All hail the king of college football. I know how good of a coach Nick Saban is and how he has won more titles than Urban has, but I honestly don't think that even he could have pulled off what Urban did this year with the quarterback situation. It is completely unprecedented for a team to go through three quarterbacks in a season and be as successful as Ohio State was this year. Despite an early season hiccup against Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes were one of the most dominant teams in the country and put it fully on display during these last three games against Wisconsin, Alabama, and now Oregon. Ohio State beat those three teams by an average score of 48-17 and really, none of them ever felt close expect the very beginning and end of the Sugar Bowl. There are two things that I've noticed after this most frequent victory to cap the season. Urban Meyer has faced the reigning Heisman winner in each title game he has coached. He beat Troy Smith and Ohio State in 2006, Sam Bradford at Oklahoma in 2008, and now Mariota. His ability to game plan for any situation is totally unparalleled. The second is that he faced all three of the Heisman candidates in successive games and been able to contain all of them to relatively poor performances from the season norm. Melvin Gordon only gained 76 yards, Amari Cooper caught nine passes for 71 yards, albeit with two touchdown catches, and Mariota threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns, but didn't generate the big plays that Oregon needed. But it was much more than just Mariota that caused Oregon to stall in this game. Here's how the keys to the game played out for each team.
Ohio State Buckeyes
1) The offensive line
This unit deserves most of the praise for how the offense played in this game. Ezekiel Elliott had a big game and made a lot of huge plays, but for the most part he had big holes to run through all night. Oregon's defensive line and linebackers had no chance against Ohio State's offensive line which allowed Elliott to run for 246, a championship game record, and four touchdowns and was essentially the reason why the Buckeyes won. Elliott basically wasn't touched until he was already five yards up field. I don't have an exact stat to confirm this, but I don't think that any of his carries went for negative yards. The offensive line gave him a huge hole when Oregon had pinned Ohio State on their one yard line midway through the second quarter. In addition to running lanes, they kept Cardale protected for most of the night. He was hit on a few plays but was never given a clean shot as the tackles held up against two very good defensive ends. Cardale is big enough that he managed to shake off a lot of would be sacks, but they gave him a ton of time to go through his progressions and find the most open man. Four starters return to the front next season, so you can expect to see this kind of production contain for a long time.
2) Receivers not named Devin Smith
Devin Smith had a relatively quiet game, but his one catch for 45 yards put Ohio State in a position to take the lead for good late in the first quarter. But what was more impressive was how so many other guys stepped up to make big plays, and come back more resilient after making mistakes. Corey Smith fumbled the ball in Oregon's territory that completely killed a promising drive while Jalin Marshall bobbled the ball directly into a linebackers hands again in Oregon territory. However, Marshall redeemed himself with five catches for 52 yards, beating his man routinely in the mid range routes. Smith had two catches for 76 yards, while Michael Thomas chipped in four catches for 53 yards. The receiving core really made Cardale's life a lot easier by getting open and giving him a huge window to throw into. He connected on 16 of his 23 passes and really moved the ball well down field outside of his two fumbles. And finally, after all of my begging, there was a tight end sighting. Nick Vannett had only two catches, but one was for a one yard touchdown that gave the permanent lead. You really couldn't have asked for a much better game out of this core despite the two mistakes that led to turnovers. They will lose some talent next year at this position, but there are plenty of guys in the wings.
3) The conditioning of the defense
As good as the offensive line and Elliott played in this game, I still think that the defense is the biggest reason that Ohio State won this game. They kept a team that had been averaging 45 points a game to only 20 points, and in all honesty they were lucky to get those points. Every level of this defense played lights out, but I think the most impressive unit was the defensive line that harassed Mariota, never showing any signs of slowing down. He didn't always have time to throw before he was flushed out of the pocket and had to make a play on the run. They also did a great job of closing down running lanes and absolutely stuffing Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, who gained a mere 3.8 yards per carry. The linebackers, again led by redshirt freshman Darron Lee, had perfect gap assignment on the night, not allowing a run longer than 11 yards and keeping a dangerous dual threat quarterback to only 39 yards on ten carries. Ohio State got punched in the mouth early as Oregon went down field in less than three minutes, most plays being rushes, to take an early seven point lead. They responded by keeping Oregon out of the endzone twice on fourth down. They were put in compromising positions often as the offense turned it over four times, twice being in Ohio State's territory. The secondary only allowed one big play on the night, but otherwise was very impressive at containing big plays. Mariota completed 24 of his 37 passes, but just couldn't connect on a few big plays because of coverage. Redshirt freshman Eli Apple made one of the best plays by forcing a tight end out of bounds to make Oregon settle for a field goal. The defense is going to go through a few changes at key positions next year, but there is so much talent they really shouldn't skip a beat.
1) The receivers
You can't blame Mariota for the drops. On two consecutive drives in the first quarter, drops on third down really slowed down whatever momentum they had built up. Dwayne Stanford dropped a thirty yard pass that he might have been able to take for a touchdown while Keanon Lowe dropped another sure fired first down. Both times, they just flat out dropped it. Byron Marshall was really the only reliable target for Mariota and even he was held in check for most of the night outside of one play. It was pretty obvious that they really missed the few guys that they were missing due to injury or suspension. Darren Carrington had caught 14 passes in the previous two games and had emerged as a reliable deep threat that can utilize both speed and his height. They were able to make some plays, but Mariota had a lot of bad angles to throw from since he was forced to move a lot on the night. This unit was one of the most disappointing for Oregon all night. The drops really cost them a chance to put up some points before Ohio State created an insurmountable lead.
2) The front seven
As can be ascertained from the offensive line write up from above, the defensive line and linebackers really had a rough night. They couldn't pressure Cardale save for a few plays and got dominated in the run game. Urban Meyer could have given Elliott or Cardale the ball on every play to run and would've dominated this game even more. As has been the case a lot for Oregon against better teams, they looked soft on defense.
3) Head Coach Mark Helfrich
I heard on the radio the other day that Mark Helfrich doesn't believe in half time adjustments because he doesn't want to let the other team dictate his team. That logic got his team's ass kicked as he simply could not stop the two run plays that Urban had drawn up for the night. His defense had no answer for an offensive line that was more physical than they had seen, and the offense had superior athletes and execution. Urban really didn't do anything too crazy with trick plays or misdirections. He just straight up ran it at them and mixed in some easy throws for Cardale that generated big plays. Helfrich really didn't either and really tried to have Mariota dictate the game, but with Ohio State's defensive front seven playing so well against the run, Oregon lost a huge part of their offense. Ohio State was able to commit only four or five defensive backs most of the plays which made windows a lot smaller for Mariota's passes. After turning four Florida State turnovers into touchdowns, the Ducks were able to generate only 10 points off of Ohio State's four turnovers. Helfrich seems like a good coach and should be able to keep Oregon at a relatively high level of success, but there is no denying that he was completely overmatched in this game. Better luck next year, Ducks.
Final: Ohio State Buckeyes 42-20