2015 College Football Playoff National Championship preview: Oregon vs. Ohio State
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was still digesting his team's 42-35 victory over top-ranked Alabama in New Orleans when he heard the news. Earlier in the evening, Oregon put together a New Year's Day masterpiece in Pasadena, dismantling Florida State, 59-20, in the other College Football Playoff semfinal.
When a reporter briefed Meyer on the Rose Bowl result, he had a classic reaction.
"Oregon won by 40?" he said with a hearty chuckle, before pretending to bolt from his chair. "I gotta go. We gotta go get ready for that one."
His next task will be to try and slow down coach Mark Helfrich, Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and the Ducks in the inaugural CFP National Championship. Oregon beat Ohio State, 46-33, to win the first-ever NCAA men's basketball title in 1939, and now those two schools are set to decide collegiate sports history once again.
Here's a look at the key storylines, matchups and players to watch when the Ducks and Buckeyes meet on Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Outlook: Signal-callers take center stage
One quarterback has a shiny, new Heisman Trophy sitting on his mantle. The other is a third-string quarterback about to start his third collegiate game. But they've both helped lead their teams to the 'ship.
Mariota has been nothing short of remarkable for Oregon in his junior year, doing it with style, grace and humility. He's accounted for nearly 5,000 yards of offense and 56 total touchdowns (he can catch 'em, too) while throwing just three interceptions and losing three fumbles. The Buckeyes have done a generally good job of containing the few mobile quarterbacks they've faced this year, but Mariota is in another stratosphere.
The Heisman winner trumped FSU counterpart Jameis Winston in the CFP semifinal, going 26-of-36 for 338 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for 62 yards and another score. It was a vintage Super Marcus performance on the biggest stage of his career.
"I was just happy for our team," he said, according to The Oregonian. "The entire week, I really didn't want to focus on the [quarterback] matchup. I think that was just stuff that other people really wanted to talk about. I just wanted to focus on this team and for us to kind of go out there and be successful, it was just a great feeling and I'm happy for us."
Meanwhile in Columbus, the quarterback hits just keep coming. It was bad enough that two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending injury in August, requiring his second shoulder injury in a span of six months. Then the Buckeyes took another big punch in the gut when redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett was lost in the regular-season finale against MIchigan with a fractured right ankle.
Up until that point, Barrett had been something of a savior for the program. He led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record and a berth in the Big Ten title game after posting 2,834 passing yards, 34 passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and racking up 938 yards and 11 more scores on the ground.
Now Meyer has entrusted the offense to sophomore Cardale Jones, who has guided his team to high-stakes wins over Michigan State and Alabama in his first two career starts. Not bad for the big fella, who is listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds.
Jones showed some early nerves against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but eventually settled down in the pocket while making several back-breaking runs in crucial situations. He finished 18-of-35 for 243 yards, a touchdown and an interception through the air, and carried the ball 17 times for 43 yards. You can be sure that Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum will try to confuse Jones and take advantage of his opportunistic unit, which forced five takeaways against Florida State.
Oregon offense vs. Ohio State defense
Tempo. It's the one thing that separates Oregon's offense from all others.
There's nothing like facing Oregon's offense when its going at full speed with Mariota at the controls. The Ducks ran a play every 20.2 seconds in the Rose Bowl, according to ESPN Stats and Information, a blazing pace that no practice squad can emulate for Meyer and his team.
Such speed will be especially taxing on Ohio State's talented front four, which has to be considered one of the best in the nation. On the outside you have All-American Joey Bosa and fellow defensive end Steve Miller, who hauled in a 41-yard interception return in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. And then you have strong defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington plugging up things in the middle of the field.
It's a good thing that starting center Hroniss Grasu has returned to the Ducks for their playoff push, because the Buckeyes' defensive front is nasty. The trusted senior leader of the O-line missed three games after suffering a lower leg injury on Nov. 8, but ran out of the tunnel with his teammates at the Rose Bowl before taking part in the victory.
[Related video: Oregon football celebrates Rose Bowl win over FSU]
Mariota's arsenal is another aspect of Oregon's offense that makes it so hard to defend. Together with coordinator Scott Frost, Mariota has done a good job of distributing the ball to their cast of talented receivers and running backs. In the backfield you have the tough tandem of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, who returned for the Rose Bowl after a shoulder injury to rush for 124 yards and two scores.
While the Ducks didn't have a single 1,000-yard receiver this year, they featured seven different players who had at least 300 yards and four touchdowns receiving, highlighted by Byron Marshall (66 receptions, 834 yards, five TDs). But injuries to tight end Pharaoh Brown and Devon Allen, who hurt his knee in the Rose Bowl, will test the Ducks against Ohio State's secondary, which includes a couple of ballhawks in All-Big Ten cornerback Doran Grant (five INTs) and safety Vonn Bell (six INTs).
The Buckeyes have given up an average of just 22.1 points per game this season while navigating a tough schedule. OSU has fared slightly better against the pass (16th nationally, 191.6 yards allowed per game) than they have against the run (34th, 142 ypg).
Ohio State offense vs. Oregon defense
Tom Herman is a busy man these days.
Not only is Ohio State's offensive coordinator gearing up for a Ducks defense that's peaking at the right time, but he's already accepted the head coaching gig at the University of Houston with signing day right around the corner. Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com reported that Herman is going to stay in Texas after the game, regardless of the outcome. That's dedication to your craft.
Like the Ducks, Ohio State features a stable of athletic and talented options at the skill positions. None are more impressive than Ezekiel Elliott, who Meyer has called the most underrated running back in the country. No one's been able to keep a lid on Elliott lately, as he has amassed 450 yards and four touchdowns in the past two contests against top-notch competition.
Not to mention Jones has a bunch of playmakers at his disposal like 6-foot-3 wideout Michael Thomas (50 catches, 746 yards, nine TDs) and shifty speedsters like Devin Smith (32 receptions, 886 yards, 12 TDs) and Jalin Marshall (33 receptions, 447 yards, six TDs). The Buckeyes are also expecting the return of explosive H-back Dontre Wilson, who grew up 20 minutes outside of Dallas.
"It's seems like a dream, it's like a story," Wilson said, via Cleveland.com. "I could go to book if we go to Dallas and handle our business."
[Related video: Oregon's Tony Washington gets a #scoopnscore at the Rose Bowl]
But have you seen Oregon's defense? The Ducks have hit another gear lately – stifling a potent Arizona attack in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game before taking apart Winston and Seminoles. Another disruptive day from linebacker Tony Washington and Co. could go a long way in derailing Jones. The Ducks have the nation's best turnover margin at plus-20, thanks to a defense that has recovered 18 fumbles and recorded 12 interceptions.
It's a shame that Oregon will be without top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered an ACL injury in a practice leading up to the Rose Bowl. But the Ducks still have a strong secondary, led by safety Erick Dargan, who leads the team with 90 tackles and seven interceptions.
OREGON PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Marcus Mariota (4,121 passing yards, 40 passing TDs, 3 INTs, 731 rushing yards, 15 rushing TDs)
What a way to go out for the Heisman winner: A chance to win it all in college football's first true national championship game. With the way he moves as a runner, it's easy to forget that Mariota is 6-foot-4, 219 pounds. Mariota is also deadly with his sharp decision making skills and accurate arm (68.6 completion percentage), more reasons to believe that he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
RB Royce Freeman (1,343 rushing yards, 18 rushing TDs)
Even though Tyner stole the show with a big day at the Rose Bowl, Freeman has been the steady workhorse of Oregon's running game all season long. He's an absolute beast at 6-foot-1, 229 pounds and he's only a true freshman. Gotta feel sorry for those high school kids he played last season in Southern California. Freeman is the type of back who can withstand collisions against Ohio State's massive defensive line, but he's also got the speed to stretch it outside.
LB Tony Washington (53 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, six sacks, three fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles)
Washington helped provide the iconic play of Oregon's victory against FSU, when he scooped up a Winston fumble and rumbled 58 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. The pass rusher has been mucking up opposing offenses all year, but Ohio State's offensive line has gelled well since it was a main culprit in the team's lone loss of the year against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6.
OHIO STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Ezekiel Elliott (1,632 rushing yards, 14 rushing TDs, 6.9 yards per carry)
Elliott is fast, sure, but it's his aggressive running style that makes him so dangerous. He packs a lot of punch in his 6-foot, 225-pound frame and loves to lower his shoulder to initiate contact between the tackles. But once he gets past you, he's gone. Elliott's last two contests have been downright ridiculous and the Ducks have to be on high alert whenever he touches the ball.
WR Devin Smith (32 receptions, 886 yards, 12 receiving TDs)
It's pretty crazy when you average 27.7 yards per reception over the course of the season, but that's where Smith finds himself heading into the CFP title game. The 6-foot-1,199-pound speedster has to be considered Ohio State's biggest weapon in the passing attack. His last two games? How about 224 yards and four touchdowns on six catches.
DE Joey Bosa (53 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss, 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles)
Bosa, who was named a first-team Associated Press All-American, is a hulking force at 6-foot-5, 278 who is capable of shutting down drives by himself. Seeing Bosa (he wears No. 97) try to track down Mariota, especially in passing situations, will be an interesting matchup to watch. But he's also deft at setting the edge and will need to do it against the powerful Oregon rushing attack.
STATS TO KNOW
- (92.2) – These two teams average 92.2 combined points per game. Oregon ranks second in scoring offense this year (47.2 points per game), while Ohio State (45.0) ranks fifth.
- (77) – The Ducks outscored Arizona and Florida State by a combined 77 points (110-33) in the past two games.
- (27.7) – Ohio State wideout Devin Smith averaged 27.7 yards per catch this season, which was tops in the nation
- (20) – Oregon leads the FBS with its plus-20 mark in turnover ratio this season
- (6) – The Buckeyes have scored six defensive touchdowns this season, which is tied for second-best in the country.