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4-Down Territory: 10 Things to Watch in The National Championship Game

1st: Versatile RBs: Alabama’s Najee Harris and Ohio State’s Trey Sermon are both powerful, elusive, and acrobatic runners. But they are also good receivers out of the backfield that can hurt your defense if you pay too much attention to the WRs. Harris on OSU’s LBs in the pass game will be critical to watch. For OSU in the Sugar Bowl, perhaps the biggest play of the game was a 3rd down pass to Sermon deep in OSU territory in the 3rd quarter that got a first down and started a TD drive to kill Clemson’s momentum.

2nd: Tight Ends in The Red Zone: Last year versus Clemson Ohio State struggled in the red zone to score TDs. This year they found their Tight Ends for three TDs versus the Tigers. When defending WRs, a running QB like Fields and a power RB, tight ends often find themselves one on one. Alabama’s LBs will have to respect them in the red zone.

3rd: Pass Rush, Pass Rush, Pass Rush: The best pass defense is a great pass rush and Monday night it will be vital. Alabama relies on outside linebacker pressure to get to opponents’ quarterbacks, while Ohio State wants to get there with their defensive linemen. With 34 sacks in 12 games the Tide has utilized timely sacks to disrupt their opponents' offense. OSU's offense has allowed 20 sacks in just seven games, so that could be a problem. Against Clemson OSU had a much better second half pressuring QB Trevor Lawrence and that made all the difference. If Alabama has to blitz and play man coverage they had better get to Fields and get him on the ground. If he gets loose, look out.

4th: Multiple Coverage Schemes: Mac Jones is not the run threat Justin Fields presents, so OSU has some more flexibility if they want to change up. They can play some of the man-to-man NFL coverages with 2 safeties deep helping on Heisman winner Devonta Smith or dropping one safety down to rob crossing and shallow routes. Alabama's defense loves man coverage but they may have to account for Fields running by taking someone out of coverage or out of pass rush.

5th: Skill Player Chess Match: Alabama loves to move people around on offense so that makes it trickier lining up and getting the coverage match-ups you want. Alabama QB Mac Jones has been masterful finding the right targets. Devonta Smith for Alabama and Chris Olave for Ohio State will line up in various places. Motions, shifts and moving skill players creates more pre-snap thinking for defensive players and the potential for coverage mistakes that lead to big plays. Alabama moves their guys around to open up things like WR screens and play-action passes. Olave and Smith are really fun to watch and I’ll be watching to see how the defensive coordinators try to cover them. Do they put their best cover CBs on them wherever they line-up?

6th: Where Do The CBs Line Up: Alabama’s Patrick Surtain mostly plays the outside WRs but will they move him to shadow Olave? If so, that creates adjustments for everyone else in the coverage scheme. Alabama may feel confident with the rest of their coverage and take their chances wherever Olave lines up. As for OSU CB Shaun Wade, last year he was a dominant presence playing the slot CB position inside where he was around the ball, made a lot of plays and had a lot of deep safety help if needed. This year’s move to the outside CB position has netted mixed results. He’s looked really good at times and has had trouble at other times.

7th: Fields Health as a Runner: After getting dinged up on a big hit against Clemson, as this game starts keep an eye on Justin Fields. Watch early in the game to see how much OSU uses QB Justin Fields in the run game and how aggressively he is running as he gets to the point of contact. If he is hesitant to run, that changes things for Alabama’s defensive scheme.

8th: Net Punting and Field Goals: Net punting is perhaps the least sexy statistic in all of football. But if and when these two offenses do have to punt, lengthening the field for an explosive offense is critical. Ohio State’s net punting is almost a full five yards more than Alabama and they have only allowed 3 returns on 25 punts so that limits what Alabama’s punt return team can do. As for field goals, advantage Alabama as the Tide has gone 13 for 13 while OSU is just 6 for 10. Given that, expect OSU to be more aggressive going for it on 4th downs on the Alabama half of the field.

9th: Turnover Margin: When two great offenses play it is hard to get them off the field and that is where turnovers become necessary. Ohio State is +9 in turnover margin through seven games, while Alabama is +11 in twelve games. The team that can steal a possession or two may be the one that wins this game. It is the best and perhaps the only way to slow down the opponent’s offense.

10th: The Chess Match: In games like this, teams roll out new wrinkles and try to attack areas they think they can exploit. After both teams settle in after a few series, then the adjustments begin and that is where you see the strengths, or failings of coaches on game day. Enjoy the show….

The Ultimate Penn State Season Finishes: Today ends the series of the Ultimate Penn State season that started as a way to give Penn State fans a season when the Big Ten postponed the fall season. Even after Big Ten play resumed, we were having so much fun we kept going. For thirteen weeks we picked PSU's win over the highest-ranked opponent in each corresponding week from 1966 through 2019 --and we did not repeat any opponents. Then we assigned two bowl games to serve as the College Football Playoff and it concludes today....

January 2, 1987: #2 Penn State 14 #1 Miami 10: This game will seem positively old school compared to the shootout that we may witness Monday night, but this game changed college football forever. For the first time, late in the season the NCAA allowed a bowl game to move their game back one day from January 1st for a stand-alone game in prime time. That Friday night NBC preempted "Miami Vice" the hottest show on TV, and they jacked up the payout per team to both Miami and Penn State.

The result was a thriller that pulled in a 25.0 rating--which still ranks as the highest-rated college football game in history.The game lived up to all the hype as both defenses dominated play in a game that was in doubt from the first whistle to the last 4th and goal play for Miami to win. The pregame environment was absolutely venomous after a week in which Miami's players wore battle fatigues to bowl events and were openly dismissive of Penn State's chances.

Once the game started, the hitting and tackling was vicious. The number of players who would have been ejected from that game under today's rules are too many to count. The game came down to Penn State's ability to get turnovers. Facing 4th and goal with just seconds to go and Miami looking to win, Penn State grabbed the 5th interception of Miami Heisman-trophy winning QB Vinny Testaverde to preserve the win.

In the end Penn State won the title that started a conversation about how to match up the two best teams every year. It created momentum by showing everyone how big these games could become, and that there was a lot of money to be made.

The Ultimate Penn State Season So Far:

Pre-season 1996 (11) Penn State 24 (7) USC 7 Watch

Week 1 1999 (4) Penn State 41 (3) Arizona 7 Watch

Week 2 1977 (10) Penn State 31 (9) Houston 14 Watch

Week 3 1978 (5) Penn State 19 at (6) Ohio State 0 Watch

Week 4 1982 (8) Penn State 27 (2) Nebraska 24 Watch

Week 5 2002 (21) Penn State 34 at (15) Wisconsin 31 Watch

Week 6 1994 (3) Penn State 31 at (5) Michigan 24 Watch

Week 7 1986 (6) Penn State 23 at (3) Alabama 3 Watch

Week 8 1967 Penn State 13 (3) NC State 8

Week 9 1978 (2) Penn State 27 (5) Maryland 3 Watch

Week 10 1990 (18) Penn State 24 at (1) Notre Dame 21 Watch

Week 11 1981 (9) Penn State 48 at (1) Pitt 14 Watch

Week 12 2008 (7) Penn State 49 (17) Michigan State 18

Playoff 1982 (2) Penn State 27 (1) Georgia 23 Watch

Playoff 1986 1986 (2) Penn State 14 (1) Miami 10 Watch


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