NEW ORLEANS >> Ezekiel Elliott sprinted down the field, nothing between him and the end zone. Cardale Jones was right on his heels, eager to join the celebration.
They can keep right on running.
Next stop, the national championship game.
Elliott shredded the fearsome Alabama defense and Jones again proved to be a worthy replacement at quarterback, leading Ohio State to a stunning 42-35 victory over the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night.
The Buckeyes (13-1) advanced to face Oregon in the Jan. 12 title game at Arlington, Texas.
Without the new playoff, they never would’ve had a chance.
“Obviously, we’re really thankful for the playoff system,” said Elliott, knowing the fourth seed would’ve been shut out under the old BCS system that only rewarded the two highest-ranked teams. “They gave us a chance to go out there and show that we’re one of the better teams in the nation and we deserve to be in the national championship.”
No doubt about that.
Ohio State rallied from an early 21-6 deficit, scoring 28 straight points against the Crimson Tide (12-2). Then, with the Buckeyes clinging to a 34-28 lead, Elliott came up with the play that essentially sealed the victory with 3 1/2 minutes remaining.
Right after Jones twisted for a 1-yard gain on third down to keep the possession alive, Elliott took a handoff around the left side, broke one feeble swipe at his ankles, and kept right on running for an 85-yard touchdown.
Jones wasn’t too far behind, jumping on his teammate’s back after they got to the end zone.
Oregon advanced to the title game with a 59-20 rout of defending national champion Florida State in the other semifinal at the Rose Bowl. The Ducks’ performance was impressive, indeed, but Ohio State coach Urban Meyer likes his team’s chances after taking down a team seeking its fourth national title in six years.
“We’re good enough,” Meyer said. “That was a classic.”
Here’s some things we learned in Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win:
COLOSSAL CARDALE: Before the game, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen compared the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones to a linebacker and said his size could create “a matchup problem.” Indeed it did. Though three sacks limited Jones’ net yards rushing to 43 yards, he had several first-down scrambles including a 27-yard gain. Throw in 243 yards passing and it was another solid performance for a quarterback making only his second career start.
SEC OUT: For much of the season, the SEC West was touted as the toughest division in the toughest conference. Alabama’s loss not only dropped the division to 2-5 in bowl games, but ensured the conference would be without a team in the national title game for the first time since 2005, when Vince Young led Texas past Southern California. The Big Ten will be going for its first national title since the Buckeyes won it all in 2002. “The SEC has had their day,” said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney. “Maybe it’s a new day.”
POROUS ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide simply wasn’t as dominant defensively as it had been in recent seasons, and not even a couple extra weeks to prepare for the Sugar Bowl could cover up deficiencies exposed in several games this season. The Tide allowed Ohio State to rack up 537 total yards. And this time it wasn’t just the secondary that got gashed. Alabama’s run defense, which came in ranked second nationally at 88.6 yards per game, allowed a season-high 281 on the ground.
STOPPING COOPER: Ohio State will be facing Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the high-scoring Oregon offense, but the Buckeyes already proved they can limit one of the nation’s best players. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, a Heisman finalist who came in with 115 catches and a nation-leading 1,656 yards, was held to 71 yards on nine catches. He did have a 15-yard touchdown, but the yards receiving were his third-lowest of the season.
TRICK PLAY: With a Meyer-coached offense, you can always count on something a little out of the ordinary. This time, it was a trick play near the end of the first half that gave the Buckeyes all the momentum. Jones handed off to receiver Jalin Marshall on an apparent end-around, Marshall flipped it to Evan Spencer coming the other way, and Spencer suddenly pulled up and threw toward Michael Thomas in the end zone. He leaped up to make a twisting catch and somehow got his left foot down just inside the line for a 13-yard score, one of the most spectacular catches of the season.