Remember the deep ball to Amari Cooper thrown in Thursday night’s Sugar Bowl?
You don’t. Because it didn’t happen.
Much of the talk going into the College Football Playoff matchup between Ohio State and Alabama was whether the Buckeyes could shut down the Heisman finalist, who entered with an SEC-record 115 catches on the season.
Included in those 115 catches were 26 of 20 yards or more, the second most in the nation for any receiver. A great combination of size and quickness in his speedy 6-1 frame, Cooper is a constant threat to go the distance whether it’s on a screen or a deep ball.
And he didn’t against Ohio State. He finished with nine catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns, good numbers but not game-breaking. That’s because Cooper’s longest catch went 15 yards, a testament to the way Doran Grant, Eli Apple and the Ohio State secondary were able to limit the junior who was figured to be the No. 1 player standing between the Buckeyes and advancing past the semifinal.
Ohio State corners coach Kerry Coombs said the Buckeyes drew up a plan with some variation from its usual press quarters scheme, and in the end Ohio State did what it had to do to survive and advance in the 42-35 victory.
“You plan and you prepare and when you play against great players, you better have thoughts and plans in order to deal with them,” Coombs said. “He is a great player, and there was a lot of thought put into how we’re going to manage to limit the damage that he can do. I don’t know a lot of the numbers, but I felt like we did and I felt like our kids were really proud of that. I thought our kids rose to the challenge.”
Both Grant and Apple were given chances to handle Cooper, and each did a commendable job. Grant ended the day with seven tackles while Apple had five to go with a pass breakup.
"He was definitely as advertised out there, for sure. That boy is quick. All respect to him,” the redshirt freshman said of Cooper. “It’s great confidence for me knowing the coaches trust me because before the game I didn’t really know if I was going to get a chance to guard him. The fact that I did and the fact that I was able to do what I did and stay with him, it’s a great testament in the coaches’ trust in me.”
While Ohio State was able to keep Alabama from even attempting a deep pass to Cooper, that doesn’t mean they weren’t called. On one play, Cooper lined up in the backfield and attacked the safeties but didn’t get the ball, while another play showed the progress of Apple, who stayed stride for stride with the wideout on a play-action deep ball on Alabama’s first offensive play after a deep bomb from Cardale Jones to Devin Smith gave OSU the lead for good in the second half.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban also intimated he wasn’t necessarily pleased with the fact the Tide didn’t take more deep shots considering the caliber of receiver Cooper is.
“I think defensively they did pretty much exactly what we thought they would do,” Saban said. “They played bump and run and played split safeties, we call that Cover-7. We had ways to attack it. I was kind of anxious to see us take more shots down the field. I don't think we maybe did that enough early in the game. And they did a nice job.”
To consider where the Buckeyes were a year ago to where they are now is to consider one of the biggest improvements of any unit in college football. The Buckeyes finished 110th in the nation last year in pass defense allowing more than 268.0 yards per game, the second worst total in school history.
The lowest point came at the end of the year when Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson averaged more than 370 passing yards as the Buckeyes squeaked by the Wolverines and then lost to the Spartans and Tigers to end the season on a down note. Clemson’s Sammy Watkins torched the OSU secondary for 16 catches and a OSU opponent record 227 yards, something the Buckeyes were reminded of this week.
“I think those kids that are playing in the back end are playing really well, and I think they have confidence,” Coombs said. “I’ve never answered so many questions in my life about Sammy Watkins this week. We didn’t play Sammy Watkins. Our guys, these kids are this year’s team and it’s a different defense and a difference style, and it takes a lot of courage.
“So they’ve been in this situation all year, maybe not against somebody that talented but they’ve been in that situation and they’ve responded.”
After the latest response, Grant kicked back in the folding chair in front of his spartan locker in the Superdome with a look of contentment on his face.
When asked his feelings in that exact moment, Grant laughed.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m tired, but we won the game.”
That they did. Now they have just one more to go.