COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was an exercise in futility. A nightmare.
Auburn couldn’t cover Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper in the Crimson Tide’s 55-44 win in the Iron Bowl. Several times the Tigers couldn’t even find him when he caught 13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard catch.
Cooper has caught 115 passes, 14 of them for touchdowns, and leads the country in receiving yards with 1,656.
Ohio State knows it can’t afford to allow a repeat of that performance in Thursday night’s College Football Playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
The Buckeyes learned some hard lessons about how costly pass defense disasters can be a year ago, none more harsh than the one they got in the Orange Bowl from then-Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins. He had 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-35 Clemson win.
Safety Tyvis Powell says OSU’s defense will look different this year against Cooper.
“I feel like we’re much more prepared to face Amari Cooper than we were last year when we faced Sammy Watkins,” he said. “Watching both of them on film, they both make plays where you go, ‘Wow, that was unbelievable.’ You just trust the techniques, trust the coaching and when it’s time to make that play, when your number is called, you have to make that play.
“They do a very good job of getting [Cooper] the ball really quick and his ability to attack the ball in the air is phenomenal. If it’s me and him going up for a ball, I have to be ready and know that he is going to attack the ball and be just as aggressive to the ball as he is,” Powell said. “When he gets the ball, he catches it, makes people miss and he’s gone.”
Alabama quarterback Blake Sims threw for 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns and running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 1,827 yards rushing, so Ohio State’s defense has more concerns than just stopping Cooper.
“They’ve got the great running back in T.J. Yeldon and they’ve got an athletic quarterback who makes plays with his feet. There’s a lot more to the offense than Amari Cooper, so I wouldn’t say just stopping him would slow them down,” Powell said.
Cooper does dominate the receiving statistics, though, accounting for more than 40 percent of the catches by Alabama receivers.
Co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash says dealing with Cooper is a big part of OSU’s defensive game plan, but not the entire plan.
“He’s a great player. They have a quarterback who can get him the ball. If he has a big day, it’s going to be a long day for us,” he said. “We have to make sure all of our focus isn’t on one individual. It’s the whole unit offensively we have to defend.”
Ohio State is coming off its most dominating defensive performance of the season in a 59-0 win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
Since beating Michigan State 49-37 on Nov. 8, the Buckeyes have faced mostly one-dimensional offenses.
“Up to this point, I’d say Michigan State is the most complete offense we’ve faced all year. Alabama is right there as a complete offense. There’s a lot of similarities between the two,” Ash said.