Ohio State was out-coached in the 2021 National Championship Game for the first time since Ryan Day took over.
The most incriminating criticism of Urban Meyer during his time in Columbus was that he could be out-coached. After Meyer led the Buckeyes to the first CFP National Championship, losing to lesser teams became the Buckeyes’ Achilles’ heel. Losses to inferior schools like Iowa and Purdue cost the Buckeyes several CFP appearances.
These teams couldn’t beat the Buckeyes with talent, so they beat them with X’s and O’s.
When Ryan Day took over, he never suffered mind-boggling losses like his predecessor. In his first 24 games, Day’s only loss was in the 2020 Fiesta Bowl to Clemson. That loss should be attributed execution on the field rather than bad coaching.
In fact, coaching is what got Ohio State to the National Championship. Great coaching is what helped Ohio State take down Clemson 49-28 in the 2021 Sugar Bowl.
But Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian drew up a perfect game plan for Alabama. Their game plan, along with the talent on the field, overwhelmed Ryan Day and the Buckeyes.
Ohio State Out-Coached For First Time Under Ryan Day
Ohio State brought in Kerry Coombs to help recruit and coach elite defensive backs.
The Buckeyes’ “Best in America” secondary, or BIA, produced two first-round draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. So when the defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley became the head coach at Boston College, Coombs was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator.
Coombs had given five-star recruit Shaun Wade and four-star recruits Sevyn Banks and Marcus Williamson to work with. He also had Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker at safety. With all of these stars on the field, Ohio State had the 122nd ranked passing defense in the country.
So when the Heisman Trophy winner and a Heisman Trophy finalist play a defense that bad, the result is inevitable.
Alabama’s offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian proved why he was Texas’ top choice for their head coaching vacancy.
Great coaches put their players in the best positions for them to win. That’s exactly what Sarkisian did.
Steve Sarkisian’s Game P
Devonta Smith is so talented that he would have had a wild night without any coaching at all. But he had Sarkisian calling the plays, so Smith broke the record for most receiving yards in a National Championship Game in the first half.
The first of many touchdowns came on this play. Smith lines on the end, runs into the backfield, then runs out wide again. In all he confusion, Banks lost him and Proctor was too far away to make the play.
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
On Smith’s next touchdown, motioned him to the backfield again. Banks, who bungled the coverage in the last clip, stuck with Smith throughout the motion. He remembered what happened the last time. Even though the formation was different, Banks knew he had to keep close this time.
Smith ended up dancing around in the backfield, and Banks simply couldn’t keep up. The receiver on the right side of the field cleared out Wade, so there was no one in the area. It turned into a footrace between Smith and Banks, but Smith had a head start thanks to the pre-snap motion.
Look at all of the pre-snap movement from DeVonta Smith, before he burns the Ohio State defense in space. He's unstoppable.
11 receptions, 173 yards (15.7 AVG), 2 touchdowns in the first half for the Heisman winner. pic.twitter.com/JQL8T9GSY9
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) January 12, 2021
Those plays are examples of the great play calling by Sarkisian. He put his players in the best position to win.
Coombs did not. Smith’s third and final touchdown shows why.
Kerry Coomb’s Errors
Alabama out-coached Ohio State partly due to great play calling and partly due to Coombs’ poor game planning.
On Smith’s last touchdown, Jalen Waddle was on the left side of the formation, while Smith was in the slot. The Buckeyes played Cover 3 with a single-high safety. The two wide outs occupy the two boundary corners, and Waddle breaks towards the sideline, taking the slot corner with him.
This leaves Smith going right up the middle of the field, with the only defenders there being Williamson at safety and Tuf Borland at middle linebacker. Borland was only supposed to cover Smith for only about 20 yards before Williamson picked him up. However, Williamson drifted toward the boundary, forcing Borland to cover Smith all the way down the field.
Predictably, the middle linebacker can’t cover a wide receiver, so it results in a 45-yard touchdown.
— All-American Bowl (@AABonNBC) January 12, 2021
It’s unclear why Smith, clearly the best football player in the country, was the only receiver left uncovered by a defensive back.
The players knew the call on the field. Why didn’t Borland change the play? Why didn’t Williamson make the right read? Surely he knew that Smith would run right through Borland’s zone.
The fact that Smith was left with such a favorable matchup and none of the players on the field could make an adjustment shows how poorly this defense is coached.
But leaving Smith wide open was a common theme of the night. There were times when it seemed like Coombs forgot who won the Heisman Trophy.
In case you're not watching Coaches Film Room tonight but still want a detailed Xs and Os breakdown of the national championship, I'll be going through scheme stuff on my Twitter account all night. Let's look at what Ohio State did here: pic.twitter.com/VKS7YigzNx
— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) January 12, 2021
Ryan Day Was Also Out-Coached
Ohio State only scored 24 points on offense; that’s not Coombs’ fault.
Going into this game, Day knew that even if his defense played perfectly, he would need to score more than 40 points to beat this Alabama team. 24 would be nowhere near enough.
If these two teams played this game 100 times, Alabama will score more than 24 points in all 100 of those games. Their offense is just that good.
In Day’s defense, Trey Sermon was undoubtedly an integral part of the offensive game plan. But Ohio State only got one rushing attempt out of Sermon before he suffered a game-ending injury.
But there were some little things that Day could have improved upon.
For starters, settling for field goals was a sure way to lose. Attempting a 23-yard field goal near the end of the half was the safe decision, but safe decision won’t help anyone beat Alabama.
With Sermon out and the Buckeyes behind on the scoreboard, Day should have trusted more in Justin Fields. But Day stuck with the run game, which slowed Ohio State’s offense.
Late in the third quarter, Alabama was up 45-24. The game was probably out of reach, but it’s the National Championship. You have to leave everything on the field. Instead, Ohio State ran the ball four straight times for a total of seven yards. At that point, Day appeared to have given up.
Day was out-coached for the first time at Ohio State, but he was defeated by the greatest College Football head coach of all time. Saban has out-coached nearly every other head coach that has opposed him.
Not to mention, Day is only in his second year. He’s still a young head coach, and can use this game as a learning experience.
This was the first time that Day was out-coached, but it won’t happen again for a while.