FCU Bowl Season 2014-15: National Semifinals ‒ Sugar Bowl Preview

The College Football Playoff is here, and Pylon University has been bringing the bowl breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. Today, Mark Schofield offers an expanded look at the two national semifinal matchups. In this edition, it’s the Sugar Bowl preview.

The Matchup

WHO: Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1) vs. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1)

WHAT: Allstate Sugar Bowl ‒ National Semifinal

WHEN: Thursday, January 1 – 8:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)

WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome – New Orleans, LA

The second semifinal features a pair of storied programs squaring off in the Crescent City, along with two of college football’s premier coaches.

For Alabama, 2014 began with uncertainty at the quarterback position. Senior Blake Sims started the year as the top signal-caller, but, despite the Crimson Tide’s opening victory over West Virginia, head coach Nick Saban saw fit to give Florida State transfer Jake Coker playing time each week. However, once Sims threw for four touchdowns and over 400 yards their 42-21 victory over Florida, the senior nailed down the starting job.

The very next week Saban’s squad suffered an upset loss to Ole Miss and spent the rest of the season climbing back into the playoff picture. A blowout victory over Texas A&M and an overtime win over LSU ultimately brought the Crimson Tide back into contention. They ended the regular season with an eleven-point victory over rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl and captured the SEC Championship with a 29-point drubbing of Missouri.

Ohio State enters this match-up holding the final ticket to the postseason party, courtesy of their Big Ten Championship. The Buckeyes experienced their own instability at the QB position this year. Incumbent starter Braxton Miller suffered a shoulder injury during preseason camp which put him on the shelf for the entire campaign. Freshman J.T. Barrett took the reins at the start of the season and struggled early. He completed only 31% of his passes in the early loss to Virginia Tech while throwing three interceptions.

As the season progressed, though, so did the young QB: Barrett threw 31 touchdowns and only six interceptions over Ohio State’s next ten regular season games all victories. But then he suffered an ankle injury in the regular season finale against Michigan, thereby passing the baton to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones for the Big Ten Championship Game. Jones and the rest of the Buckeyes rose to the occasion in Indianapolis, crushing Wisconsin 59-0 and convincing the playoff committee that they deserved a shot at the title.

When Alabama Has the Football

Alabama’s Passing Game against the Ohio State Defense

Sims completed 64.8% of his passes in 2014 for 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. While he does not possess tremendous size (6’0”, 218 pounds) he stands tall in the pocket, can scramble when necessary, and has a very strong and accurate arm. On this play against Arkansas, the QB goes through his progressions while in the pocket and delivers a strong throw – into a narrow throwing window – to Cam Sims for a big first down:

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Sims is also accurate downfield and along the sidelines. On this red zone throw against Auburn, he places the football perfectly in the back corner of the end zone:

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Amari Cooper, the target on that throw, dazzled in 2014. The Heisman finalist caught 115 passes for 1,656 yards and 14 TDs. A junior, Cooper was critical to Alabama’s success, gaining over 130 yards seven times during the year including three 200+ games (Florida, Tennessee and Auburn). Cooper has game-breaking speed, shown here on this big play from the Iron Bowl:

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The WR aligns in the slot and runs a simple wheel route against man coverage. But Cooper blows right past the defender and Blake Sims gets his receiver the football in stride.

Other air weapons for Alabama and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin include DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, and O.J. Howard. White, a senior receiver, caught 37 passes for 439 yards and four TDs. Jones, another senior, hauled in 19 passes for 264 yards and one score. Sophomore tight end Howard caught 15 passes for 246 yards on the year. But Kiffin has a tendency to call plays for his best receiver (See Marquise Lee, 2012), and this passing game is the Sims-to-Cooper show. Their pass connections have accounted for 43% of Alabama’s passing yards on the year. Stopping Cooper is essential for the Ohio State defense.

But stopping a star offensive threat is nothing new to the Buckeyes. We will get to how this defense shut down Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten championship game, but the Ohio State passing defense is no pushover. The unit ranked 15th in FBS, allowing only 188.2 yards to opponents through the air. In the secondary they implement a mix of Cover 2 and Cover 3 and do a good job of rolling the coverage when warranted.

This play from the Big Ten championship game illustrates their tough Cover 2 scheme. Wisconsin has their quarterback in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. The Badgers run a slant/swing combination route to the weakside, with the receiver split to the left running a slant while the running back executes a swing route to the outside. Ohio State has their base 4-3 defense on the field running Cover 2 Man Under:

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Linebacker Joshua Perry (#37) and cornerback Doran Grant (#12) handle this route combination well. Grant is physical with the WR on the slant route, getting a decent initial jam and staying right on his upfield hip during the play. Perry reads the swing route from the running back and jumps that pattern. The Wisconsin quarterback forces a throw on the slant route and Grant is in good position to knock the football to the turf.

Any proper discussion of the Ohio State defense turns quickly to Joey Bosa. The sophomore defensive lineman notched 50 tackles in 2014, with 20 for losses including 13.5 sacks. His TFL and sack totals placed him in the Top 5 in FBS in each category and his sack total was the best in the Big Ten. His production has some comparing him to J.J. Watt, another former Big Ten standout. Bosa usually lines up at left defensive end, letting him pick on right tackles as on this play against Penn State:

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Bosa’s coaches move him around on occasion. On this sack of Michigan’s Devin Gardner he lines up at right defensive end:

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Furthering the theme, do not be surprised if Bosa lines up in the interior; he worked from the inside many times in 2014. Check out this sack of Maryland’s C.J. Brown:

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Bosa drops inside for this snap and easily beats the left guard with a vicious swim move.

Lest anyone think this defense is a one-man show, senior Michael Bennett tallied six sacks from his defensive line position. Backing up the pass rush, Grant and sophomore defensive back Vonn Bell each grabbed five INTs. On the defensive side of the football, Ohio State features playmakers at each level – players that will make it difficult for Sims and Cooper to work their magic.

Alabama’s Running Game against the Ohio State Defense

T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry share the load in the Crimson Tide running game. Yeldon, a junior, carried the football 184 times for 932 yards and 10 touchdowns. Sophomore Henry ran the ball 159 times for 895 yards and 10 TDs of his own. Whichever player carries the football benefits from a talented, cohesive offensive line, as well as skill players willing to block in the run game. Take this short touchdown run by Yeldon against Auburn:

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Alabama runs a basic toss sweep to the weakside of their formation. WR Raheem Falkins (#80) comes in motion towards the football and, at the snap, he blocks down on a defensive lineman. This enables left guard Arie Kouandjio (#77) and left tackle Cam Robinson (#74) to pull in front of Yeldon and pave the way to the goal line.

Similarly, watch the left side of the Alabama OL collapse the Auburn defensive line on this 49-yard run from Henry:

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Tackle Austin Shepherd (#79) moves from his usual right tackle spot to work from left tackle on this play. He and Kouandjio, along with center Ryan Kelly, crush the right side of the Tiger defensive line, giving Henry a huge cutback lane for a big gain.

Staring down this running attack is a defense that held Heisman finalist Gordon to only 76 yards in the Big Ten championship game, his second-lowest total in 2014. The Buckeyes accomplished that feat using a combination of talent and scheme. It began with the work from two defensive linemen, Bennett and Adolphus Washington. Watch how Bennett (wearing #53 in honor of late teammate Kosta Karageorge) and Washington (#92) penetrate the backfield on this 3rd-and-4 play against Wisconsin:

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Washington’s penetration forces Gordon to take a step to the outside. But Bennett beats both the tackle and the fullback and sits in perfect position for the tackle.

With respect to pure talent, watch the job freshman outside linebacker Darron Lee does on this run:

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Lee recognizes run right at the snap and explodes into the hole, stopping this play before it has a chance.

Ohio State also used schemes to slow Gordon. On many occasions in Indianapolis, the Buckeyes dropped safety Tyvis Powell (#23) into the box prior to the snap. Here, Powell lines up over the TE, almost like a fourth linebacker:

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The TE is so anxious to get up to Powell and block the safety that he peels off Bosa too quickly. This gives the talented defensive lineman a path to get to Gordon and tackle him behind the line of scrimmage.

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