This marks the first meeting between the Buckeyes and Ducks since 2009, when Ohio State defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl. In the previous eight meetings between these teams, Oregon has never managed to win a game. History is not going to matter too much in this matchup but it is definitely not in the Ducks' favor. In that 2009 Rose Bowl loss, Oregon's signal caller was Jeremiah Masoli, who ended up transferring to Ole Miss following the season. This year the Ducks have Heisman winner Marcus Mariota under center, which is certainly a major upgrade over Masoli. Mariota might not be the only reason the Ducks are in the title game but he is definitely a key component to this championship run. The Hawaiian-born quarterback has been nothing short of excellent this year amassing 4121 passing yards and 56 total touchdowns, 40 through the air, 15 on the ground and even 1 receiving. He has a quarterback rating of 184.3, ranking as one of the best single season marks in history. Mariota was also one of the best avoiding turnovers throwing only 3 interceptions on 408 attempts. That means that Mariota threw an interception on less than 1 percent of his throws. He accomplished all of this while completing a career high 68.6 percent of his passes as well. He will be the focal point of this Oregon squad.
Mariota struggled a bit more than we are used to seeing at the beginning of the Florida State game but settled down and had a stellar second half. It will be largely up to the Ohio State defense to keep the Buckeyes in this game. The offense can score, as we saw when it racked up 42 points against a top defense in Alabama on New Year's Day, but the defense will need to keep Mariota and this high flying Duck's attack in check. This group will be up to the task. The Buckeye's secondary came up with three interceptions of Blake Sims last week and the defensive line limited the big plays from Bama's tailback duo of Xavier Henry and T.J. Yeldon. This pass rush also registered 43 sacks on the season, which ranks ninth in FBS. This defense is explosive and can make Mariota uncomfortable. Ohio State is also the type of team that could really do a lot of damage to the Duck's offense but not in the way you would think. The Buckeyes’ grounded out 281 yards rushing against the nation’s second best run defense in the Sugar Bowl. Oregon ranks all the way down at fiftieth in terms of run defense and that could spell trouble for the Ducks. If Ohio State can run the ball effectively with Ezekiel Elliot, they will not only wear out Oregon, they will also limit the number of chances Mariota gets to make plays on offense. Usually, Oregon's fast paced offense has tired out defenses by the end of games, making it easy to score, but if the Ducks are getting fewer drives then Ohio State's defense should be able to hold up for the entirety of the game. That should be Ohio States game plan going into this game: run the ball and keep the Heisman winning quarterback for the Ducks on the sideline. Elliot will be the center of the Buckeye's attack, and if he gets rolling, it could spell the end for Oregon's title hopes.
Oregon's defense might have a slight edge though as they will get to face Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones in only his third career start. The Buckeye's are rolling right now and changing quarterbacks for the second time this season has not seemed to affect them but Jones is still young and learning. The sophomore from Cleveland struggled against Alabama's defense, particularly when the Buckeye's were in passing downs. He completed only 51.4 percent of his passes and definitely seemed like he was not fully ready to handle throwing more than twice as many passes in the Sugar Bowl than he did in the Big Ten Championship game. Oregon's pass rush is talented as well registering 36 sacks on the year. If Oregon can find a way to slow down the Ohio State running game and force the Buckeyes into third and long situations, we could see some the Buckeyes' offense stalling quite a bit. I would not be surprised if the Ducks defense crowds the box and forces Jones to beat them using his arm. It is risky but the kid is still fairly young and is liable to make some costly mistakes.
The players might be on the field, but the coaches control the game. These two coaches come from very different backgrounds. Ohio State's Urban Meyer has two national titles to his name from his time with the Florida Gators. Mark Helfrich spent a few years as the offensive coordinator in Oregon following his time at Colorado as the offensive coordinator. Meyer has eight years of head coaching experience; Helfrich is just completing his second season as the lead man in Pacific Northwest. Both have been extremely successful in their respective coaching careers. Meyer and Helfrich are a combined 49-6 over the past two years. Neither one of them is going to back down and both know what this would mean to their respective programs. For Meyer, it would be validating that Ohio State is back and that the Big 10 can be a premier conference. For Helfrich, it will be the school's first national title and completely pull Helfrich out of Chip Kelly's shadow. These two are both great coaches and should have many more years of running top programs but only one will be the first ever college football playoff champion.
As for which of them it will be raising that trophy while soaked in Gatorade, it is a tough call. Oregon's offense is second to none but the suspension of freshman wide receiver Darren Carrington is a big blow. He was a big play machine against Florida State accounting for 165 yards and two touchdowns. At the same time, Ohio State is still trying to find their way offensively with a quarterback in his third ever start on the biggest stage possible. The first half will be full of experimentation by both teams as we see what these coaches have cooked up over the past week and half for this game. I really like Ohio State's chances in this game, but I cannot go against the Heisman winner in Mariota. He won the award for his continually incredible play and I think, in the end, he will be the difference maker. This game will absolutely be high scoring and Ohio State will be competitive but Oregon wins 47-38.