There were times Thursday night when there appeared to be more than one crimson jersey No. 26 on the field for Alabama.
Junior safety Landon Collins, a New Orleans native playing in perhaps his final collegiate game, was in on seemingly every play early on, recording his team’s first tackle (on special teams) and recovering a fumble and finishing with nine tackles in the first half.
For a about a quarter, Collins and his teammates looked to be just what he said earlier in the week when asked just how hungry he and his teammates.
“We’re starving,” he said.
But then the defense, always the strength of the tradition rich Tide, crumbled in a big way as Ohio State torched Alabama for 537 yards.
“I think they can play with anybody in the country,” Alabama coach Nick Saban of the Buckeyes.
Ohio State did it with Cardale Jones, a guy who started the season as the team’s third string quarterback. It was just his second college start. His first start came in early December in the Big Ten championship game in a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin.
“He has a tremendous arm and they have some really talented receivers,” Saban said. “Those things became very apparent the last two games.”
OSU sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards.
The 537 yards were the second most yards given up this season, only second to the 630 yards given up in the Iron Bowl victory against rival Auburn.
Alabama entered the game ranked second nationally in run defense and 11th nationally in total defense, but it would have been hard for anyone in the crowd of 74, 682 to tell.
Alabama came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome having allowed just 312.4 yards per game this season.
The Buckeyes eclipsed that by halftime, racking up 348 yards through two quarters.
“We’re just not executing very well on defense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the first half. “We can’t get off the field on third down, and that’s a critical part of the game. We’re making mental errors, letting guys go, making mistakes on pressures, quarterback runs. We just have to execute and do what we do. Our players aren’t playing with the mentality and energy we need to play with right now, especially on defense.”
The Tide’s most valuable player on this night was perhaps freshman punter JK Scott, who boomed punt after punt and penned the Buckeyes deep in their own territory on several occasions.
But that wasn’t enough.
The Tide surrendered drives of 80, 71 yard, 71 and 77 yards in the first half alone, yet still led 21-20.
The lead was 21-6 at one point though, normally plenty for a Saban-coached team.
He was 84-5 at Alabama when leading at the half.
“I didn’t even like the feel of the game then,” Saban said.
The coach with four national titles under his belt was an amazing 78-2 in games where his team led by 14 points.
Ohio State’s total yards ballooned to 464 by the end of the third quarter.
Collins, a former Louisiana Mr. Football who starred at Dutchtown, was one of few bright spots for the Tide defense. He finished with a game-high 12 tackles, one tackle for loss, and a pass breakup.
He is projected to be a first-round draft choice if he elects to forgo his senior season.
“I will sit down with coach and my family and make a decision about what I’m going to do,” Collins said.
Collins had to leave the game with an apparent shoulder injury with four minutes left in the first half before returning.
“We’re very disappointed in the outcome today,” Saban said. “It was our goal to play our best in this game, so we would have an opportunity to play in a national championship game. But we obviously didn’t do the things that we needed to do as well as we needed to do them to have a chance to do that.”