After stemming Tide, OSU's Bell playing for national title

Ohio State defensive back Vonn Bell (11) is tackled by Alabama running back Jalston Fowler (45) after intercepting a pass in the second half of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
photo Ohio State defensive back Vonn Bell (11) is tackled by Alabama running back Jalston Fowler (45) after intercepting a pass in the second half of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

It wasn't going to be that easy.

When Ohio State safety Vonn Bell intercepted Alabama quarterback Blake Sims in the fourth quarter of last Thursday's Sugar Bowl and Buckeyes tailback Ezekiel Elliott bolted 85 yards for a touchdown, the Big Ten champions held a 42-28 lead with 3:24 remaining. The upset seemed inevitable.

Yet the Crimson Tide rallied with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Sims to Amari Cooper that made it 42-35 with 1:59 left, and they got the ball back at their 18-yard line with 1:33 to play and drove to Ohio State's 42 for a final crack at the tying score.

Sims had his last pass intercepted in the end zone by safety Tyvis Powell, and Bell could at last soak in the moment.

"It was a big relief and a monkey off my back," Bell said by phone. "There had been so much hype about the SEC versus the Big Ten and how they were the power conference and the best conference in the world. We wanted to show that the Big Ten had a lot of great talent, too, and that we can match up with anybody and play with anybody on any given day.

"We wanted to show the world who we were and that the Buckeyes were back."

This was what Bell signed up for.

As a five-star defensive back and running back at Ridgeland High School, Bell pulled a recruiting surprise to many in February 2013 by signing with Ohio State over Alabama and Tennessee. He had been a fan of the Volunteers growing up, but the Crimson Tide offered the intrigue of a program coming off two consecutive national championships and favored for more.

"This is special for me, being a guy from the South who always hears about Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia," he said. "People who didn't know about my pick weren't too confident in what I was doing, but they didn't see the vision like I saw the vision. Like I said on national signing day, I hoped to see Bama in one of these championship type of games, and we did, so I guess my dream came true."

Bell had eight tackles in addition to the interception and helped the Buckeyes slow Cooper, who entered New Orleans averaging 127.4 receiving yards a game. Cooper did score twice, but he was held to 71 yards and no explosive plays on nine receptions.

It was a far cry from last season's Orange Bowl, when the Buckeyes surrendered 227 receiving yards to former Clemson standout Sammy Watkins.

"We just really prepared, because we didn't to have to rehash the past," Bell said. "Last year we let one receiver beat the whole team, and we didn't want a phenomenal player like that breaking out on us again."

Bell and his teammates flew back to Ohio on Friday, had Saturday off and began preparations Sunday for the inaugural championship game of college football's four-team playoff. The fourth-seeded Buckeyes will take on second-seeded Oregon on Monday night in the Dallas suburb of Arlington.

Oregon advanced to the title game last Thursday with an impressive 59-20 trouncing of Florida State in the Rose Bowl, but Bell is not fazed by the breakneck speed in which the Ducks operate under the guidance of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.

"We face an offense like that almost every day," Bell said. "Our offense is high-tempo, too, so I think we will know the speed that Mariota brings and how he controls the game. We know they've got athletes who can run a little bit, but we think we can match up with anyone in the country, so we're not scared of anybody."

Bell is capping his sophomore season with a flurry, having snagged half of his team-high six interceptions in his last three games against rival Michigan, Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and Alabama last Thursday. He will have his parents supporting him inside AT&T Stadium and countless fans watching from the Chattanooga area.

Among his long-distance backers will be former Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis, who will be glued to the game at home along with his family.

"I am so proud for him," Mariakis said. "Vonn is on a historic stage next Monday, because it's the first championship game of the four-team playoff, so he is in a position no one else has ever been in. You're elated for him whenever they win and you hurt for him whenever they lose, and when he made that interception the other night, I almost pulled a hamstring in my living room from jumping up and down."

Two seasons into his career with the Buckeyes, Bell has tasted 25 victories in 28 attempts. He has a chance at a national championship, which has eluded the Deep South he opted to leave.

"I could have played in one last year if we could have finished off the Big Ten championship," Bell said, "but I think all the hard work is paying off."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.