DeVonta Smith's record-setting performance lights up CFP national championship before injury

Paul Myerberg
USA TODAY

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith entered Hard Rock Stadium wearing a black mask emblazoned with the logo of the Heisman Trophy, a one-of-a-kind face covering for one of the most accomplished wide receivers in college football history.

One week after he became the first receiver to win the Heisman since 1991, Smith capped his brilliant career by shredding Ohio State's defense for 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Crimson Tide past the Buckeyes 52-24 to claim the program's sixth national championship under coach Nick Saban.

Even when limited to just the first half as a result of a dislocated finger that sent the senior to the locker room on the second play of the third quarter, Smith's explosive performance will rank among the most memorable in postseason history.

"I don’t know if I’ve seen one better than that," said Ohio State coach Ryan Day. "He just seemed to create a lot of separation. He just eats up ground down the field when he gets that stride going."

DeVonta Smith catches a touchdown pass from Mac Jones with Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland (32) defending.

Alabama's offensive game plan used Smith in a variety of ways out of several different looks and formations: as a traditional receiver split out toward the sideline, running in motion or even coming out of the backfield. The range of options wobbled Ohio State's defense, which struggled devoting resources to the senior while accounting for the Crimson Tide's balanced scheme.

He was named offensive player of the game.

"I heard somebody say he set some kind of record in the first half of the game," said Saban. "Heaven knows what he would have done if he played the whole game."

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Before being sidelined, Smith was the most dependable skill player on an offense loaded with options. 

He was responsible for Alabama's first catch, a 22-yard haul on the Tide's opening series that gave Smith the SEC's career record for receiving yards. On the ensuing possession, Smith had catches of 32, 12, 3 and 5 yards, the last for a touchdown to give Alabama a 14-7 lead. After OSU tied the score at 14, Smith had 29 receiving yards to key the Tide's third touchdown in as many drives.

Continuing that trend, Smith pulled in a 44-yard grab down the right sideline on the next possession, blowing past Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, and then scored on another 5-yard catch to push Alabama's lead to 28-17 with 3:19 left in the first half.

To close out a memorable first half, Smith burned past the Buckeyes' defense — taking advantage of a ridiculous mismatch against linebacker Tuf Borland — for a 42-yard touchdown pass, bumping the lead to 35-17 and raising an unanswerable question: What can Ohio State do, if anything?

In addition to setting the career receiving mark in the SEC, Smith set a new conference record for receiving touchdowns in a single season (23) and the Alabama record for single-season receiving yardage (1,856). 

He also set new College Football Playoff records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in a single game.

"I just practiced hard all week, just worked, came to do my job," Smith said. "It just worked out well for me and the team."

The finger injury came during a tackle by Ohio State linebacker Pete Warner on the Tide's opening possession of the second half. Smith was seen flexing his hand and index finger before being helped by a trainer into the medical tent on Alabama's sideline. He stayed in the tent for several minutes before going into the locker room, returning to the sidelines midway through the fourth quarter with his hand heavily bandaged.

“His finger was dislocated and they couldn’t get it back in," Saban said. "If they’d gotten it back in, he could have played. But then we wouldn’t let him.”

The championship game showed why Alabama's offense will be considered the best in program history and have a credible case for ranking among the best in the modern history of the Bowl Subdivision. Even with Smith sidelined, the Crimson Tide didn't miss a beat against a defense that ranked 11th in the Big Ten during the regular season in yards allowed per carry.

"I think it was a fantastic offensive performance by (Mac Jones) and (Smith), the whole group," said Saban. "The offensive line has done a great job all year long. Really just can't say enough, can't really put it into words in terms of how proud I am of this group, this team, because they are the ultimate team."

Quarterback Mac Jones, who finished third in the Heisman voting, completed 36 of 45 attempts for 464 yards and five scores, tying the playoff championship game record for completions and setting a new mark for yardage.

Running back Najee Harris, who finished fifth, had 79 rushing yards, 79 receiving yards and three touchdowns — none more beautiful than his 26-yard grab for a score in the second quarter. Harris set a new Alabama and SEC record with 30 touchdowns on the year.

As the lid on his 2020 season — which ends with 117 receptions and 25 total touchdowns — Smith's performance in the championship game cements his status as one of the premier talents in this year's NFL draft. Smith will likely be the third Alabama receiver to be taken in the first round in the past two years; fellow receiver Jaylen Waddle, who fought back from an ankle injury to play Monday, is also seen as a first-round pick.

Contributing: Nick Gray, Tuscaloosa News

Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg