In a game with the second-highest over/under in College Football Playoff history, one team treated the national championship like a track meet. Alabama had a singular focus: Touchdowns. Ohio State’s directive should’ve been clear: Keep pace.

Considering everything we knew coming into the game — that this Alabama offense is historically good, that this Ohio State pass defense is undeniably vulnerable and that this Ohio State offense is also among the nation’s best — why did the Buckeyes, strategically, seem like they were playing an October game against Northwestern?

It wasn’t necessarily surprising that No. 1 Alabama prevailed 52-24 on Monday night over No. 3 Ohio State. But the Buckeyes, for lack of a better way to phrase it, looked like the worst stereotype of a Big Ten team — minus the good defense, of course. They were playing safe. They were playing for field position. They were kicking field goals in the red zone. Against the No. 1 offense in the country, against the No. 1 receiver in the country, against the No. 1 running back in the country — that just doesn’t fly.

For far too long, Ohio State was uncharacteristically conservative. By the time the Buckeyes opened things up, they trailed 38-17 midway through the third quarter. And they trailed DeVonta Smith in total yards 215-190.

Alabama’s offense was as advertised. Ohio State’s, meanwhile, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) keep up.

We have no idea how bad Justin Fields was really hurting after the Clemson game in which he took a big hit to the ribs. Maybe that was the reason for the lack of deep shots that have characterized his tenure as Ohio State’s QB. He sure looked fine throwing those moon shots in the second half against Clemson, but maybe that was the adrenaline. He sure looked just fine on runs of 28 and 33 yards against Alabama, but maybe that’s because running doesn’t require any torque (and his legs were fine).

All I know is, that was not remotely close to the offense Ohio State showed against Clemson — not in terms of output or mentality. The Buckeyes stretched the field against Clemson. They took deep shots over and over. Really, that’s what they’ve done all season, even to their detriment sometimes (against Indiana and Northwestern). Maybe that’s partially due to what Alabama was doing on the back end and the way Patrick Surtain II blanketed Chris Olave, but Fields has never been shy about throwing into coverage before. Why start now?

Against the one team that they actually needed to play hyper-aggressive in order to win, the Buckeyes were too conservative. A few examples:

  • Trailing 14-7 in the second quarter, Ohio State punted from Alabama’s 44. Granted, it was 4th-and-9, but Fields averages 9.9 yards per attempt.
  • Trailing 21-14 in the second quarter, Ohio State kicked a field goal from the 6. Everyone knows field goals weren’t going to beat Alabama.
  • Trailing 28-17, Fields checked down on 3rd-and-10 to Marcus Crowley for 4 yards.
  • Trailing 35-17 with 1:48 left in the first half, Ohio State ran 3 straight times and punted — even though Alabama got the ball to start the second half.

Taken on their own against a normal opponent, each of these is somewhat justifiable. In totality, playing an all-world offense that was still humming even without Smith, this was not winning football. The last one, in particular, was egregious. Ohio State was lucky that Alabama didn’t score in the final 49 seconds of the first half. Meanwhile, Mac Jones delivered a Fields-esque performance with 5 incompletions and 4 TD passes in the first half.

Poor Shaun Wade couldn’t cover Jaylen Waddle on a bum ankle, much less Smith at full strength. But that’s been the story of this season for Ohio State. There were defensive lapses on the back end at times, but Fields was always ready to rip off another scoring drive. An Ohio State offense that averaged 7.5 yards per play (and put up 8.9 against Clemson) only managed 5.5 against Alabama.

Losing Trey Sermon after the first series hurt, obviously. The Ezekiel Elliott comparisons were legit, and it would’ve been awesome to see what he could’ve done in this game. Master Teague did punch in 2 scores, but he lacks the juice to be a game-breaker like Sermon.

And that’s why the way this game played out just doesn’t make sense, especially against an Alabama defense that was missing starting corner Malachi Moore and lost starting safety Jordan Battle to targeting. Down its stud running back and with Fields coming off a game in which he threw for as many TDs as incompletions (6), it was baffling to see Ohio State play a style it hasn’t all season.

There wasn’t any game plan Ohio State defensive coordinator could’ve drawn up to limit Smith and Najee Harris. It was always going to be about Ohio State’s ability to force a field goal here or there and get its own touchdowns. Thus, the track meet.

Ohio State bordered on overly aggressive at times during the 2020 season. When that mentality was absolutely necessary, the Buckeyes all of a sudden got shy. Fields threw only 33 passes (vs. 28 rushing plays). In a sport — and against an opponent — that is all about offense, Ohio State couldn’t keep up.