Can Ohio State slow down Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Alabama football's passing attack?

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

Losing three defenders in the first 19 picks of the NFL Draft, including both cornerbacks, has proven enough to derail Ohio State’s typically excellent pass defense. Its final test will prove to be its most difficult.

Ohio State enters Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship tied for 56th in the nation in yards per attempt allowed, 57th in quarterback rating allowed and tied for 10th in the Big Ten in passes of 20 yards or more allowed. On the surface, it’s not a great matchup against the best passing attack in college football — No. 1 Alabama.

"Simply, we've got to do a great job of tracking the ball,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said. “We've got to be good tacklers and we've got to have our feet in the ground when they're trying to not get our feet in the ground with all the shifts and everything that they do.”

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The three losses to the NFL Draft are three who played a critical role in defending the pass — top pass rusher Chase Young and both cornerbacks, Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette Jr. — but they were not the only losses. The Buckeyes also lost safety Jordan Fuller, who broke up four passes and intercepted two in 2019.

Then Ohio State entered an offseason that was not conducive to overhaul after spring practice was taken away from most and summer workouts were heavily modified. That being the case, the replacement starters — Sevyn Banks at cornerback, Marcus Williamson and Josh Proctor at safety — had to climb their learning curve in regular-season games.

“I think those are the kids that probably suffer the most from the structure of the way summer went and a shorter season and all those kind of things,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said.

The early results showed those growing pains. The Buckeyes allowed Nebraska to complete 80% of its passes and average 8 yards per attempt in the season opener, well above the Cornhuskers’ season averages of 68.1% and 6.6 yards per attempt. The following week, Penn State averaged 9.4 yards per attempt against the Buckeyes; it would not get above 7.4 yards per attempt in its next five games.

The Buckeyes have improved moderately in that regard, especially against some of the weaker passing offenses in the Big Ten, but where its pass defense could be most dangerous for UA’s purposes is in forcing turnovers. Ohio State has intercepted six passes in its last four games, adding a 38-yard return to its interception in the semifinal against Clemson. 

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UA quarterback Mac Jones has thrown just four interceptions on 357 attempts. His 11.3 yards per attempt is unlike anything Ohio State has faced this season. If he can keep his passes in the hands of UA receivers as opposed to Buckeye defensive backs, there is reason to project success.

The same could’ve been said for Clemson, as well, and Ohio State held the Tigers to a season-low 28 points.

“I think the two corners have great length,” UA offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “They play the ball extremely well when it's in the air, thus you see the turnovers. They can play man-to-man, they can play zone coverage.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson