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Containing Amari Cooper high atop Buckeyes' needs

NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama safety Nick Perry has squared off against Amari Cooper on an almost daily basis in practice. Here is his best advice on how to stop the Heisman Trophy finalist.

"Uh, pray," Perry said.

Hopefully, Ohio State has a little bit more of a plan than that on Thursday night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, or else the Buckeyes likely won't have much of a prayer of advancing in the College Football Playoff. Yet it may take something close to divine intervention to slow down the best receiver in college football.

"The ideal way to defend him," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said, "is a pouring rainstorm, winds of 30 or 40 miles an hour. But I don’t think that’s going to happen in a dome."

Cooper caught 115 balls for 1,658 yards and 15 touchdowns this season on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award and finishing third in the Heisman voting. He had at least 130 yards receiving in seven games this year.

How good is Cooper? Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims said on Monday that "he's open on every play." And while Sims said he resists the urge to throw to Cooper every time he drops back to pass, Cooper has 100 more targets and 78 more receptions than any other Alabama player. That's the largest gap between a team's No. 1 and No. 2 receiver in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So covering Cooper is an enormous key to beating Alabama.

"If he has a big day," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said, "it’s going to be a long night for us."

The Buckeyes know too well what it's like to get burned by an elite receiver on a big bowl stage. In last year's loss to Clemson at the Orange Bowl, they were pretty helpless against Sammy Watkins, who ended up with 16 catches, 227 yards and two touchdowns.

Of course, that was nearly a full calendar year ago, and comparisons between then and now hold little weight. The Ohio State secondary was in tatters by the time it got to Miami last December. Star cornerback Bradley Roby missed the game with a knee injury and true freshman Vonn Bell made his first start, with predictably rocky results. The Buckeyes revamped their pass defense this offseason by hiring Ash from Arkansas and unleashing some athletic young safeties. The Buckeyes are No. 5 in the FBS in pass efficiency defense.

Better talent or better scheme?

"It's definitely both," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

While it's true that the Big Ten lacked many star wideouts this year, Ohio State did face the three most productive receivers in the league and fared well against them. Michigan State's Tony Lippett, who led the conference with 1,124 receiving yards, had just five catches for 64 yards. Rutgers' Leonte Caroo had five catches for 100 yards, but 40 percent of that came on one play in a 56-17 Buckeyes blowout. Illinois' Mikey Dudek mustered just 68 yards on three grabs.

"Without a doubt, every time you go into a game you talk about what are your keys to victory, and one of those keys to victory is that you can’t let their best players beat you," Ash said. "I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that throughout the course of the season."

Cooper has heard opponents talk all year long about how they plan to stop him. It hasn't much mattered.

"I hear about it a lot throughout the week," he said. "But it's different when the game actually starts because of how the game plays out. If we're running the ball good, then things have to change because they have to make sure our running backs don't go off. So, I really don't pay too much attention."

Cooper said he has been impressed with what he's seen on film from Grant, who has developed into Ohio State's lockdown cover guy and who will likely try to shadow Cooper for most of Thursday's game.

"He's always on his man," Cooper said. "The receiver never gets a lot of separation."

But Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has found effective ways to move Cooper all over the field, sometimes lining him up in the slot or even having him come out of the backfield. That means it will take a team approach to keep tabs on him.

"What's unique about him is not that he can just take an 80-yard post, but he can take a screen 80 yards," Fickell said. "On the next snap, he’s going to be running a jet sweep where he’s not getting the ball. The next one, he’s going to be cracking the safety to spring [T.J.] Yeldon free. His completeness is not just the ability to catch the ball, but to come out of the backfield, the ability to take a swing pass, his ability to catch the deep ball, the ability to break tackles. Those are the things that make him special."

Senior Jeff Greene, who's 6-foot-5, is impersonating Cooper on the scout team for Ohio State. But there's no real way to copy the real thing because of the 6-foot-1 Cooper's size, speed, smarts and hands.

"He's unstoppable, man," Perry said. "That's a scary guy when you get him out there on that island."

If all else fails for Ohio State, at least prayer remains an option.