How Ohio State’s last CFP title chance vs. Alabama vanished in one uninspired series

The ball and the moment arrived in Ohio State’s hands with 3:19 remaining in the first half. This was it: If the final 30 minutes of the College Football Playoff national championship against Alabama were to be anything more than decorative, if there was to be an actual football game transacted during that period, the Buckeyes needed to take that time and turn it into seven points.

This was the only option. Even with the Buckeyes down only 28-17, this was an emergency. Ohio State was aware, coming into this game, that slowing the Crimson Tide was more feasible than stopping them. And even that had proved somewhat beyond reach.

Keeping pace, though, still was an option. For another 18 seconds.

Ohio State’s approach on the three downs comprising that decisive possession did not appear to contain the urgency demanded by the circumstance. The play-calling and design didn’t fit the situation. The execution was at least as poor.

And that was that. A few hours later, Alabama officially owned a 52-24 victory and third CFP championship.

When those who didn’t watch the game glance at the score — there were a few — they will conclude it was a blowout in which Ohio State never had a chance. Sports always have been oversaturated with oversimplification, but the Twitter universe has amplified such inanity. In fact, the Buckeyes nearly were as successful generating scoring drives as Alabama had been. To that point.

In that word — nearly — resided the Tide’s 11-point advantage following their fourth first-half touchdown. With Bama having secured the second-half kickoff, the best-case scenario for OSU was to consume those three minutes before halftime and add a touchdown to cut the deficit to four points.

So how did it try to make this happen? Meagerly, to be succinct.

First down from the OSU 25, 3:19 remaining in half: With two receivers split on each side of the formation, star quarterback Justin Fields accepted a shotgun snap and looked to his left; it was a ruse. The play was a screen to the right side, with three offensive lineman and tight end Jeremy Ruckert preparing a wall for running back Master Teague. The problem? Nobody bothered to slow down defensive tackle Christian Barmore. He was on Fields so quickly that a rushed throw, too high, was necessary to avoid a sack. Teague nearly gathered the ball but ultimately dropped it. Too bad. It might have been worth 15 yards.

Second down, OSU 25, 3:14: The Buckeyes had two receivers split wide to the left, a tight end in the right slot and another wideout on the right sideline. Fields locked on freshman star Garrett Wilson and lofted a pass in his direction. Wilson was closely defended by defensive back Brian Branch and really had no chance, despite making a strong effort at a combat catch. A sharper pass might have thrown Wilson open, but a better option, under modest pass-rush pressure, might have been to search for an alternative.

Third down, OSU 25, 3:07: Three receivers to the left, one to the right. The tight end broke open over the middle beyond the line to gain. He would have been an easy target if he’d broken off his route there. But he continued deeper toward multiple safeties. Star wideout Chris Olave ran a streak down the left sideline. No DB followed him. It was a possible touchdown. But Fields didn’t see it and checked down to a dump-off to back Marcus Crowley 2 yards beyond the line, with linebacker Christian Harris there to assure the play had no future.

“That last three-and-out there was not good,” coach Ryan Day told ESPN at halftime. “We don’t connect on the screen pass — we had a real good chance of hitting that — and then we don’t convert on third down. And then at the end, we’re just trying to get out of the half.”

They didn’t, though. That was at least half of the problem with not extending that possession, because the Tide accepted Ohio State’s punt and DeVonta Smithed themselves into their fifth touchdown of the half, three of them from the Heisman Trophy winner.

With that, the game was no more. It was just a question of how inhumanely Alabama would treat the nine-point spread by which it was favored.

There were problems beyond that particular sequence, obviously. The Buckeyes got only two plays out of running back Trey Sermon, who dominated the two most consequential victories of the season: In the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern and the CFP Sugar Bowl semifinal against Clemson. Ohio State’s puzzling defensive scheme, most often deploying four linebackers, was destroyed by the Tide, who scored often and scored quickly.

That was the series, though, when we knew for certain what the outcome would be. It became a three-and-out-for-the-game. For a moment like this, there seemed little doubt Ohio State should have had more to offer.

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