More notable than how many rings head coach Nick Saban and his players collected was the way they won them. With star running backs like Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, the Tide bruised and bullied its way past opponents. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Alabama ran the ball over and over and over again until other teams quit.
This year’s group looked to be built in a similar mold. With both games close late in the third quarter, Alabama scored four straight touchdowns to defeat Auburn in the Iron Bowl and three straight touchdowns against Missouri one week later to claim the SEC Championship.
Ohio State senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett had no worries, though. A couple days before OSU’s semifinal against the Tide, he was asked about how to stop the fourth-quarter onslaught that had punished so many other squads. He pinned OSU’s chances on toughness and discipline. In those areas, he figured, the Buckeyes would shine.
“(Stopping Alabama) comes with toughness,” Bennett said. “That comes with not letting them do that. That has nothing to do with game plan or anything. That’s just them deciding to run the clock out and the other team not being able to stop them. I don’t think we’re in that situation, and I don’t predict that will happen.”
He was right. It didn’t happen.
Alabama looked dangerous at times, and its two running backs – junior T.J. Yeldon and sophomore Derrick Henry – both found the end zone once. Those touchdowns came in the first half, though, not in the final quarter. While OSU running back Ezekiel ran wild, racking up 230 yards, neither Bama back hit the century mark. Henry finished with a team-high 95 yards on 13 carries and Yeldon was limited to 10 carries for 47 yards.
“Their front did a really good job,” Saban said. “We didn't handle them well in running the football like we thought we might be able to when we spread them out and they did a good job on our perimeter screens and smokes and we made the blocks but they made the plays, and you gotta give their players a lot of credit for the way they executed.”
In the fourth quarter, with a trip to the national championship game in the balance, Alabama’s nine rushes amounted to just 32 yards. Bennett and his fellow defensive tackle Adolphus Washington gave Alabama fits all night long. They walked off the Superdome field together arm-in-arm and did postgame interviews together in the locker room.
It was a banner moment for the defensive linemen, both of whom have raised their level of play as the season has continued. When the stakes were highest, they formed a brick wall against one of the most potent rushing attacks in the country.
“That’s why we’re doing all these interviews together,” Bennett said. “All year, we’ve been getting closer and closer. We personally feel like we have a big hand in these games. I think Alabama respected us. They knew they couldn’t run it up the middle that much. My teammates bailed us out because I think a couple times today they did get up the middle. This is my dude, and we shut down the middle as much we could.”
That’s not to say it was easy, though. Although Ohio State faced Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman previously, the Tide ball carriers packed a wallop with their hits. Yeldon is listed at 6-2, 221 pounds and Henry measures 6-3, 241.
“They’re big boys,” Washington said. “Derrick Henry, that’s a big dude. He was a lot better than what he showed on film. He ran a lot harder than what he showed on film. He was very hard to tackle.”
“(Henry) hit me one time,” Bennett said, shuddering. “You see a couple lights. He’s a big dude. Yeldon is a big dude, too. They both run really hard. I respect the heck out of them. They were probably the hardest-running running backs we’ve gone against.”
Bennett credited the success to defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., the first-year Buckeyes assistant whom he called the best coach at his position in the country. He also said OSU benefitted from the group of guys on the line, none of whom lost hope when the game looked like it might be slipping away.
“I think the biggest thing is believing in your guys and believing in what your coaches tell you,” Bennett said. “When we were down 21-6, a lot of teams would be like, ‘Dang, this is over. This is Alabama we’re playing and they’re crushing us.’ We all talked on the sideline and said, ‘You know what? The score doesn’t matter. You go win your individual battle every time.’ That’s what we did for the rest of the half, and that’s what we did for the rest of the game.”
That included the fourth quarter, when Ohio State took the best shot Bama had to offer and came out victorious and smiling.