The College Football National Championship Preview: Ohio State-Oregon

The path to this game for both Ohio State and Oregon was most likely not the ideal one if you were to ask both head coaches and fan bases, but never the less, they have arrived at the ultimate goal. Oregon’s path involved overcoming perceptions of being too soft and flashy to be taken seriously, as they dismantled Michigan State and Stanford throughout the year. They also lost key players throughout the season and at times had to adopt a mentality that Ohio State faced from the opening of fall camp, next man up. After an early October loss to Arizona, many began to write off the post Chip Kelly Oregon Ducks. However, led by their Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Ducks have reeled off 9 straight including two consecutive blow-out victories in the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl. They enter this contest missing key players, including the Ducks leading receiver Devon Allen and their best corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, but the Ducks managed to not miss a beat against Florida State missing both players so expect them to be in full attack mode regardless of who takes the field for them.

For Ohio State the phrase next man up was not an adopted phrase used on and off during the year, it was a lifestyle for this team. Beginning with the seven NFL starters they lost from last years team, followed by the loss of Braxton Miller and Noah Spence, and then the sudden loss of J.T. Barrett, this team has had to learn and grow on the fly all season. Despite how green and naive this team was, Urban Meyer and his coaching staff, masterly guided this team through the storm of injuries and question marks. The one blemish on their record was an early season loss to Virginia Tech in which their quarterback and majority of offensive line were just in the second start of their respected careers. Since that loss Ohio State has proved doubters wrong all year. They traveled East Lansing and dismantled the defending Big Ten Champions Michigan State. They would continue on to the Big Ten Title game, where as under dogs and their third string quarterback at the helm in his first start, they shut out Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers and hung up 59 points in route to claiming the first conference title under Urban Meyer. Following that massive win the Buckeyes were matched up with the world beaters and number one team in the country Alabama in the national semifinal. The Buckeyes would overcome an early 21-6 deficit and roll the Crimson Tide in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated, 42-35.

With the mini-season review in the books, lets begin to take a look at how these two teams match-up.

Ohio State Offense vs. Oregon Defense

The Buckeyes offense comes running in to the title game as balanced as it has been all season. Expect a similar look in the national title game. The Buckeye offense isn’t predictable, but it is at the same time. It’s predictable in the sense that if it can run inside zone then it will continue to run it until you can stop it. Generally speaking you’ll see inside zone, followed by a touch pass or jet sweep to stretch the defense horizontally, then either a deep crosser or shot down field off of play-action. That is generally the sequence of plays that this offense flows in regardless of who is at quarterback and who is lining up on the other side of the field.

However, against Oregon, I could see the Buckeyes taking more advantage of the run game and leaning on that more than they do on the arm of Jones. Its not that the coaching staff does not trust Jones, its just that Oregon allows teams to run the ball and it is somewhat by design. They do not over commit players in to the box. Even against Florida State the Ducks were content to allow the Noles to gain rushing yardage as long as their backs weren’t breaking off big plays. Therefore, I expect Zeke to have a good day rushing the ball. It is very conceivable that he could average 5 to 6 yards a carry, but the important stat for him in this game will be runs of 15+ yards. If Zeke begins to break off those runs and one or two go for a touchdown then it could change how the Ducks attack. The Ducks can implement a Bear look in their 3-4 defense, but I would be shocked to see Buckeye coaches and players not understand how to attack it.

When passing the ball the Ducks tend to only rush four and drop seven. They do have quality pass rushers and their four can definitely get home without needing extra blitzers, however, the majority of Oregon’s success versus Jameis Winston was based in the quality of their coverage rather than their four getting home quickly. Oregon does a very good job of disguising it’s zone and man coverage and almost always plays two deep safeties. Therefore, the middle of the field behind the linebackers should be open to exploit. Winston was able to at times exploit this area but their offense was never able to get in to rhythm due to the high volume of drops, turnovers, overthrows, and overall poor execution.

The bottom line in this part of the match-up is this: Oregon’s defense has holes that are able to be exploited, however they put every ounce of pressure on you to exploit them. If you make any ounce of a mistake they will make you pay by forcing a turnover and their offense is very good at making you pay twice by turning it in to points. The Buckeye’s success in this game will come down to red zone efficiency and the turnover battle. Unlike Alabama, Oregon’s offense is much less forgiving when opposing offenses stumble at points in the game.

Oregon Offense vs. Ohio State Defense

This is probably the more interesting match-up for both fan bases. The Ducks feel as though they have an unstoppable force with Mariota at the helm, and more often than not they are correct. This year, however, it isn’t just Mariota who is behind the success of the Ducks offense. The way Oregon attacks a defense is very similar to the way Ohio State does. Both coaching staffs have exchanged ideas several times so it is no surprise to see both offense look as similar as they do.

Like Ohio State’s offense, Oregon’s bread and butter is the inside power run. However, for the first time, the Ducks have a true power runner to run inside the tackles unlike previous years. Royce Freeman, true freshman from Imperial, California, has led the ducks in rushing this season running for over 1300 yards and 18 touchdowns. Freeman has a similar build to Zeke being 6’1, 230 pounds. His inside power has given the Ducks offense that extra “umph”. How important is that “umph”? Urban Meyer can easily say it put his offensive juggernaut over the top. Meyer never had a thousand yard rusher at running back until he coached two very physical runners, Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott, both of whom flourished with the inside zone run. Is Freeman as talented as Hyde and Elliott? Absolutely. And it gets worse.

The Ducks work off of that inside power and transition it to an inside read with Mariota who is the lightning to Freeman’s thunder. Unlike Braxton, Mariota is a north and south runner who gets north a lot faster than any other player in the country. Being that Mariota is a senior and has taken hundreds of snap in this offense his ball handling skills are the best in college football. A player that has comparable skills to Mariota when it comes to ball handling in the option offense? Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. So the Buckeyes will have had some experience but they faced Reynolds months ago and the Navy offense did not run at the tempo the Ducks offense did.

When the Ducks do get running at tempo, which is almost all the time, Mariota has just about mastered his decision making. The Ducks have built in checks to their offense so if Mariota notices a corner playing off and the box loaded he can read the play and throw the screen. This is what makes the Ducks offense so dangerous. They hit you with the run game vertically, mix in tempo, then attack you horizontally, mix in more tempo, throw the option game at you, followed by more tempo, and then hit you with a deep crosser where their receiver can pick up yards after the catch. This offense is almost a spitting image of what the Ohio State offense would look like if you put Braxton Miller’s legs on JT Barrett and added some wide receiver screens to the play calling, oh and speed it up by about 10. Now that I’ve properly scared you, here’s how you combat the offense, bend but don’t break and keep the ball away.

Do I think Ohio State has the talent to walk on the field and “shut down” the Oregon offense? No. The reason being is you don’t shut down this offense with sheer talent, ask Florida State. It takes negative plays, turnovers, and out executing them to beat them, very familiar to how you slow down Ohio State. Mariota will throw up a couple of questionable jump balls and if he does the Ohio State defense and offense have to capitalize.

If you hold this Oregon offense to less than 35 points then you should absolutely have a chance. Why 35? The one loss Oregon has this year it scored 24 points versus Arizona, every other game the Ducks scored no less than 38 points and won. This title game should be one for the ages. Best of luck to both teams, hope everyone enjoys!

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