Ohio State-Alabama: Receivers replace running backs as featured players in both title game offenses

Ohio State and Alabama are playing for the national championship on Monday night, a fact that likely would thrill Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant if the coaching legends from each school were still alive.

Neither is thinking both might be dismayed to see how many times their former teams put the ball in the air Monday night.

While the pair might not have been quite as anti-pass as they are remembered, Hayes and Bryant certainly favored the running game.

The first time the College Football Hall of Famers faced each other, Alabama quarterback Jeff Rutledge was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1979 Sugar Bowl, a game the Crimson Tide won 35-6.

He threw 11 passes and completed eight for 109 yards, numbers each team’s quarterback might exceed by the end of their second possession on Monday night.

Alabama ran the ball 68 times in that game while Ohio State — trailing by double digits the entire second half — ran it 38 and threw it 17.

Fast forward to the 2015 Sugar Bowl and things look a lot different.

While Ohio State ran the ball 42 times (including sacks) and Alabama ran 34 times, the teams threw it 36 times apiece.

Since that 42-35 Ohio State win six years ago, both teams have leaned into the passing game more — notably by making it their focus rather than a complement to the running game.

Ryan Day’s arrival in Columbus in January 2017 signaled a new direction for the Buckeyes, as Kerry Coombs recalled learning right away.

“He brought elements of the passing game that were really, really challenging,” Coombs said. “It was like cold water in your face. You’d go out there and practice, and he’s very, very creative with what he was doing in the passing game. That was the very first year, the very first day, you could feel it.”

Alabama’s offense has also evolved from a run-and-throw-on-play-action offense to an aerial assault headlined by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and multiple other talented pass catchers.

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s most reliable skill players this season have been receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.

How schools that combined had 24 runnings backs drafted since 2001 end up vying to be Wide Receiver U?

Both Day and Alabama coach Nick Saban agreed the evolution is a matter of practicality.

The number of talented quarterbacks and receivers has grown since the spread offense became ubiquitous in the early 21st Century, as have the ways to utilize their talents.

“I think that the emergence of 7-on-7 (passing competitions in the summer) 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,” Day said. “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.”

While Day was a quarterback in college and came up coaching on that side of the ball, Saban made his name as a defensive coach in a career that started in the ’70s while Hayes and Bryant were still at the height of their powers.

After arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Saban built the type of defense-first program Hayes and Bryant had run and dominated college football with, but he was never oblivious to the need to change to keep up with the times.

“Being a defensive coach, you know the things that are very difficult to stop when you play somebody else and you research some of those things as a staff and see if there’s some way you can implement them into what you do, and I think that’s kind of what we’ve done through the years,” Saban said. “We’ve had really good coaches on offense who could research and implement these things in a positive way.

“I still think our No. 1 goal is to feature the players that we have on our team and adapt to the style that would best help them have success, and this year’s team is a little bit different than last year’s team, and I think you could look at every team and say the same, but our offense has been productive, and we hope to continue to be able to do that.”

Of course, neither coach is thinking about abandoning the running game any time soon.

Alabama ran for 185.7 yards per game this season while Ohio State averaged 272.6, and both teams have talented backs who can take over a game in Najee Harris and Trey Sermon. “Because if you can run the football, just do the math on it,” Day said. “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 5-10 years, their skill level has increased overall nationally, and you’re seeing some of the best in the country in this game.”

Much to the chagrin of defensive coaches everywhere.

“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,” Saban said.

“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 — 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.”

Ohio State has had strong quarterback play consistently since Urban Meyer took over in Columbus in 2012, but dual-threat stars Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett have given way to Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Justin Fields, both of whom have done the majority of their damage through the air the past three seasons.

At Alabama, Saban’s early quarterbacks were rarely standouts. Even while those teams were winning national championships, the signal-callers appeared to be along for the ride more than anything, but that changed over the past three seasons with Tua Tagovailoa replacing dual-threat Jalen Hurts then giving way to current signal-caller Mac Jones.

After finishing 87th and 91st in the country in passing yards per game in 2016 and ’17, the Crimson Tide have ranked in the top 10 the past three seasons and led the nation in passing efficiency all three years.

Along the way, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy became first-round NFL Draft picks last year while Smith and Jaylen Waddle (who missed most of this season with an ankle injury but could play Monday night) are likely to follow suit this spring.

Jones, who took over after Tagovailoa was injured last season, is happy to help facilitate their talents and lead the new style of Alabama offense.

“It’s really just an awesome experience to be able to lead these guys, and I’ve said this before, but they make everything go,” Jones said.

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