Though it’s the final days of the season in January, and not early weeks of the season in August, The Oregonian and OregonLive are doing two-a-days in the run-up to the College Football Playoff national championship between No. 2 Oregon and No. 4 Ohio State. Each day leading up to the Jan. 12 kickoff at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, we will preview two position matchups each day.

Today: Oregon’s linebackers vs. Ohio State’s running backs.

This is the matchup that could potentially have more impact on the game than anything else. Sure, Ohio State has made the headlines over the last two games with the rags-to-riches story of its third-string quarterback. Yes, Oregon’s secondary has been revamped and will be tested, but no matchup may be more important than the Buckeyes’ pounding running game against Oregon’s linebackers.

And on paper, the Buckeyes have the advantage.

Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott is without a question one of the best backs in the game. After spending his freshman season behind Carlos Hyde, Elliott came out of nowhere to rush for 1,632 yards on 237 carries and post 14 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 100 yards or more eight times and has only gotten better as the season has gone on. In the Big Ten title game and the Sugar Bowl, Elliott eclipsed the 200-yard marker in both contests — shredding Alabama for a career-high 230 yards.

The Alabama performance was outstanding, but the most impressive was Ohio State’s 268 total rushing yards against Michigan State — the country’s No. 1 rush defense.

It will be a tough matchup for Oregon’s linebackers, a unit that has been good at times and occasionally great. The Ducks rotate between a pass-oriented middle linebacking corps of Derrick Malone and Johnny Ragin and run-stopping starters Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick.

Led by outside linebacker Tony Washington, seven Ducks linebackers are among the team’s top 10 in tackles for loss this season, joined by Walker, OLB Christian French, OLB Tyson Coleman, Hardrick, OLB Torrodney Prevot and Malone.

The Ducks, at times, have a tendency of giving up lengthy yardage plays up the middle, but a lot of that has been fixed with the increasingly good play of Walker. His 74 tackles, third-most on the team, shows how far this unit has come after losing three key backups in the offseason to transfer or disciplinary measures. 

Oregon’s allowed just over 150 rushing yards per game, a number that has been kept down due to the Ducks’ tendency to be leading in the second half. They’ve been bad at times, allowing 328 yards and two touchdowns to UCLA, but lately they’ve been good. In the Pac-12 title game, Oregon limited Arizona’s Nick Wilson — one of the country’s best young runners — to just 26 yards on 13 attempts. 

There is one pro for the Ducks’ run defense in this game. Cardale Jones, Ohio State’s third-string-turned-starting quarterback isn’t a comparable runner to J.T. Barrett, the quarterback he’s replacing. While Ohio State will occasionally try to bounce it outside, the loss of Barrett takes some of the width out of the field, meaning the head-on matchup of Walker/Hardrick against Elliott could be one for the ages.

Next up: Marcus Mariota vs. Ohio State’s defense

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