Cardale Jones took the field Thursday night with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome lights glistening off the coat of fresh silver paint covering his helmet.
The glare was brighter than that reflecting off his Ohio State teammates. Their helmets were adorned with buckeye stickers, presented by coaches for good plays, which served to absorb much of the glow. But Jones’ helmet, at least on the right side, was bare — a reminder that the man taking snaps for the Buckeyes was not the same man they intended to have leading their huddle during the Sugar Bowl.
During the week leading up to the game, Ohio State expressed confidence — or at least hope — the sophomore could get the job done after a strong performance in a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Some believed it was wishful thinking. But what Alabama found out is that Jones possessed the goods to beat and badger it the same way he did Wisconsin, as the Buckeyes rode the sophomore’s arm to a 42-35 victory.
Ohio State will play Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Jan. 12 in Dallas. Oregon beat Florida State 59-20 on Thursday afternoon in the Rose Bowl.
“This is not my story, this our team,” Jones said. “It’s just been an emotional season for us all. ... It’s not bad, but this game could have never turned out like this.”
Like the stickers on his helmet, Jones’ performance was uneven. Early in the game, he looked the part of an inexperienced quarterback making his second start in the biggest game of his career. He appeared confused and baffled by the Alabama defense for much of the this first quarter and was forced into avoidable mistakes. It wasn’t until he threw an interception with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter, which led to Alabama taking a 21-6 lead, that Jones showed up.
And once he did, the Buckeyes transformed into a different team, one completely worthy of being in the playoffs — a point that was the cause of contentious debate when the participants were announced.
Something about that mistake made Jones (18-of-35, 243 yards, one touchdown, one interception; 17 carries, 43 yards) lock in. Immediately after throwing it, he appeared more comfortable in the pocket and was able to more quickly progress through his reads.
“It kind of settled us down a little,” Jones said. “Our teammates rallied around each other. We were saying, ‘We got this,’ defensive guys saying, ‘We got this.’ ”
On his next pass, Jones hit Jalin Marshall for a gain of 26 yards, then went to Marshall again for the same result later in the series to move inside the red zone, where Ohio State eventually scored on an Ezekiel Elliott run to make it 21-13.
After forcing Alabama to punt on its next series, Jones immediately went back to work, hitting Michael Thomas for a gain of 14 and Nick Vannett for 18 more yards. Jones then tucked the ball and ran 27 yards through the heart of the defense to put the Buckeyes at the 13-yard line.
Jones’ work for the first half was done. The next pass was thrown by wide receiver Evan Spencer to Thomas following a double reverse. The pass caused Thomas to go up in the air to retrieve it. As he was coming down, Thomas managed to turn his foot sideways and land inbounds to cut the Alabama lead to 21-20.
After that, any aerial highlights for Ohio State were created by Jones’ arm. And he didn’t wait to pad his reel. On the first series of the third quarter, he gave Ohio State a 27-21 lead when he hit Devin Smith, who got open after defensive back Eddie Jackson slipped, for a 47-yard touchdown.
“The one thing the new quarterback (Jones) does is he has a tremendous arm,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “They have very talented receivers. The two things that were very apparent is those things became very apparent in the last two games because of the quarterback.”
But many of the lowlights suffered by the Buckeyes were also due to Jones. The same way the interception made him fall apart, the big pass to Smith made him regress back to his earlier state. In the second half, Jones completed just 5-of-11 passes, as the game became more about holding on than dictating the action until Elliott (20 carries, 230 yards) broke free for an 85-yard touchdown run with 3:24 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Jones wasn’t supposed to be in this position. He was the “break-glass” option for a team that lost J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller to injuries earlier in the season.
The selection committee was so concerned about Ohio State’s quarterback situation that it looked as though it was going to be left out of the playoff until Jones completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns against Wisconsin.
And it initially appeared the committee might have erred by buying into Jones’ first start of the season. The sophomore missed on his first five passes, coming closest to completing a pass when wide receiver Spencer went up, extended his arm into the air, and nearly pulled in a one-handed catch on the first series of the game.
He then threw two incompletions and was stuffed on a run up the middle following a 54-yard run by Elliott that put Ohio State on the 5-yard line, forcing a field goal. Then, after connecting with Smith for a 40-yard gain to put the Buckeyes on the goal line in the first quarter, Smith fumbled a snap, causing the offense to move back 8 yards, and missed on a pair of passes. Ohio State had to settle for another field goal.
It appeared Ohio State was going to melt down after Jones underthrew Smith and was intercepted. But that moment somehow, improbably, led to the turnaround.
“Last time we played was four weeks ago,” Jones said. “Shaking off the rust, I’d say. It takes a little while.”
As Jones left the field, he was provided several celebratory slaps and pats and hugs from his teammates.
The next time he takes it, the right side of his helmet should be covered with a fresh batch of stickers.