Chuck Culpepper (c) 2015, The Washington Post. NEW ORLEANS — Moored with a vague irrelevance near the start of this newfangled college football season, Ohio State is poised to finish with a rousing string of overcoming. It has overcome a woozy early loss to Virginia Tech, overcome an uphill view in the rankings, overcome the decidedly unlucky loss of not one, but two, starting quarterbacks.
By the time it overcame both No. 1 Alabama and Alabama’s early 21-6 lead to win 42-35 Thursday night in a vehement Superdome, Ohio State had overcome its way clear to Texas. When a revelation of a running back named Ezekiel Elliott streamed 85 yards for a near-clinching touchdown with 3 minutes 24 seconds to play while the scarlet-and-gray tourists made a great wall of noise, he seemed to run halfway to AT&T Stadium in Arlington. That’s where Ohio State will oppose Oregon in the national championship game on Jan. 12, and that’s where the Buckeyes’ presence will signal yet another overcoming.
By winning a Sugar Bowl that doubled as a national semifinal in the sport’s first four-team playoff, Ohio State overcame the hardened, years-old notion that it couldn’t keep up with the Southeastern Conference at big-stage football. It did so in a streaky and undefinable game full of big plays and big hits that occasionally dislodged helmets — a “sledgehammer game,” as Buckeyes Coach Urban Meyer called it afterward. And it stormed almost poetically from near-hopelessness on behalf of the Big Ten, its sneered-at conference that went 6-11 this season against teams from the other “Power Five” conferences.
The Big Ten will appear in the biggest game in January, and for the first time in nine Januarys, the SEC will not. This time, Ohio State weathered one last heave into the end zone from 42 yards out as time expired, safety Tyvis Powell intercepted it, the Buckeyes bled onto the field with big emotion and the SEC champion trudged off toward winter.
That didn’t seem plausible at 8:07 of the second quarter when Alabama went ahead 21-6 and seemed primed to shoo all intrigue from the occasion. Cardale Jones, Ohio State’s third-string quarterback making just his second start, had just done something he had not done on Dec. 6 in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. He had thrown an interception. He had thrown it way behind receiver Devin Smith in what appeared some sort of mix-up, and Cyrus Jones had returned it 32 yards to the Ohio State 15-yard line.
Alabama, winner of three of the last five national championships, and 72-8 since 2009 coming in, looked kingly again.
That’s when an unexpected upturn came. Through those last eight minutes to halftime, the Buckeyes (13-1) played as if they didn’t even notice their predicament. They went 71 yards for one touchdown. They went 77 for another despite the inconvenience of only 92 seconds left to operate. Jones, amply composed, went 5-for-7 for 72 yards on the first drive with crucial third-down connections to Jalin Marshall for 26 and 26 yards. Jones went 3-for-3 for 37 yards on the second drive, plus a captivating scramble when he took his 250 pounds up the middle of the field for 27 yards.
With its offensive line carving out space for Elliott’s three-yard touchdown run, and with wide receiver Evan Spencer throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to an acrobatic Michael Thomas 12 seconds before halftime, Ohio State suddenly trailed only 21-20, and all looked different.
By the time it had whooshed down the field to start the third quarter with Jones throwing 47 yards down the right sideline to Smith, and by the time defensive end Steve Miller had intercepted Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and rumbled 41 yards up that same right sideline, the tourists from Ohio made a great wall of noise. Their team led 34-21 and seemed ready to make off with the thing just as Alabama had previously.
But the Crimson Tide (12-2), accustomed to victory, swept 84 yards in seven plays immediately thereafter, including a pivotal 52-yard catch-and-run by running back Derrick Henry, who had starred through much of the night. That made the score 34-28, and set up a fourth quarter of tight contention and odd twists.
In that mire, Ohio State dealt with foul field position. For a while in those tense stages, it seemed to keep punting (twice) from its own end zone. Then finally, Jones handed the ball to Elliott, the sophomore from St. Louis who finished with 230 yards and two touchdowns, and Elliott started off interrupted by barely a slap. When he went all the way to the end zone for a 42-28 lead, Ohio State had gone all the way from September, and that had been one considerable climb.