Patrick Surtain II had an all-everything season, but Ohio State will show if he's an all-time Alabama great
Lockdown. Shutdown. Lights out.
Any way you can describe an elite college football cornerback, those words are justified when it comes to Patrick Surtain II. That’s not just recency bias because the Alabama junior was only targeted twice in the Rose Bowl (he allowed 1 catch for 6 yards) en route to Defensive MVP honors. He has the highest Pro Football Focus grade of any FBS cornerback in the last 2 seasons, and while in single coverage this year, he had more forced incompletions (13) than catches allowed (12).
Yeah, Surtain is good. Real good.
That’s why Surtain is cleaning up during awards season. If there’s an honor that can go to a cornerback, he probably has it. If there’s a mock draft, he’s probably the first cornerback off the board. Barring an injury or a stunning return to college for his senior year, he’ll soon follow in the footsteps of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Dee Milliner, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Kareem Jackson as a defensive back to star for Nick Saban and ultimately become a first-round pick.
There’s no question that Surtain is already in that group. If the national title game is his last in an Alabama uniform, there might not be anything he can do to catch up to someone like Fitzpatrick, who won the Jim Thorpe Award and he was a 2-time All-American and 2-time national champion.
But Monday night is a “legend” game for Surtain. As in, shut down that dynamic Ohio State receiver group en route to a national title and become an Alabama legend.
Even for someone as lockdown/shutdown/lights out as Surtain, that’ll be easier said than done.
For those who haven’t done their Ohio State homework yet, here’s a little heads up. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are good. Real good.
If you were wondering why Justin Fields looked so much better against Clemson than he did against Northwestern, well, take a guess which game Olave played in and which game he was out. Fields’ ability to stretch the field was on full display:
Good morning Jets fans here are all six TD passes from Justin Fields’ legendary performance against Clemson. pic.twitter.com/8O6Kw7NuJz
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 2, 2021
Wilson was actually pretty quiet in the semifinal game, but he still had a 47-yard catch. He’s got a catch of at least 20 yards in every single Ohio State game this year.
What has Surtain done at an all-world level this year? Defend passes of 20-plus yards. In the regular season, he only allowed 1 catch of 25-plus yards in coverage (PFF).
It’s rare that we see Surtain struggle on a deep ball. That’s what made this play in the SEC Championship against Trevon Grimes — wherein it appeared that Surtain completely lost sight of the pass — all the more surprising:
Trevon Grimes over Patrick Surtain☠️
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 20, 2020
That’s what can’t happen against Ohio State.
The downfield passing game is what gets everything going for the Buckeyes. That’s why Ryan Day was able to dial up open looks for the Ohio State tight ends late against Clemson. So much attention was on Olave and Wilson, and understandably so.
What’s inevitable is that unlike Notre Dame, who admitted it didn’t want to attack Surtain and then proceeded to avoid him all game, the Buckeyes are going to test Surtain. They don’t care that he’s been dominant defending the deep ball or that he had more snaps in press coverage than anyone in America (PFF).
Ohio State is a shell of itself when it cannot stretch the field like in that Northwestern game when a healthy Fields didn’t have a single completion of 25 yards. Sure, once Day recognized that Fields was forcing throws without Olave (Fields averaged a career-worst 4.1 yards per attempt) and he fed Trey Sermon with Northwestern defending the deep ball, the Buckeyes took over late. Something tells me that formula won’t work if Ohio State wants to keep pace with this Alabama offense, which is just a tad more explosive than the Fightin’ Rece Davises.
Given Ohio State’s pass defense struggles, this game could follow a similar script to the 2018 Orange Bowl. That is, Alabama gets out to an early lead but the Buckeyes ask their versatile 5-star quarterback to do all the heavy lifting like Oklahoma did with Kyler Murray.
Surtain should remember that game well. That is, assuming he didn’t successfully black it out from his memory. Lined up against future first-round receiver Ceedee Lamb, it was ugly for Surtain. It was the type of game in which the college football world got a reminder why true freshmen cornerbacks don’t often start in Playoff games.
— ☘️ (@CullerSports) December 30, 2018
Surtain is a different player now than he was 2 years ago. He doesn’t get bullied in press coverage by anyone.
That’s not really the style that Olave or Wilson play. It’s more about the little things, which isn’t lost on Surtain.
“They’re very finesse type of receivers,” Surtain said about the Buckeye receivers (via 247sports). “They’ve got speed, vertical threats, but they also run great routes. It’s going to be a challenge for us as a secondary and as a unit, so we go and watch film on them and prepare like we need to to focus on their concepts and what they like to do.”
Surtain is right on the money. Every step counts against receivers that crafty. Olave might not be physically imposing in the way that Lamb was, but go back to one of the touchdowns he had in the semifinal game. It was also a catch made at the front pylon. One misstep by the Clemson corner got Olave all the separation he needed for an easy grab:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 2, 2021
Consider that a reminder that it’s not just the deep ball where Surtain’s presence needs to be felt. It’s making sure that those throwing windows aren’t there for Fields like they were against Clemson’s secondary.
Of course, it’s not just Surtain who will shoulder that responsibility. The Crimson Tide defensive backfield as been mostly dominant this year thanks to the likes of Josh Jobe, Malachi Moore and Jordan Battle. It’ll take a wholesale effort to contain an Ohio State passing game that suddenly looks more loaded than ever with the Sugar Bowl emergence of Jameson Williams and tight end Jeremy Ruckert.
Ultimately, though, this is a game in which your best defensive player has to be at his absolute best. For Alabama in 2020, that’s been Surtain.
If there was ever a time for a guy to take away half the field, this is it. If there was ever a time for a guy to go from “another great Alabama defensive back” to “Alabama legend,” this is it.
If you ask me, that trumps lockdown/shutdown/lights out.