDE RECEIVERS

Devin Smith only caught 30 balls this year, but he made the most of his limited opportunities, averaging 26.6 yards per catch and scoring 11 touchdowns. Michael Thomas added 43 catches for 680 yards (15.8 avg.) and 8 touchdowns. Corey Smith (17 catches, 174 yards, 10.2 avg., 0 TD) and Evan Spencer (14 catches, 142 yards, 10.1 avg., 3 TD) are the only reserves that will play much. Ohio State arguably got its most consistent production from the H-back position, where Jalin Marshall (28 catches, 392 yards, 14.0 avg., 6 TD) and Dontre Wilson (21 catches, 300 yards, 14.3 avg., 3 TD) expanded the role for that position further than in a traditional Urban Meyer offense. Tight end Jeff Heuerman (17 catches, 207 yards, 12.2 avg., 2 TD) was also productive. Alabama sent the bulk of its production through Amari Cooper – 115 catches, 1,656 yards, 14.4 avg, 14 touchdowns. But DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and tight end O.J. Howard also put up good numbers for the year. Like Ohio State, Alabama’s production drops off significantly among the depth players, although that could change if ArDarius Stewart is healthy enough to play in this game. Cameron Sims, Raheem Falkins and Chris Black are also available. Brian Vogler will start at tight end, with Brandon Greene also playing a role there. Ohio State spread the ball around a bit more, but the Buckeyes’ best receiver was too hit-or-miss. Cooper’s presence alone gives Alabama a ton of bonus points. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE

Big Ten teams are renowned for having an edge in the trenches but for being slow at the skill positions; Ohio State may have the opposite circumstances. While it’s hard to deny the prowess of the Buckeye skill players, Alabama might pick up substantial ground here. The biggest lineman on the field for Ohio State will be redshirt freshman left guard Billy Price, who moved over from defense in the spring. The rest of the bunch – center Jacoby Boren, right guard Pal Elflein and tackles Taylor Decker and Darryl Baldwin – average 301 pounds. The slimmer build can be worked around in a spread-option attack, but against Alabama’s larger, mobile defensive line, it’s still not a good matchup. Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly in the middle flanked by guards Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown and tackles Cam Robinson and Austin Shepherd. There is some concern about Robinson’s health, which has been assaulted from multiple angles late in the season, leaving him with a bum ankle and possible shoulder injury. If there are any problems there in this game, look for either Shepherd to switch sides, with Grant Hill or Dominick Jackson playing right tackle, or for Leon Brown to go to left tackle, with Bradley Bozeman coming into the game at right guard. The one advantage Ohio State has here is the starting five has been together in every game this season. But the Buckeyes rank just 48th in sacks allowed despite having mobile quarterbacks – not a good sign. If Robinson is 100 percent for Alabama, it’s a sizable edge. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Ohio State will base from a 4-3 set, although like most teams in modern-day football, the Buckeyes will be in a nickel look as often as not. The Buckeyes had a curious season on defense; the rankings may have looked better than they actually should have. OSU ranked 15th in total defense, 34th in rushing defense, 18th in raw pass defense, 7th in pass efficiency defense and 23rd in scoring defense. But Ohio State allowed fewer than 20 points only 5 times and fewer than 17 points only three times. Alabama accomplished those feats seven times each. The Crimson Tide ranked 11th in total defense, 2nd in rushing defense, 58th in raw pass defense, 30th in pass efficiency defense and 4th in scoring defense. Neither team was spectacular in red zone defense, although Alabama’s ranking of 59th bested the Buckeyes’ ranking of 75th.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Alabama’s defensive line may be the best in the country. With Ohio State being a spread-variant team, look for Alabama to start A’Shawn Robinson in the middle, flanked by a combination of Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson at the end positions. Alabama will also play Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake in the middle, along with probably Da’Shawn Hand at end. Alabama has somewhat of a size advantage over Ohio State’s starting front of Steve Miller and Joey Bosa at end and Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle, but the Buckeyes rank 8th in tackles for loss and 12th in sacks and Bosa is the catalyst for those rankings. Bosa, who plays 4-3 end at 275 pounds, notched 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss – and freed up Bennett to have an impactful season from his tackle spot. Bennett has recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. Washington is a quality player as well, but Alabama can target Miller, who has been somewhat absent all season, and who frequently comes off in nickel looks when the Buckeyes go to a modified 3-3-5. There’s quite a bit of drop-off to the second unit, aside from reserve end Rashad Frazier, who has pushed Miller for a starting spot all year. Tyquan Lewis backs up Bosa, while Tommy Schutt and Donovan Munger back up the tackle positions. Bosa is probably the best player among either unit, although Robinson and Reed could have something to say about it. But Alabama’s depth situation is much better. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS

Ohio State’s linebackers are quite productive behind the line of scrimmage. Aside from providing some chuckles over the fact there’s both a Lee and a Grant in the starting lineup, the abilities of this group are no laughing matter. Darron Lee is one of the rare strongside linebackers that can stay on the field during nickel sets; he has 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Curtis Grant starts in the middle and Joshua Perry starts at weakside linebacker. Perry’s 113 tackles leads the team. In addition, Raekwon McMillan, a true freshman, will play significant snaps off the bench at middle linebacker, and is already arguably a better overall player than Grant. Camren Williams and Chris Worley will back up the outside slots. Alabama counters with Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland in the middle, with Xzaver Dickson, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans and Dillon Lee at outside linebacker. Denzel Devall is questionable for this game, and Anderson will start in his strongside position if he can’t go. This category is tricky from the standpoint that Alabama is stronger outside, especially with the strongside-and-Jack-as-DEs look that Alabama frequently brings against spread-option teams. Alabama also has fared better against the run. But Ohio State has better depth up the middle and has three real playmakers available there. It’s close, but the Buckeyes eek this one out. Advantage: Ohio State

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Statistically, Ohio State has had a much better year, but Alabama probably faced a higher quality of offensive opposition. Cornerback Doran Grant and nickelback Armani Reeves are the only upperclassmen in Ohio State’s starting group. The rest – safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell and cornerback Eli Apple – are young players without much experience coming into the 2014 season. The inexperience hasn’t stopped Ohio State from turning over opposing teams, however: Bell and Grant have 5 interceptions each and Powell has 3. On the other hand, the Buckeyes aren’t great at defending the run from the third level. Bell had only 1 tackle for loss on the season, a low number for an every-play safety. Alabama will start Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones at cornerback, with Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Geno Smith, Jarrick Williams and Jabriel Washington rotating at safety. Bradley Sylve and Tony Brown will provide depth at cornerback and Maurice Smith at safety. Alabama has a clear edge in depth and experience, but Ohio State makes more big plays. However, the Buckeyes also make more mistakes. Like linebacker, this one could really go either way. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

Meyer’s team does everything well – a ranking of 6th in net punting leads the list, which includes good punt-return ability, kickoff returns, and punt and kick coverage. The only hiccup is placekicker Sean Nuernberger’s accuracy. He was 11-of-18 (61.1%) on the season, with two misses from inside 30 yards. He also missed half his kicks from long range. Curiously, he attempted no kicks in the 30-39-yard range. Alabama’s J.K. Scott will handle the punting duties for the Crimson Tide, who rank 2nd in net punting. Scott probably should have won the Ray Guy Award and Ohio State hasn’t faced anyone like him this year. Alabama handles returns and coverage well, but like Ohio State, placekicking accuracy is not the team’s strong suit. Adam Griffith (12-of-19, 63.2%) figures to get the call, provided his health will allow it. Griffith is said to be fighting a back injury. Gunnar Raborn (2-for-3, 66.7%) will kick short attempts if Griffith can’t go, with Scott handling longer ones. This one is actually closer than it might seem, but Griffith’s health hands the category to Ohio State. Advantage: Ohio State

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, Ohio State in three, although the linebacker, defensive back and special teams categories are all basically toss-ups. Alabama holds a strong edge in the trench matchup of its DL versus Ohio State’s OL. While Alabama holds an edge on the opposite matchup – Tide OL vs. OSU DL – the gap is much closer, almost to the point of it being a draw.

As everyone expected him to do, Meyer has tried to rebuild Ohio State in the SEC mold: fast skill position players, playmakers at the linebacker slot, athletic big men who can compete heads-up. The Buckeyes aren’t completely there yet, but it’s coming, and the pressure is on the rest of the Big Ten to match Ohio State’s transformation.

If one is determined to view this game through the lens of past Meyer-Saban matchups, this one looks a lot like the 2008 Alabama-Florida game, with the roles reversed. In that SEC Championship Game, Alabama was the up-and-comer, but just didn’t have the horses to finish off the superior Florida Gators. Similarly, Ohio State is a team on the rise for sure, but Alabama holds just enough of an edge and just enough positions that the Buckeyes will need to catch all the breaks to win.

In Ohio State’s favor is the fact that Alabama has had a sketchy history in New Orleans under Saban. The Crimson Tide has been blown out twice in the Superdome recently, once by Utah and once by Oklahoma – both spread teams. However, in the one game in which a championship was attached – the 2011 BCS Championship Game – Alabama owned the place. Expect more of the latter than the former in this game.

Alabama 31

Ohio State 20

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