NEW ORLEANS – Ohio State beat Alabama 42-35 in a semifinal of the College Football Playoff in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night and that was enough.
Enough to send the Buckeyes (13-1) on to the national championship game against Oregon (13-1) on Jan.12 in Dallas.
Enough to set off a celebration on the field and in the stands at the Superdome.
Enough to put an exclamation point on the Big Ten’s statement over the last few days that it can play with anyone.
Enough to indicate the Southeastern Conference’s dominance of college football, which began when Urban Meyer’s 2006 Florida team beat OSU in the national championship game, is over.
It was enough on every count. But Ohio State was so dominant offensively throughout the game and defensively for much of it, that it could have been worse.
The Buckeyes rolled up 537 yards of offense, led by Ezekiel Elliott’s 230 yards rushing, including the decisive score on an 85-yard touchdown run with 3:24 left in the game.
Defensively, they got one score on a 41-yard interception return from a defensive end, Steve Miller, intercepted Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims three times and kept Heisman finalist wide receiver Amari Cooper (9 catches, 71 yards, 2 TDs) reasonably in check.
It wasn’t always pretty, like when Alabama took a 21-6 lead halfway through the second quarter. But OSU found a way to reverse course and once it got the lead it never lost it.
“We didn’t play well at times but we found a way to win,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I think the Big Ten Conference, the conference we’re part of, certainly showed that it is getting better.”
Meyer called this win “a break through win” and said, “You come to Ohio State to play for championships and win them.”
Alabama has won three national championships since Nick Saban became its coach in 2007, capturing the big trophy in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
So knocking off Alabama, with all those championships and the highest paid coach in college football, meant something extra.
“You look around for a minute and think, ‘Is this really us between the white ropes?’ ” said quarterback Cardale Jones, the former No. 3 quarterback who threw for 243 yards in his second career start.
Ohio State left two touchdowns on the field in the game’s first when it had a first down at Alabama’s 5-yard line and again at its 1-yard line and came away with only two field goals.
When Alabama went up 21-6 on a 2-yard touchdown run by T.J. Yeldon with 8:07 left in the first half, it looked like the No.1-ranked Tide was on the verge of taking control of the game.
But Jones, who struggled early, completed 8 of his last 10 passes in the first half, including a pair of 26-yarders to Jalin Marshall, to help OSU get back to within one point, 21-20 at halftime.
The first of those two scores came on a 3-yard by Elliott and the other was on a trick play where Jalin Marshall took an handoff, pitched the ball to Evan Spencer and he threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas.
Alabama coach Nick Saban acknowledged that OSU stopped itself as much or more than his team stopped the Buckeyes in the first half.
“We were up 21-6 because of two turnovers and two stops in the red area. So we weren’t really stopping them,” Saban said.
OSU scored the first time it had the ball in the second half on a 47-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith from Jones. Then Miller’s interception return made it 34-21 with 3:21 left in the third quarter.
Alabama cut the lead to 34-28 in the final minute of the third quarter and the Buckeyes spent much of the fourth quarter defending their lead with their backs pushed up against their own goal line.
Ohio State’s first three possessions in the fourth quarter started on its own 9-yard line, its own 8-yard line and its own 5-yard line. In between the first of those two, OSU dodged big trouble when Vonn Bell intercepted a pass at the 8-yard line after a short punt.
Elliott’s 85-yard run and a two-point conversion pass from Jones to Thomas made it 42-28. But that wasn’t the end of Alabama.
A six yard pass from Blake Sims to Cooper made it 42-35 with 1:59 to play. OSU had to recover an onside kick and couldn’t relax until Tyvis Powell intercepted Sims in the end zone as time ran out.
Elliott was named Offensive Player of the Game and linebacker Darron Lee (2 sacks, 3 tackles for losses) was Defensive Player of the Game.
“It’s truly special. All the hard work paid off,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said.
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said, “People doubted us all year and every week we’d come out to play and we worked our butts off and believed in ourselves and it all worked out.”
Oregon rolled over defending national champion Florida State 59-20 in the other semifinal.
When Meyer heard that score for the first time during his postgame press conference, he smiled and said, “I’ve got to go. We’ve got to get ready for that one.”
Based on its last two games, being ready shouldn’t be a worry for Ohio State.
Contact Jim Naveau at 419-993-2087 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.