National Championship Game: Everything Ryan Day and Nick Saban said about Ohio State-Alabama

Credit: Brian Blanco

Credit: Brian Blanco

Ohio State coach Ryan Day and Alabama coach Nick Saban kicked off a week of preparation for the National Championship Game by meeting with the media via video conference.

Here is what they had to say:

RYAN DAY: This is quite an honor to be in the National Championship game. We’re obviously very excited to be here. This is something that our guys fought so hard to have this opportunity, and now we’re here.

Unbelievable opportunity to play a great program, so much respect for Coach Saban and his staff and the players and their tradition of winning there.

Really looking forward to a great week of preparation as we work our way down to Miami.

Q. After the game you said you didn’t know the extent of Justin’s injury after it happened, but then he said he didn’t feel he had any chance but to return. I think what you meant is that Justin himself wanted to play so much that he thought he had no choice to return as opposed to pressure imposed on him by anyone else to get back on the field. Can you clarify that as well as what the medical protocol is for players who were hurt to be cleared to return? And of course how is Justin, and what’s your level of confidence he can practice and play?

RYAN DAY: Sure. I think when you, first off, saw the way that Justin finished the game, it was remarkable. I thought that was one of the gutsiest performances I’ve ever seen in person.

It was like any other situation. It was certainly high profile to see it all go down, but I leave all that stuff up to our medical people who are the best in the country.

Justin is such a competitive guy. He wasn’t going to come off the field, and that’s just the way he’s wired. You were going to have to pull him off the field.

It was a pretty amazing performance. It was good the next day he actually -- his comment to me was that he felt better waking up in the morning than he expected. You know, we’ll keep working through the week and have a great week of preparation, get ready to play Monday night.

Q. How do you explain Justin going from at least statistically his worst game of his career to his best? And then along with that, can you even share with us if the ribs are broken or anything? How bad are they?

RYAN DAY: So I think when you look at the Northwestern game, there was a lot at play there. First off, Northwestern is very, very good defensively and they made things hard for us, and we were just a little off in a certain area, and that’s all it takes is to be a little off.

I think, too, it got us out of rhythm a little bit that Chris was out, Jaxon was out, and that threw us a little bit off rhythm. So I think it’s a combination of those things.

And then to turn around and play the way he did, I think that again shows his competitiveness. You started to hear some rumblings about the fact that he didn’t play very well, and I know that bothered him. It took a couple days to recover from.

But that’s part of being a quarterback, and I think that’s part of learning as a quarterback is overcoming adversity, and the truth is he really hasn’t had a lot of adversity. This is somebody who’s had a lot of success throughout his career. He’s very, very talented and very, very smart, and so when you look at the great quarterbacks, they all have to overcome that adversity.

As we talked after that game, this was just another step in his journey, and what really matters is how he returns and how he recovers. And I thought the way he played in the game was excellent, but it was more important, like you were saying, he played coming off of that game that he felt like he didn’t play great in, and that’s a sign of great growth as a quarterback, which was huge.

Q. Just as a follow-up, can you tell us the specific injury that Justin has and whether you expect him to play?

RYAN DAY: Yeah, I definitely expect him to play, but, yeah, we don’t get into specifics on injuries. We give our availability report at the end of the week, and that’s always been our policy.

Q. As a follow-up on a different topic, with Trey Sermon and his emergence, I think you said after the game that it started around Michigan State that a light switch came on for him. Why do you think that was? You said early on maybe he wasn’t making the type of impact that you all expected. Why was it then that something changed for him?

RYAN DAY: Yeah, I think that’s a great question for him. I don’t know if he’ll be able to give a great answer there, but I think there was a couple things at play. One, he didn’t have the lead-up like a normal running back would have going into the season because of the lack of the preseason. Came in during the summer, didn’t have that lead-up like he typically would, and then he was coming off of the injury.

Again, those are the two things I use. I don’t know if he would say that or not, but I look to those two things.

And then also our run game is a little different than what he was used to. He was also splitting time with Master. So when he started to get more at bats, he started to get more runs, got into a rhythm of the game, and I think you’re seeing the best version of Trey.

The best part about Trey is when all that was going on, he never came into my office, never complained, never said I need more carries, none of that stuff. Just kept his mouth shut and kept going to work. I think that is the best part of this whole story, is he just kept going every single day to work and never said anything about it, and how he’s playing at a high, high level.

It’s really remarkable what he’s done. Over 500 yards in two of the biggest games of the year, and he has a chance to go down in Ohio State history as one of the best runs ever if he can have another performance in this game like he did the last two.

So hats off to him, but I think a lot of it has to do with our offensive line, our tight ends, and our running game, as well.

Q. Ryan, I wanted to ask you about clearly the passing game is exploding, and because of that, wide receivers become more important just because you’re throwing more. But is there more to it that way? It seems like now you cannot have a great team without really great receivers. You see Devonta and then your guys, Olave and Wilson. How has that position sort of evolved to the point where it seems like it’s become maybe the second or third most important position on the

RYAN DAY: I mean, it’s very important. I think that the emergence of 7-on-7 has increased the skill level of a lot of receivers and quarterbacks, and they get the ball on the perimeter a lot faster than maybe they did 10 or 20 years ago, spreading the field horizontally and vertically. And we’re always looking for ways to create explosives, and the easiest way to create an explosive is to throw the football.

So when you have that combination of run and pass, it really helps.

Now, if you don’t have the ability to run the football, and I think if you look at both teams here, both of us have really explosive receivers. Both of us have really good running games. So because you can run the football, just do the math on it. Somebody extra is going to be in the box, which opens things up down the field. If you don’t have that ability to run the ball, that extra guy is now deep and it’s a two-high shell and it’s not as explosive.

So I think it all goes hand in hand. But to go back to your original point, I do think that receivers in the last five to ten years, their skill level has increased overall nationally, and you’re seeing some of the best in the country in this game.

Q. Wanted to kind of follow up on the situation with Justin. I know you’re not going to get into specifics before the game, but how will you approach preparations for this game if he’s not able to take as many reps as usual during the week leading up to the championship?

RYAN DAY: Yeah, we’re just going to practice the way we normally practice. Nothing is going to change.

Q. With as much as you all put into beating Clemson all offseason and having that game on your list all year, is there any concern about maintaining that same level of intensity and focus going into this game?

RYAN DAY: Well, the goal was never just to beat Clemson. The goal was to win the National Championship.

All these guys who -- we didn’t have a season and they were fighting to get back to play for a National Championship.

While it was an emotional win, that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to win this one. And so I’d be disappointed if we didn’t play well in this game. This is everything on the line, everything we wanted, and so now all the focus goes on to Alabama. We’ve just got to prepare.

The most prepared team is going to win the game, and we have to prepare like we did the week before. The good news is I think we have a little confidence going into the game that we’ve shown what we can do, and now we’ve got to go do it again.

You know, it’s a good lead-up time. We get 10 days here and kind of rest up a little bit and then get to work and practicing. So I think we’ll be refreshed and ready to roll. The virus still hasn’t gone away, so we’ve got to make sure we’re really vigilant in that area, which is still a struggle day in and day out. It’s just hard. But the preparation is just going to continue to go on.

Again, we said it going into the last game, we’re going to have to play our best game. Well, we’re going to have to even play better than we did last week to beat Alabama.

Q. There was a lot of buzz last week about where Dabo Swinney put your team in the coaches’ poll. How much attention do you pay to Nick Saban’s ballot that had you at 5 behind Texas A&M at 4?

RYAN DAY: Yeah, that was -- until you just said that I wasn’t aware. I really don’t look at those things too much. I totally respect everybody’s opinion. What matters is playing in the game.

Q. A lot of people have raved about Steve Sarkisian’s play calling at Alabama. Is there anything that stands out to you about the way he goes about calling plays in the game?

RYAN DAY: He’s got a great tradition of a lot of success on the offensive side of the ball. He’s been around some unbelievable offenses, and he’s got a great feel. I think when you look at the things he does and the plays he runs, he puts the defense in a lot of stress. He’s very aggressive. He obviously really knows how to prepare an offense to create explosives, how to run the football. He’s very, very talented.

And when it comes down to calling plays, sure, there’s a knack for it, but so much of it is the preparation that you put in leading up to it. You know, it’s always a good play when it works. That’s what I always laugh about. Why did you call that one? Because it worked. If it doesn’t work, it’s not a good play and you’re not a good play caller.

So I think the big thing there is I don’t know him as well, met him a few times, got a lot of respect for him, but he clearly does a great job in preparation, putting the game plan together, and then preparing the guys to execute it based on what they’re going to see.

Q. You’re in rarefied air for a second-year head coach. What’s it like to match wits and put a game plan together against a guy who’s won six national titles?

RYAN DAY: Again, nothing but the utmost respect for Coach Saban and his staff. Anytime you get to this level, you know you’ve got to be on your game. You’re going against the best in the world, and certainly Alabama is. Coach Saban’s career speaks for itself.

So yeah, watched them win a lot of National Championships, so again, nothing but the utmost respect.

When you get to this level, you know it’s going to be hard no matter how you shake it. You’ve got to be on top of your game and you’ve got to do a great job getting the guys prepared, playing at a high level, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.

Q. Your offensive line has seemed to really grow here over the last couple games, which is kind of remarkable considering you’ve only played three in like 40 days, and in all three of those you had a different starting five. How have they been able to do that given all those challenges and circumstances?

RYAN DAY: I think it goes back to practice, and that’s the thing that we spend a lot of time talking about, was that because we weren’t playing in as many games we had to practice really hard. We had to practice against each other. The D-line had to go against the O-line, ones versus ones and that was the only way we were going to get better fundamentally.

It wasn’t always so much of a schematic deal. It was more about getting a pads down, hands inside, running feet, all the things that come with that. And that’s just the guys up front. I mean, linebackers, tight ends are the same way on the perimeter.

So that was the only way we could do it because we weren’t playing in those games. So I attribute it to practice, which our guys did a great job of. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys. Got to give a lot to credit to the position coaches for getting them ready.

Q. Justin was obviously very vocal at the beginning of the year about wanting to play, needing to play. How influential do you think he was and what did that tell you about his evolution as a leader?

RYAN DAY: I think that was a huge step in his what you’re calling evolution as a leader. I think that that was big. When he first got here he had leadership skills. I think his ability on the field pulled some guys with him, and I think that as time went on, he became more and more of a leader.

I thought what he did at The Team Up North game last year after coming back, after taking that shot in the knee and then coming out for one play and then going back in and then throwing that touchdown pass was amazing. Your teammates see that.

And then to see the way he worked in the off-season, and then to see him fight and speak up for his teammates, and then to see him come back and play the way he’s played, the big play in the Michigan State game where he’s running down and blocking for Trey Sermon on a run, the way he came back and played gutsy in this game Friday night, again, I think those were all steps in the evolution.

But I do think it was significant when he spoke up. I think that that was a big step for him. But this is something that’s been growing over time, and it’s great to watch and be a part of.

NICK SABAN: First of all, I’d like to thank the College Football Playoff and all the people who have worked hard to give our team, our players, as well as Ohio State’s players, who had a great year, the opportunity to play in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.

I know this has been a little bit of a trying year for a lot of folks, but you all have done a great job to give the players an opportunity to compete in a game like this, something that will be a keepsake for them for the rest of their lives.

We’re excited about having the opportunity to play against a great Ohio State team. These guys are really well-coached. Ryan Day has done a great job there. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country in terms of points allowed. Tough to run against, really explosive on offense, really good skill players outside. They do a great job of running the ball and control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Very challenging game for us all the way around, but these are the kind of games if you’re a competitor you really look forward to playing in, and this is a great opportunity for our players to compete against a great team.

Q. I know winning is always the objective, but is there any more satisfaction or less satisfaction from winning a defensive battle versus a shootout? Is one style of play any more satisfying than the other?

NICK SABAN: I don’t think so. I think you have to do what you have to do to execute, play well in the game, give yourself an opportunity to win.

Every game can have an ebb and flow that may end up being a little bit different, and you’ve just got to end up playing the next play and hope that you can do the things to finish the game so you give yourself an opportunity to be successful and have a chance to win.

Q. Curious if you could expound more on your thoughts on Ohio State’s defense, maybe especially what you saw them do against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl that impressed you.

NICK SABAN: Well, they were very impressive on the line of scrimmage. Clemson had a tough time running the ball. They’ve got a great back and a lot of quarterback runs that they did a really great job against.

They were physical up front. They did a good job of pressing the pocket. I think they played outstanding. Their secondary played well enough, made the plays they needed to make in the game.

They’ve got a lot of good athletes on defense. They’re physical, they’re athletic, they can run, they play well together. This is just a very talented group.

Q. Similar question, but on Ohio State’s offense, Trey Sermon is a guy who’s emerged recently after transferring from Oklahoma. What have you seen from him, and how much do you look at the last two games compared to the rest of his career?

NICK SABAN: Well, he’s playing outstanding football right now. There’s no doubt about that. He had a fantastic game against Clemson. I think they have two really good running backs. Both are very capable.

Their offensive line does a really good job of blocking your looks up front, getting a hat on a hat, and the runners are very talented.

So the combination of the explosive ability that they have in the passing game, the good receivers that they have outside, the speed that they have, the way they can stretch the field with the playmakers they have, quarterback that can run or pass and can make all the throws, it’s just a good all-around team and they have great balance, and I think that’s what makes them very difficult to defend.

Q. You’ve been asked a lot about your receivers, and Devonta is having an amazing year. Aside from just you’re throwing the ball more, and teams in college football are throwing the ball more, the emphasis on that position seems to have grown in recent years. Why?

NICK SABAN: Well, you know, I think that any time guys can -- you have guys playing any skill position and they have ability to make explosive plays, I think sort of the advent of the spread offense, more spread formations, four-open kind of formations spreads the field, which gives players on the perimeter a much better chance to make plays.

You have to tackle well in space. You’ve got to get these guys on the ground, even if they catch short passes and turn them into long runs.

And their ability to throw the ball down the field -- and I think the passing game in college football is probably what has sort of evolved in a very positive way for most people. RPOs probably contribute to that to some degree, but really good play action passes that go along with the running game that most teams have. Like Ohio State has great play action pass game which they had a lot of explosive plays on.

I think having those kind of skills guys that can score points are something you certainly want to try and feature, and I see more and more teams trying to do that.

Q. You’ve had such great success with juniors, advising them whether to stay or go. I wonder what that conversation was like with Najee, and obviously it’s paid off this year with the kind of season he’s had.

NICK SABAN: Well, I think what we try to do is be realistic with the players in terms of helping them make a good business decision for them and their family. It’s ultimately their decision, and I think that we try to make them aware of how the money sort of goes down in the draft, and do you have a chance to improve your value if you stay and play college football.

There’s no developmental league in football. Different than baseball, has minor leagues, hockey has a minor league, NBA has a G-League or whatever it is. So the one place that you can continue to develop and create value for yourself is to stay in school.

If your draft grade is not what you think it could be, then you have a chance to enhance your value, and when you enhance your value and the guaranteed money that you get, it also creates security for you and is really the best way to help your family.

Q. Obviously your offense is elite, and I know your defense has had a couple games when it gave up a lot of points. How do you view the way your defense has played, and as a defensive coach in an era of exploding offenses, how do you kind of assess -- how does that make you assess or reassess how well a defense is playing?

NICK SABAN: Well, I think that consistency in performance is really, at the end of the day, what determines how well you’re playing, and we have played well in some games this year. Other games not as good as we’d like. And as coaches we need to do a better job of putting our players in a better position so they have a chance to be successful.

We’ve played some -- I think we’ve played four top 10 teams this year and some very explosive offensive teams and been very challenged with four out of five new starters in the secondary, and those guys have improved dramatically, and I think we need to continue as a team on defense to focus on things that we can improve on so that we can play with a little more consistency game in and game out.

Q. Is there anything about Steve Sarkisian that separates him from other offensive coordinators that you’ve had, and since you’ll be playing him in a couple years at Texas, why can’t any of your former assistants beat you in a game?

NICK SABAN: Well, I think that’s probably only a matter of time. We’ve had a lot of great coaches here and they’ve done a great job for us, and we’re always happy to see them get opportunities. That’s what I think they work hard for, whether you’re an assistant, whether you’re an assistant to become a coordinator or a coordinator to become a head coach.

Sark has done a marvelous job here. He’s very well organized. He works very well with all the people in the organization, players and coaches alike. He’s a good play caller on game day. He does a really good job of preparing the players game plan wise for each and every game, and he’s just done a great job.

He’s been a real asset to our organization, and I think he’ll be very successful as a head coach. And he’s taken over a good program, so it’s going to be challenging for anybody that plays them in the future, I think.

Q. I just want to ask you about the Heisman Trophy ceremony tomorrow. You’ve obviously attended several of these in person, but this one is virtual. What are your plans to watch it, and how happy are you for guys like Mac and Smitty to be named finalists?

NICK SABAN: Well, I’m really happy for all players that have a chance to be recognized. It’s always great, and you always love it when your players get recognition. But there’s a lot of players on our team that have done a great job all year that are not going to receive recognition, and I think that’s a lesson in life, because sometimes you do great things in life and you don’t get recognized for it, but you have to kind of satisfy yourself in knowing that you did your best to be the best you could be.

I certainly feel like the guys that are up for awards and have an opportunity hopefully to win some of these awards have done just that, and hopefully they’ll get rewarded for it. Internally we kind of keep our plans to ourselves in terms of what we’re going to do, and I’m going to talk to the players about it today.

Q. What did you guys learn from that 2018 title game with the coaching distractions surrounding departures, and how do you think that will help this week with Steve Sarkisian?

NICK SABAN: Well, I think we’ve had several of these situations where we’ve had guys playing in the National Championship game and guys are getting head coaching jobs someplace else. I think it’s up to each individual.

I went through it when I became the head coach at Michigan State, and I was the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick and we had like five or six games left to play in the season and had a chance to get in the playoffs, which we did, and went two deep in the playoffs, won the first game, lost the second.

But I think you just have to separate yourself and focus on -- look, if it wasn’t for the players, if it wasn’t for the players at the Cleveland Browns being the best defense, I probably would have never got the Michigan State job. So you kind of owe it to the players to give your best, to do your best to help them get prepared for the game so they can play well in the game. That’s how I always felt. I think that’s how Sark feels.

Most of the guys in the past have been able to do that and been effective, and it’s not been a distraction for us. We’re going to try to help manage it every way that we can so that it’s not a distraction for us this year.

Q. I wanted to ask you about Ryan Day. How well do you know him, and kind of what do you see in him as an offensive play caller?

NICK SABAN: Well, I don’t know Ryan well. I’ve met him before. I think he’s an outstanding coach. I think they do a fantastic job with their team, the way their team competes, the way their team plays, the discipline, the togetherness

that they have, the way they execute.

And offensively he does a good job of trying to manage and control the tempo of the game on offense. And they do a really good job of executing, which is all about coaching your players to know what to do, how to do it, and why it’s important to do it that way, and they do it extremely well.

They present lots of problems with the system and the scheme that they run, but they do a good job of executing it, which is really probably the most important thing you like to see as a coach. And Ryan has certainly done that there at Ohio State, really with his entire team, but I know he’s probably a little bit more involved with the offense, and they do an outstanding job.

Q. I wanted to ask a little bit about one of the things you mentioned earlier with kind of this passing revolution that’s happened in college football, and it seems like a lot of that began, at least for your program, the last time you played Ohio State in the championship game in 2014. I’m curious how much do you think that game was maybe a watershed in how Alabama approached offensive play calling and structure, and also maybe as Alabama goes, so does college football?

NICK SABAN: Well, that was a great game. I think the score was like 42-35. They had a great team. We had a very good team. As it turned out, they won pretty handily in the National Championship game, which indicates what a great team they had.

So I don’t know that any of our players on our team were around back then, so I don’t know how that affects this game. I think this game is all about how do you prepare for this game, what do you do today and every day leading up to this game to prepare yourself to play the best that you’re going to play, assuming that the guy you’re going to play against may be the best guy you’ve played against all year.

I think that’s got to be more the focus, and I don’t know that the history of that game has a whole lot of impact on how we think or what we do or how our players think in terms of what they need to do.

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