Ryan Day took a gulp from his drink, looked at the stats, and stared left and right.
What he was looking at, nobody knows. A blank expression filled the head coach’s face.
The Ohio State Buckeyes lost in the National Championship Game Monday night 52-24 to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Day’s team became the latest victim to the Crimson Tide’s vaunted offensive attack, which put up the most points in CFP National Championship history.
A loss in a championship game is painful, even in normal circumstances.
But in a year where a global pandemic postponed games, sidelined players, threatened the survival of the season, Monday’s loss has a whole new meaning.
“Tough night,” Day said after the game. “A lot to unravel there, but when you look a team in the eye in the locker room after the long season we’ve been through, it’s hard to start focusing on one or two plays or whatever it was because they’ve been through so much.”
COVID-19 affected the Ohio State roster all season long. The National Championship Game was no different, with nine players out of the game before kickoff, including kicker Blake Haubeil, who tested positive for the virus.
Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields, who displayed a valiant performance in the Sugar Bowl after suffering a rib injury, wasn’t one hundred percent entering Monday’s game. Despite this, the Buckeyes never made excuses. They believe they belonged and were going to use the adversity as motivation to try and make history.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they faced one of the most explosive offensive teams in college football history. The Tide’s first offensive drive resulted in a 12 play, 78-yard touchdown drive, ending with running back Najee Harris barreling into the end zone on fourth down. On just Alabama’s second play on offense, quarterback Mac Jones connected with Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith for 22 yards. A precursor to how the rest of the game unfolded.
Looking at the film is one thing. Putting it into practice against the Crimson Tide is a daunting task.
“It’s one thing to have a good play, it’s another thing to execute it. We didn’t do that well enough on either side of the ball tonight,” Day said.
From the spread run-pass option (RPO) to physical running in the trenches, the Buckeyes defense struggled to slow down the Crimson Tide playmakers after contact. Shaun Wade, the Buckeye corner who wanted the matchup with Smith, couldn’t contain the receiver’s speed and quickness in man-to-man coverage. Harris showcased his physicality, executing cuts with ease and stiff-arming the Buckeye defenders.
What a play call by Sark, bringing Smith towards the quarterback then immediately to the outside with no coverage, leading to the touchdown.
— Lukas Weese (@Weesesports) January 12, 2021
The Crimson Tide employed different offensive schemes, thanks to innovative coordinator Steve Sarkisian. When the Buckeyes strategized for one scheme, the Crimson Tide gave them a different look. One instance occurred at the start of the second quarter when Smith ran towards Jones then moved away from the quarterback on the flat. With no Buckeyes defenders in that area, Smith ran into the endzone for the touchdown.
Another amazing play call by Sark, with an even better catch and run for Metchie.
— Lukas Weese (@Weesesports) January 12, 2021
Late in the third quarter, Canadian wide receiver John Metchie III stopped and started, waiting in the open area of the field in the zone coverage to make the catch. The Alabama avalanche has no mercy and the Buckeyes defense had no answers for it.
“They just made plays,” said Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade. “They just came and outplayed us today.”
The Buckeyes offense showed glimpses of success. Fields, who threw for 194 yards and one touchdown, highlighted the fast, tempo offense that succeeded against the Clemson Tigers in the National Semifinal. He led a touchdown drive in the second half that lasted just three plays, cutting the deficit to two scores.
🔥 12 Rec
🔥 215 Rec Yds
🔥 3 TDs
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 12, 2021
In the end, the Alabama barrage on offense became insurmountable. Smith, who only played the first half due to suffering a finger injury in the third quarter, recorded 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns, a CFP National Championship Game record. Jones tied former LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow in touchdowns thrown with five, registering 464 passing yards.
The Buckeyes defense forced the Crimson Tide offense to punt twice. With the time of possession in Alabama’s favour, it prevented any hope of a Buckeyes comeback.
“We didn’t get the turnout that we wanted to…But that’s just going to make us work harder,” Fields said. “This team deals with adversity very well. We’ve been through a lot of adversity this past year. We’re just going to use it to get back and just work our butts off.”
Two Buckeye players remained on the confetti-laden field at Hard Rock Stadium. Graduate defensive end Jonathon Cooper and senior offensive lineman Thayer Munford soaked in the scene one last time before their college careers ended.
“Just how bad to hurt to see all that,” said Cooper when asked what the two said to each other on the field. “I was just telling him, get there next year. Keep working hard, keep going. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for him.”
Throughout the week, Day referred to the mental toll this season had on the athletes. From the Big Ten season postponement to announcing a return, juggling roster changes due to COVID-19, the Buckeyes conquered numerous obstacles.
But as Day reflected at the podium after losing, taking time away from the game is vital.
“We need a break. We need to get away. Guys are missing their families, and we all just need a break.”
There’s no shame in losing to Nick Saban, who now surpasses Paul “Bear” Bryant with the most national championships as a head coach.
Even in a pandemic, there are no moral victories. Winning the championship is the ultimate goal, so when a team falls short, it’s still disappointing.
As Day answered questions, speaking to a computer screen, subtle optimism occupied the Zoom. There is tremendous pride in how this year’s team represented the program, with a desire to get back to the National Championship Game next year.
“What these guys have learned and what our coaching staff has learned and this whole program has learned about what our culture is all about, very, very proud of that,” Day said. “For the guys who were in the locker room who are going to be coming back, they have something to motivate them in the off-season, that feeling of coming off the field. We felt that way coming off the field last year against Clemson, now we feel that way coming off the field against Alabama. We’re going to use that as a motivation in the off-season.”