Monday, January 12, 2015

National Championship Preview

The inaugural championship game coming under the playoff format has finally arrived with a bittersweet taste to it. One one hand, this should be a fantastic game where each team will likely score at least five touchdowns and you can expect a combined final close to one hundred points. On the other hand, it marks the end of what has been one of the best seasons of college football in the past five or so years. These two teams are very similar in a lot of ways and have played each other eight times throughout their history. Ohio State has won all eight of those, but this Oregon team is easily the best that they have ever seen. The last game between these two was the 2010 Rose Bowl that Ohio State won, but since then Oregon has been to a title game while Ohio State has still been seeking their first appearance in seven years. Oregon has been paced by their Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, a dual threat who is expected to be selected with the first or second pick in the upcoming draft. Containing him will be a very difficult challenge, but the Buckeyes benefit a bit by the suspension of star freshman receiver Darren Carrington, who could not wait to smoke pot until after the biggest game of his life. Instead of the typical type of article I've done for games, I'm give the three keys for each team to capture the trophy.

Ohio State's Keys to Victory

1) The offensive line
It is a cliche to say that games are won and lost in the trenches, but it is completely true and is a huge reason why the Buckeyes were able to knock off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The offensive line gave Cardale a lot of time to go through his progressions and throw with a clean pocket while providing a lot of open running room for him and Ezekiel Elliott. Alabama had one of the best defensive lines in the country and they were completely dominated on the ground by a group of offensive lineman who looked like a total liability after the Virginia Tech game. There were a few times were Alabama was able to get to Cardale, but it was not as often as I had thought going into the game. They paved the way for Elliot to run for 230 yards, the first time Saban had given up 200 yards to a single runner during his tenure at Bama. The offensive line is going to have to have a similarly dominant game to keep the Buckeyes in it. Oregon has some good athletes along their defensive line, but they are not nearly as physical as Alabama is. They were able to dominate the Seminoles front, but Florida State had struggled all year in that department. Urban trusted Cardale to throw the ball 36 times against the Tide, and time in the pocket was a big reason for him to throw for over 200 yards and a touchdown. With possible first round pick Arik Armstead lurking on the edges, the offensive line that has played so well since the second game needs to continue that streak.

2) Receivers not named Devin Smith
By now most people are already aware of the exploits of Devin Smith. Smith has turned a mere 30 receptions in 799 yards and 11 touchdowns. The danger he poses as a vertical threat is well documented, but in this game secondary and tertiary options are going to have to have big games. Ohio State caught a bit of a break in this matchup with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu not playing due to a torn ACL a few weeks ago. Cornerback Troy Hill has stepped into his place, and while he has played admirably there is no doubt there has been a drop off in play. Hill is expected to cover Smith frequently tonight, so that is going to leave the door open for guys like Michael Thomas and Evan Spencer to make some big plays. Thomas is a guy who can turn a routine catch into a long touchdown with his acceleration. If he can get the ball in space, it is tough to take him down. He was huge against Alabama with seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown on a trick play. Spencer was a bit quieter, catching only one pass but he also throw a dime to Thomas on the aforementioned trick play. I'm really hoping to see a lot more out of the tight ends tonight. Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are both very good blockers, but they have good athleticism in the passing game and can really expose the defense down the seam. Oregon has some athletic linebackers, but with how rarely those two tight ends are used in the passing game, they might expect them break off the line down field. They cannot get overly dependent on Smith and the deep ball tonight and must distribute the ball accordingly.

3) The Conditioning of the Defense
I don't remember the exact quote by Urban, but paraphrased he said that you can't combat Oregon's speed, you combat fatigue. We will see just how in shape this unit is after a physically grueling battle against Alabama last week. Every layer of the defense is going to have to play a stellar game tonight to have a chance against one of the top ranked scoring offenses in the country. It is all going to start with the defensive line. They absolutely have to get pressure on Mariota and not allow him to break contain. His accuracy can be a bit streaky at times, but he is lethal if he is able to get into a rhythm and that offense is snapping the ball every 15 seconds. Joey Bosa, Steve Miller, and Rashad Frazier all need to keep him and running back Royce Freeman from getting to the perimeter. If Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett are able to collapse the pocket from the middle, Mariota will have to go through his progressions much quicker or make the decision to run. Just as importantly, the linebackers need to play soundly and not get out of position. They did well last week in gap assignment, but did allow a few long runs by Yeldon and Henry that Freeman can turn into a touchdown. They did a much better job of containing Sims to 29 yards on 10 rushes, but Mariota is so much more athletic. The secondary caught a break with Carrington out for suspension along with Devon Allen and tight end Pharaoh Brown out with injuries, but they cannot overlook what these other receivers are capable of. They will need to be disciplined to not bite on play action. This is easily the most improved unit since last season, ranking in the top twenty against the pass while being one of the worst last season. All of them need to be able to keep up with the face-paced offense.

Oregon's Keys to Victory

1) The Receivers
All of them. Whoever is left. Three of their top five targets are out this game for the reasons mentioned above which is going to put a big strain on the rest of the corps. Byron Marshall is the leading receiver with 66 catches for 834 yards, but only five touchdowns. He is a converted running back and is still learning some of the nuances of playing receiver. His route running is a bit raw, but he is explosive and can turn a ten yard reception into thirty yards in the blink of an eye. He will likely see corner Doran Grant tonight, a rangy senior who can make a play on the ball as evidenced by his five picks this year. On the season, Ohio State has picked off opposing quarterbacks 24 times, an average of almost two a game. Safety Vonn Bell has been the catalyst with six on the year and is a true asset playing that center fielder role for the Buckeyes. After Marshall, the next leading receiver in this game for Oregon will be Dwayne Stanford who has caught 39 passes for 578 yards and six touchdowns. He will likely be asked to play the role of deep threat with Carrington out and is going to have to make some big plays. Oregon is going to have a tall order, but the good thing for them is that Mariota rarely locks on to one receiver and force feed him the ball. He is great at going through his reads and finding the open man. Yet as I mentioned, his accuracy isn't always as great as you would think and he can miss some wide open receivers. His guys are going to have to run crisp routes tonight or Ohio State is going to be in a great position to defend passes and even pick off Mariota.

2) The Front Seven
Cardale Jones is a pretty solid quarterback, but Urban is going to rely on Ezekiel Elliott a lot tonight to keep the offense humming. I've already outlined just how well Ohio State's offensive line and Elliott have been playing over the last two weeks, and I get the feeling that could continue in this game. Oregon allowed freshman star Dalvin Cook to have a big game on the ground last week as he ran for 103 yards on 15 carries before being benched for fumbling twice. The Ducks have given up over 150 yards on the ground this season but really haven't seen anyone as good as Elliott. The Ducks are also going to have to be aware of Cardale Jones, who can grind out tough yards and break tackles that a smaller quarterback wouldn't be able to. The defensive line needs to create pressure and shut down running lanes before Elliott or Cardale is able to hit them. Elliott has ripped off two runs longer than 80 yards in the last two games, so one player out of position for Oregon could mean the end. They will also have to have great eye discipline as Urban is sure to go into his bag of tricks and use a lot of misdirections. I'm not sure if they can stop the rush attack, but they need to try and keep Ohio State collectively under 200 yards.

3) Head Coach Mark Helfrich
Helfich has never been in a game of this magnitude before. The Rose Bowl is one thing, and it was an incredible performance, but this is a whole new league for a second year head coach. This isn't like the previous fifteen years where coaches have almost a full month to prepare of the title game. Helfrich has had just under two weeks to try and match wits against Urban and throw some wrinkles that the Buckeyes have never seen. It will be interesting to see how he responds to this tall order. Urban was a psychology major in college and by all accounts this gives him a huge advantage because he is able to keep his kids calm and loose while still maintaining a high level of focus. The same cannot be said for Helfrich, but there is no denying that he has picked up right where Chip Kelly left off and has this program among one of the nations's elite. I'm very curious to see how he handles a few things tonight. Does he have Mariota throw the ball 25 times or more with so many of their receivers out of the game? Does he split carries between Freeman and Thomas Tyner, or does he force feed one of them to try and get them going? How does he react on defense if Ohio State starts to pull away? It is a lot to ask of a coach making his first championship game appearance, but I truly do believe Helfrich is ready and won't let the moment get too big. He was the offensive coordinator under Kelly that took them to a title game against Auburn, so he should have at least an idea of what to expect. Still, it is hard to bet against Urban after he put up 42 on the vaunted Tide defense.

Prediction: 42-40, Oregon Ducks

That's right, I'm picking the Ducks in this one. I've picked against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and in the Sugar Bowl, and I'm not going to stop now. Maybe it is superstition or maybe it is me not trying to get my hopes up too high for this game. Make no mistake, I think that if this game is played ten times the Buckeyes would split the series evenly. As shown by the score, I definitely believe this will be a high scoring shoot out. Both teams' offenses are simply too good to be kept out of the endzone, so this will likely come down which team makes the critical mistake. Mariota has thrown an other-worldly forty touchdowns to just three picks, but he had some difficulties against Florida State and has a well documented fumbling issue. However, Cardale is making just his third start of his career, each becoming exponentially more important than the previous. If he can eliminate the mistakes, Ohio State's chances of winning this improve drastically. And I know that Oregon has choked a lot in games like this recently, but this team just has a slightly different feel to it than the previous ones. Either way, this has all the makings of an instant classic. That being said, Go Bucks.

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