81st Annual Allstate Sugar Bowl ~ January 1, 2015
College Football Playoff Semifinal
#4 Ohio State 42 (Final: 14-1, AP #1)
#1 Alabama 35 (Final: 12-2, AP #4)
That chippy “Us Against the College Football World” attitude was evident from the start from Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, who some doubted if they belonged in the first-ever four-team playoff, played like they had something to prove – which they did to the legions who felt their name carried more weight than their game.
How Ohio State and Alabama met in the 2015 Allstate Sugar Bowl
With the deafening crowd noise of the sold-out Superdome highlighting every play, this was a Sugar Bowl replete with surprises, the biggest of which might have been a one-yard quarterback sneak on third-down by quarterback Cardale Jones late in the fourth quarter. It came with Ohio State ahead by six on its own 14 with the Tide clearly in position to steal a late victory.
The big, bruising Jones lowered his head and plowed through the middle of the Bama line.
One play later Ezekiel Elliott took the ball, made one cut, broke an arm tackle, and shot down the sidelines for an 85-yard touchdown – the longest from scrimmage Alabama had allowed all season. After a two-point conversion, the Buckeyes had a 14-point (42-28) lead with 3:31 remaining.
Elliott said while he was speeding to the end zone he was remembering what his position coach, Stan Drayton, always said: “Run through the smoke. There’s always something good at the end of it.”
There sure was. Ohio State wasn’t home free yet. But almost.
Ohio State brought the fight to Bama early, but the result took longer than Meyer expected. The Buckeyes were camped inside the Tide 10 twice with first downs in the first quarter, and had to settle for two short field goals by Sean Nuerenberger, one set up by a 54-yard run by Elliott in which he hurdled Bama safety Landon Collins – playing in his hometown – to break free down the right sideline. In between, Alabama forced two OSU turnovers, driving just 33 and 15 yards for the touchdowns that gave the Tide what seemed like a comfortable cushion.
Elliott broke off a 17-yard run to his own 37, but the ball was loosened from his arm by corner Eddie Jackson, and Collins picked it up and returned the ball four yards.
Two plays later, Derrick Henry rumbled 25 yards to put Bama ahead, 7-3. The Buckeyes seemed poised to answer with a 74-yard drive to the Tide 1. But on first-and-goal, Jones mishandled a shotgun snap and lost eight yards. From there Bama held and Nurenberger kicked his second field goal.
Alabama, like the champion it was, answered with a 79 yard drive, ending with Blake Sims’ 15-yard pass to Amari Cooper.
Jones, nicknamed “12-Gauge” for his strong arm, added to Alabama’s comfort by throwing an interception to Cyrus Jones at the OSU 47. It was returned 15 yards. T.J. Yeldon eventually scored from the 2 on fourth-and-goal.
With 8:07 until the half, Bama held a 20-6 lead, and appeared to be on its way to easy victory, at least to everyone but Nick Saban, who said he was uneasy about the way his team was playing, despite the lead.
“We never really stopped them,” Saban said. “We got two turnovers and two red-zone stops, but I didn’t like the feel of the game then. We didn’t control the game the way we usually do.”
At that point, Jones ignited the OSU engine and put together two impressive touchdown drives to climb back in the running.
The Buckeyes motored 71 yards in 12 plays, with Jones completing five-of-seven passes for 68 yards, and Elliott ran three yards to make the score 21-13 with 2:55 until intermission.
After holding the Tide to a three-and-out, Jones moved the Bucks 77 yards in six plays, using 1:20 of the clock. Using trickeration, Ohio State cut the deficit to one. Wide receiver Evan Spencer took a pitch from Jones, then tossed it 13 yards to Michael Thomas, who made an acrobatic end zone grab for the touchdown with 12 seconds remaining, making it a 21-20 game at halftime.
At that juncture, Ohio State had an eye-popping 348 yards to only 140 for Alabama; and Elliott already had 117 yards and a touchdown.
There was more to come. Right off the bat in the second half, with the help of a defender falling down, Jones hit an open Devin Smith for a 47-yard touchdown – and a 27-21 lead that jumped to 34-21 when safety Steve Miller intercepted Sims and returned it 41 yards for a touchdown with 3:21 left in the third quarter.
The previously dissed Buckeyes had now scored 28 unanswered points against the ballyhooed Crimson Tide.
Sims pumped life back into Bama with an 84-yard, seven-play drive in which he completed 15 and 52-yard passes, then ran in the touchdown from the 5 with 1:01 in the third quarter.
That made the score 34-28 – and set the stage for Elliott’s slam-the-door run – though there was more excitement.
Bama continued to hang around, getting good field position after Ohio State punter Cameron Johnson shanked a kick just 20 yards to the Buckeye 23. But that golden opportunity vanished when Sims threw toward the end zone and safety Vonn Bell picked it off to snuff out the threat.
The lead was sliced to its final seven-point margin with less than two minutes remaining, on a six-yard Sims to Cooper pass. After a solid defensive sequence, and the use of its final two timeouts, the Crimson Tide had the ball back with 1:33 and 82 yards to go. After four completions and a 12-yard run from Sims, the Tide was at the Ohio State 42 with time for two plays. The first was an incompletion, then the last was a Hail Mary which was snagged by the Buckeyes’ Tyvis Powell.
Ohio State had accomplished its mission. It showed the college football universe it was worthy of playing with the biggest of boys.
In the aftermath, the Buckeyes also left a few notable remembrances of their presence. Elliott rushed for a Sugar Bowl record 230 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, a satisfactory achievement he said. Before the game he had heard a broadcaster say there were two great backs in this Sugar Bowl: Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, both of Alabama. Henry finished with 95 yards, Yeldon with 47. Jones passed for 243 yards on 18 of 36 attempts and one touchdown. Ohio State also did a job on Cooper, who caught two touchdown passes on nine catches, but was contained with just 71 yards.
On the other side, Bama’s 35 points in a losing effort tied Georgia for highest amount in Sugar Bowl history (in 2006 versus West Virginia). But Bama also tied its own record as the biggest favorite to lose a Sugar Bowl – coming a year after falling as a nine-point favorite to Oklahoma.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of all, was that Ohio State rolled up a total of 537 yards against the No. 1 defense in college football, one loaded with NFL prospects.
Meyer seemed pretty satisfied, too, when he assessed his overlooked Buckeyes. “They’re good enough. That was a sledgehammer game, that was classic. So we are good enough.”
That was an understatement. Eleven days after the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State beat Oregon 42-20 for the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship.
Recap by Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé, an award-winning sportswriter who covered college football and the Sugar Bowl for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 33 years.