National Championship: Oregon vs Ohio State Preview

The National Championship is here. It’s been a tremendous year, and Pylon University has been bringing the bowl breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams, along with the sport’s traditions and great moments. In our final edition, Andrew Pina offers an expanded look at the two finalists with our Oregon vs Ohio State preview.

The Matchup

WHO: Oregon Ducks (13-1) vs. Ohio State Buckeyes (13-1)

WHAT: College Football Playoff – National Championship Game

WHEN: Monday, January 12 – 8:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)

WHERE: AT&T Stadium – Arlington, TX

For the first time ever, college football’s top level will have a playoff championship final on Monday night, with Oregon and Ohio State battling for the national title at JerryWorld, AT&T Stadium. The matchup pits the top two Football Bowl Subdivision teams in combined offensive and defensive efficiency as rated by F/+. Both teams put points on the board; against FBS teams, Oregon scored 46.1 ppg (3rd) and Ohio State 45.0 (5th). On defense, both have been solid, with Ohio State at 22.1 ppg allowed (19th) and Oregon with 23 ppg allowed (23rd).

When Oregon has the Ball

Oregon is led by Marcus Mariota, winner of basically every college football award a quarterback could garner. Possibly the top overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft a few months from now, he’s as good as any signal-caller in the country at both passing and running. Mariota has thrown for 4,131 yards and 40 touchdowns with only three interceptions, while his 10.1 yards-per-pass average leads the nation. He’s also carried the rock for 731 yards and 15 TDs. Combined, the redshirt junior has racked nearly 5,000 yards of total offense and a whopping FIFTY-FIVE touchdowns.

No college QB is better at taking care of the ball, but Mariota has his flaws, sometimes placing excessive trust in his strong arm and forcing throws into dangerous areas. Previously, we’ve discussed Mariota passing on the run, across his body; it worked against Utah, but against Florida State in the Rose Bowl it got him into some trouble:

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Mariota gets flushed out of the pocket, and a Seminole defender slips. Mariota throws a wild pass down the middle of the field. The defender, who was on the ground, nearly recovers to intercept the pass. Ohio State has a strong pass rush, so Mariota must exhibit patience in these cases and throw the ball away ‒ like the pros do.

He leads an Oregon offense that arguably rates the nation’s best – 2nd in yards per play (7.39, tops among Power-5 teams), 3rd in yards per game (552.9), and 6th in third-down conversion percentage (50.28).

When Oregon has the ball, don’t blink. In their last two games ‒ the Pac-12 title game against Arizona and the Rose Bowl Game against FSU ‒ the Ducks have nine scoring drives less than 2 minutes long, and 13 scoring drives of 3 minutes or less.

However, against OSU, Mariota will have to make do without a few of his weapons. While leading receiver (and former running back) Byron Marshall (66 receptions, 834 yards) will be available, freshmen Darren Carrington (failed drug test) and Devon Allen (knee), the Ducks’ number two and three targets, will not play. Also inactive is starting tight end Pharaoh Brown (leg injury), but in his stead freshman Evan Baylis caught 6 passes for 73 yards against FSU. Their high-tempo offense (34th in plays per game) and frequent substitutions resulted in seven receivers with 20 or more catches. The Ducks give many of their skill position players playing time throughout the season and that depth benefits them when players are out.

Freshman running back Royce Freeman leads the rushing attack, with 1,343 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and 18 TDs. He may only be a freshman, but at 6’1” and 230 pounds he doesn’t look like one. Freeman uses his size and speed to wear down defenses, especially when Oregon is killing the clock in the second half. He also chipped in with 16 catches, one for a TD.

Several Oregon games this season have been reasonably close at halftime; the Ducks led the Seminoles by five, UCLA and Cal by 10, Stanford by 11, were tied with Washington State, and trailed Michigan State by six. They won all of those games by an average of 20.7 points. Only Washington State ‒ a team that also runs a very high paced offense ‒ could keep up with Oregon. Sometimes, the Ducks take a while to get going, but their quick pace wears down opponents in the second half. Traditionally, teams with the lead use the running game to wear down opponents, but a high-paced offense can have a similar effect.

Ohio State boasts a very solid defense, rating 11th in both yards per game (333.4) and yards per play (4.7) against FBS teams.

It can be difficult to judge the Buckeyes’ run defense, which ranks only 39th in yards allowed per carry (3.9) and 31st in yards allowed per game (141.1). Their last two games show how high and low they can get. Against Melvin Gordon and the vaunted Wisconsin running game, OSU gave up just 71 yards rushing in their 59-0 annihilation of the Badgers. But in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama rushed for 170 yards with 5.0 yards per carry; the Crimson Tide probably should have run the ball more. This is a weakness Oregon could look to exploit.

The Buckeyes are led up front by sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa, who recorded 13.5 sacks (almost one per game) and 20 tackles for losses. He paces a defense that tied for 11th nationally with 3.1 sacks per game at 3.1.

Ohio State ranks 8th in yards per pass and 15th in passing yards per game. In the Sugar Bowl, they forced Alabama’s Blake Sims into three interceptions and while Heisman finalist Amari Cooper got his ‒ with 9 catches for 79 yards and two TDs ‒ no other Tide receiver had more than three catches or caught a touchdown. The pressure provided by certainly Bosa helps, but the ball-hawking skills of the Buckeyes’ secondary stand out, with 24 interceptions (4th nationally) and 76 total passes defended (16th).

The Ducks need to be disciplined and patient enough to take whatever OSU gives them on the ground. The Buckeyes would like to lure the Ducks into passing more than normal, hoping to force Mariota into throwing an INT in his second consecutive game.

When Ohio State Has the Ball

Oregon’s offense get all the publicity but Ohio State’s offense is every bit as potent. The Buckeyes rank 6th in yards per play (6.8), 8th in yards per game (509.7), and 3rd in third-down conversion success (51.9%).

Sophomore Cardale Jones runs the anchor leg on the season-long relay race that has been the staffing of Ohio State’s QB position, after Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett both ended up sidelined with injuries. Jones combines Gronkowskian size (6’5”, 250 pounds) and a cannon arm befitting the nickname “12 Gauge”,which he displayed on this TD pass to senior WR Devin Smith against Alabama:

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In his two games, Jones has worked extremely well with Smith; the wideout only logged six receptions in the those two games, but he averaged 37.3 yards per catch while notching four TDs. Leading target Michael Thomas has also adapted to Jones’ throws, hauling in 10 catches for 107 yards and a TD.

Like his predecessors, Jones can also run the ball but, unlike Barrett and Miller, Jones is more freight train than jitterbug – a bit like another Urban Meyer quarterback, Tim Tebow.

Alabama had little tape on Jones; OSU blew out Wisconsin and he only threw 17 passes. With 35 more attempts against Bama, Oregon has had a chance to scout Jones and it will be interesting to see what wrinkles they throw at him in coverage.

In the backfield is leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott, who obliterated the Crimson Tide and Badgers. He racked up 1,632 yards and 14 TDs on the season, but in his last two games he’s logged 450 yards rushing and 4 TDs, breaking off runs of 80+ yards against each. He will play a vital role in moving the chains and giving the OSU defense some rest by keeping the Oregon offense off the field. If Elliott goes off in the title game, his team should be in good hands; the Buckeyes have won every game in which he’s rushed for at least 100 yards.

Among 138 FBS teams the Ducks’ defense ranked 84th, allowing 425 yards per game to opposing offenses. However the fast-paced offenses in the Pac-12, including Oregon’s, skew that number a bit. The Ducks’ opponents ran the 11th-most plays per game in the country, so in yards per play Oregon fares a bit better at 53rd. They also mitigated the yardage allowed by reeling in 30 turnovers (t-10th) for a +20 turnover margin, the nation’s best.

The Pac-12’s penchant for passing is reflected by the statistics of Oregon’s tackling leaders; four of the team’s top eight tacklers are defensive backs, including senior and leading tackler Erick Dargan, who racked up 8 stops against FSU. He also intercepted Jameis Winston, one of five Seminole turnovers forced by the Ducks (FSU fumbled six times, retaining possession twice).

Defensively, Oregon generates pressure with their linebackers, leaving the defensive line to stop the run. The Ducks’ top three sackers are all linebackers: junior Christian French, senior Tony Washington (who ran back a fumble for a TD against FSU), and sophomore and all-around terror Torrodney Prevot. Lineman DeForest Buckner leads the team in tackles for losses with 13, but only four were sacks: he has a nose for stopping rushes in the backfield.

In the defensive backfield, the Ducks never lost a step against FSU even while playing without All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. They added six pass breakups to Dargan’s interception.

Prediction

These two teams stack up quite evenly and turnovers will likely be the deciding line. FSU hung with Oregon until the Seminoles stopped taking care of the football. With more video footage of Jones available for study, Oregon should figure out a way to frazzle the inexperienced QB into some poor decisions.

Oregon 45, Ohio State 35

Video footage courtesy ESPN. All team statistics and rankings are against FBS teams only.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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