Championship game | Oregon vs. Ohio State: Who has the edge? – USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken and George Schroeder tell you what to watch for and share their predictions.
USA TODAY Sports national college football writer Paul Myerberg analyzes the Oregon-Ohio State College Football Playoff championship game:
Oregon center Hroniss Grasu expects to be at full strength. That’s a huge boost for the Ducks’ front, which went through eight different starting lineups on the road to Monday night. The line turned a corner in early October with the return of left tackle Jake Fisher, providing the offense with more time and room to operate in the passing game and on the ground. At this point, Oregon’s line is playing its best football of the season.
FOOTBALL FOUR: Rating and debating college football and the Playoff
Like Oregon, the Buckeyes’ offensive front has improved on a weekly basis. Once considered a potential weak link, the line now stands as an unquestioned team strength. Led by this group, the offense racked up 547.5 yards a game and 8.17 yards per play in victories against Wisconsin and Alabama. That the Buckeyes are strong at the two tackle spots, with Taylor Decker on the left side and Darryl Baldwin on the right, should help handle the Ducks’ standout defensive ends.
EDGE: Ohio State
Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, Evan Spencer and Jalin Marshall give Ohio State four very reliable targets in the passing game. Thomas, Smith and Marshall give this offense a sense of big-play potential; Spencer, if less explosive, is a trustworthy option in the intermediate game. Each has stepped up his game even as the offense transitioned to sophomore Cardale Jones. By this point, the entire receiver corps has developed a terrific rapport with the new starting quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Devon Allen’s injury will have a profound impact on Oregon’s receiver corps and return game. As will the late report that Darren Carrington is suspended for the game. But dealing with injuries is nothing new for the Ducks’ receivers, who have flourished despite dealing with a number of losses since the offseason. This group will make plays through the air but do fantastic — and overlooked — work as blockers on the edge in Oregon’s running game. If not quite as deep as Ohio State, the Ducks aren’t short on speed, talent and explosiveness.
EDGE: Ohio State
Oregon is blessed with the nation’s best player regardless of position in quarterback Marcus Mariota. Pure athleticism separates Mariota from the pack, but what should frighten Ohio State is his ability to deliver while under pressure. Teams have tried to force Mariota to move his feet and play outside the pocket; each time, Mariota made defenses pay by extending plays with his legs. He can’t be stopped, nor can he even be contained.
Cardale Jones has been a revelation since replacing injured J.T. Barrett before the Big Ten Conference title game. While perhaps at his most dangerous outside the pocket, his next-level arm strength grants Ohio State’s offense a sense of danger in the downfield passing game. When combined, Jones’ size, speed, strength and arm make for a dangerous combination for Oregon’s defense. But he’s no Mariota — because few are.
Quietly, Ohio State sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott has played like an All-America selection. He was at his best in the Sugar Bowl, ripping through Alabama’s talented defense for 230 yards and two scores. In his last two games, Elliott has run for a combined 450 yards and four touchdowns. Jones has chipped in, bruising and intimidating defensive backs with his physical style, but the Buckeyes’ ground game rolls through Elliott. He’ll have Oregon’s undivided attention.
Oregon has its own star underclassman in true freshman Royce Freeman, who paces the Pac-12 Conference with 18 rushing touchdowns. Teaming Freeman with Mariota, who added 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground, gives the Ducks perhaps the most dynamic rushing combination in college football. The numbers bear this out: Freeman and Mariota combine for an average of 148.14 rushing yards a game.
Ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner give Oregon two lengthy, strong and physical anchors for its 3-4 defensive set. Florida State thought it could get to the corner and find open space for its running game in the Rose Bowl; Armstead and Buckner cut down the Seminoles’ plan in its tracks. Ohio State will devote plenty of attention to this pair, knowing that its own running game depends on corralling each at the point of attack.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes’ own defensive line is the best in college football. Sophomore end Joey Bosa has already developed into an elite defender, one who dominates on passing downs and controls the corner against the run. On the inside, tackle Michael Bennett heads into the title game playing the best football of his career. With Bosa and Bennett drawing constant double teams, tackle Adolphus Washington might be in line for a big performance.
EDGE: Ohio State
Curtis Grant has been dependable in the middle, but the biggest story among Ohio State’s linebackers has been the play of freshman Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillan. Lee in particular has been a revelation, starting every game of his redshirt freshman season and performing at an all-conference level since the start of Big Ten play. McMillan has provided a spark behind Grant, giving the Buckeyes some big-play moments in what is essentially a co-starter role.
Oregon’s linebackers get lost in the shuffle behind a strong defensive front and an experienced secondary, but the starting quartet more than made its mark in the Rose Bowl win against the Seminoles. What this group does best is disrupt plays in the backfield, rushing the passer and forcing opposing offenses into crucial missteps. If the Ducks’ linebackers can wobble Jameis Winston, it stands to reason they can do the same to Jones. The Ducks might hold a slight edge on the second level, but it’s close.
Oregon was able to defeat Florida State without All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a season-ending injury during the run-up to the Rose Bowl. But surviving without Ekpre-Olomu will demand a consistent pass rush from Oregon’s front seven. If so, look for cornerback Troy Hill and safety Erick Dargan to gamble at times in the quest for turnovers. If the pass rush struggles, the Ducks secondary will need to bend but not break against Jones and Ohio State’s downfield passing game.
Outside of one atypical performance against Cincinnati on Sept. 27, the Buckeyes’ secondary has been one of the nation’s best. At the same time, it’s safe to say the following: Ohio State has yet to face a quarterback of Mariota’s caliber — or an offense of Oregon’s explosiveness. But this young defensive backfield has played beyond its years, quickly grasping new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s coverage scheme.
EDGE: Ohio State
Ohio State’s production on kickoff returns has sputtered without running back Dontre Wilson, who missed the Buckeyes’ past four games with an injury. Even if he returns for the national championship (listed as probable), it’s hard to say what sort of impact Wilson will be able to provide in the return game. But the Buckeyes are in good hands with Jalin Marshall, who has a punt return for a touchdown on his résumé, and can normally rely on sophomore punter Cameron Johnston to flip field position with his big leg.
Losing Allen deals a tough blow to Oregon’s return game. In addition, Oregon has yet to show complete trust in its kicking game, leading to fourth-down tries in scoring territory rather than field goals, and the Dunks rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in punting average. In a game that could come down to one big play, the special teams aren’t in Oregon’s favor.
EDGE: Ohio State
Mark Helfrich has continued Oregon’s run of success since ascending from offensive coordinator as Chip Kelly’s successor before last season. He’s given the program a sense of energy while installing some bells and whistles to an already effective offense. Nearly every member of Oregon’s coaching staff was on the sidelines the last time the program played for the national championship in early 2011, so the stakes and pressure will be nothing new.
But no staff in college football has been as impressive as Urban Meyer and his crew of assistants. On offense, Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have placed the Buckeyes’ attack among the upper crust of the Football Bowl Subdivision despite two potentially crippling injuries at quarterback. Defensively, Ash and co-coordinator Luke Fickell have balanced the youthful back seven with a ferocious front four. All told, this group has done a memorable job getting Ohio State to this point.
EDGE: Ohio State
There’s something to be said for Ohio State’s mental toughness. There’s even more to be said for Meyer’s track record in the postseason — he’s won two national titles and lost just twice in nine bowl games. Meyer knows exactly what buttons to push to get his team ready for the bright lights of the national championship.
The Ducks just ooze confidence, which isn’t surprising: Oregon hasn’t been truly tested since an October loss to Arizona, after all. But further confidence comes from the idea that this team is firing on all cylinders. The offense is one of the best in program history. The defense has shown an ability to force turnovers. And when push comes to shove, the defense finds confidence in the idea that it needs only to find one or two big plays to give the offense the added opportunities it needs to put the Buckeyes away.
EDGE: Ohio State