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NEW: Meet the Buckeyes Who Will Help Decide the NCAA Championship

Monday, January 12, 2015


Tonight is arguably the biggest game in the history of college football, as the Pac-12 Champion Oregon Ducks are set to square off against the Big Ten Champion Ohio State Buckeyes in the first ever College Football Playoff Championship Game in Dallas, Texas. As with any championship game a majority of this week will consist of supposed “experts” breaking down the two teams from every angle, dissecting all the key matchups on both sides of the ball, and using a myriad of statistical measures in order to predict a winner.

Luckily for you guys, I am no expert. I have no idea if Ohio State’s Cover 2 defense will be able to slow down Oregon’s vertical passing game, or if the Duck’s 3-4 scheme is going to be eaten up by the power running game of the Buckeyes. Heck, I don’t even know if Ohio State plays a Cover 2, let alone what it’s designed to stop.

I do know, however, that this is an incredibly even matchup between two teams fresh off of convincing wins over two of the most storied programs in college football history, and predicting the outcome with any sort of confidence is a futile effort. At the end of the day, whoever plays best on Monday is going to win. Pretty hard hitting analysis, huh?

Really, as with most championship games, this one will likely come down to star players and which coach can best put those players in the position to make the game changing plays. Of course, as a fan, sitting on your couch (or pacing anxiously around the room) and enjoying a finely crafted local microbrew (or shotgunning PBRs… I won’t judge), we don’t all have the time to study up on each and every opponent.

At this point, I’d think most of my readers are well versed on the Ducks and their top players. The guys who always seem to step up in the big games and make the big plays. Royce Freeman, Erick Dargan, Arik Armstead, Darren Carrington, oh, and some guy by the name of Marcus Mariota. These are the guys that if you see making big plays, you feel pretty confident that the Ducks are going to be ahead on the scoreboard.

But, what about the other side? Who are the guys on the Ohio State side of the field who Buckeye fans will be looking at to make the back breaking play? The guys that Duck fans should be keeping an eye Monday night. Those dirty rotten rascals who would dare try to ruin Marcus Mariota’s storybook ending.

Well, without further ado, let me introduce you to your newfound mortal enemies, Duck fans:

Ezekial Elliot

Both teams are led by young and explosive running backs who will be key to establishing control over the game. While this will be far from an old school, clock eating, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust type of game, both of these teams rely heavily on a well-established ground attack to keep the chains moving and keep opposing defenses on their heels.

Elliot is a sophomore who, despite a somewhat slow start to the season, has exploded over the past few games, turning in one of the all-time great running back seasons in the history of Ohio State (which is saying something). Heading into Monday night, only Eddie George, Keith Byars and Archie Griffin have accounted for more rushing yards than Elliot’s 1,632 on the season. That’s some pretty solid company.

Most impressively, though, is that he’s saved his best performances for the biggest games. Against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Alabama, Elliot has accumulated 604 yards and 6 touchdowns on 63 carries, for a whopping 9.6 yards per carry average. Of course that average is definitely buoyed by a pair of 80+ yard runs against Wisconsin and Alabama.

Needless to say, if Elliot is anywhere near 200 yards and 10 ypc on Monday night, it’s going to be a long day for the Ducks. While he’s likely to get his fair share of yards regardless, it’ll be limiting the big, explosive runs that will be the priority. If the Ducks can keep him in the 120 yard range, and his long run to around 20 yards, rather than 80, they’ll probably be pretty happy.

Devin Smith

While the Ducks are known for their big play ability, the Bucks are no slouch in this department. The single biggest contributor to this is wide receiver Devin Smith, undoubtedly the biggest deep threat in college football this season.

The Ducks have made a living off of a “bend but don’t break” defense that doesn’t allow big plays, particularly over the top of the secondary. However, with the loss of lockdown corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to a knee injury, the Ducks could be vulnerable to the big play in the passing game, particularly when they are forced to play multiple DBs at the same time.

This would be an issue against any team, but, the prospect is downright terrifying when matched up with a player like Smith who leads the nation with an incredible 27.7 yards per catch. Smith also leads the nation in catches over 30 yards (12) and TDs over 30 yards (10). Oh, and he’s the Big Ten runner-up in the high jump, clearing just over 7 feet in the conference meet.

He’s the kind of guy who can bail out an inexperienced QB making only his third collegiate start by making big plays on 50/50 jump balls, and turning third and longs into touchdowns. These are the plays that can make the difference in tight matchups such as this. It’s no wonder that the Buckeyes are a remarkable 22-0 when Devin Smith catches a touchdown pass.

Joey Bosa

While the Rose Bowl bludgeoning of national powerhouse Florida State may have put to rest that idea that the Ducks can’t win games in the trenches and play smash-mouthed football against the “big boys”, the Buckeyes defensive line is another animal. The Bucks have a ridiculous level of talent along the defensive line with 4 and 5 star recruits across the board, led by All-American Joey Bosa.

This season, Bosa has amassed 13.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and forced 4 fumbles. He’s just the kind of disruptive force along the defensive line that has given past incarnations of the high-flying Duck attacks trouble.

And, while the Ducks have fared well against top defensive ends this year, effectively neutralizing Michigan State’s Shalique Calhoun and Florida State’s Mario Edwards, Bosa presents a different kind of challenge. Not because he’s out-and-out better than either of those other two players (although, he probably is), but, because the rest of his fellow defensive linemen (namely Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington) are dominant in their own right.

If Bosa spends a considerable amount of time in the Ducks backfield (as he’s done to opponents all year) it’s going to be a long night for Mariota and the Oregon offense. Similarly, if the Ducks have to use more than one guy to contain Bosa, that could also spell doom for an offense predicated on winning one-on-one matchups all over the field. This will definitely be a matchup to keep an eye on throughout the night.

Cardale Jones

Yes, Cardale Jones was the 3rd string quarterback heading into fall practice for the Buckeyes. Yes, he’s only playing in his third game as a starting quarterback. But, this isn’t your average 3rd stringer, and his previous two starts weren’t your average games.

In his two starts, Cardale has led the Buckeyes to an absolute demolition of a very good Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship Game, and then followed that up by taking down the mighty Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl. Name me another 3rd stringer who could pull off that double? It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Typically, heading into a game of this magnitude and with such inexperience at the quarterback position, the opposing defense would be salivating at the idea of dialing up the pressure and making the young buck beat you with his decision making. However, since Jones has taken over the reins of the Buckeye attack, he’s actually excelled against the blitz, with over half of his passing yards and all 4 of his touchdown passes coming against extra rushers.

In fact, in Jones’ two starts, the Buckeyes have averaged more points per game than with Heisman candidate JT Barrett at the helm (50.5 versus 44.1), as well as recording explosion plays (plays gaining 20 or more yards) at nearly double the rate. Remember, this is against what was supposed to be two of the best defenses Ohio State faced all season.

A big reason for this is due to Jones’ massive arm (he’s nicknamed “12 Gauge” by teammates) and propensity for throwing the deep ball, which helps spread the field and put pressure on the defense to cover not just the whole width of the field, but, damn near the whole length as well. And, if nobody is open, he has enough mobility to make plays with his legs, as well as lineman size (6-5, 250) to punish defenders when they do catch up to him.

As well as he’s played so far, it’s hard to expect anything but continued success in the Championship Game. That being said, we haven’t really seen Jones make that big play in a pressure situation, as the game against Wisconsin was a drubbing, and the only 4th quarter scoring by the Buckeyes against Alabama was the 85 yard run by Elliot. It’ll be very interesting to see how he reacts if put into must-pass situations late in the game, and see if he maintains the same poise he’s shown up to now. In the end, that could be the single most important factor in the outcome of what looks to be an incredibly even matchup.


Related Slideshow: Slideshow: Ten Injuries That Could Have Cost The Ducks and Bucks Their Season

Here are 10 injuries that could have cost the Ducks and Buckeyes their season: 

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Oregon Ducks

Tackle Jake Fisher

Jake Fisher has been a three-year-starter on the Ducks’ offensive line. He plays left tackle - a position often reserved for a team’s best pass-blocker (if a defender were to tee-off on a quarterback’s blind side, the result could be season-ending). 

The AP All-American went down in September against Wyoming, and quickly proved how important he was to the Ducks’ success. In two games without Fisher, Mariota was sacked twelve times and the Ducks lost a home game against Arizona. When Fisher returned to the lineup against UCLA, Mariota was not sacked.

Fisher is projected to be a first-round-pick in the NFL draft in May.

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Oregon Ducks

Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu went down with a season-ending injury during one of the Ducks’ December practices.

Having an All-American taken out of your defensive secondary, especially before facing-off against a pocket-passer like Jameis Winston, can be enough to end a playoff run. 

However, losing Ekpre-Olomu was a non-issue for the Ducks. Although Winston passed for more yards than Mariota in the Rose Bowl (Winston threw for 348 vs. Mariota’s 338), Winston scored only one passing touchdown.

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Oregon Ducks

Tight End Pharaoh Brown

Pharaoh Brown went down with a season-ending knee injury during the Ducks’ 51-27 win at Utah Nov. 8. 

The injury was so severe enough to threaten Brown’s career. It was so violent, in fact, that ESPN refused to replay the injury during its broadcast of the game. 

A tight end is an important outlet for any QB. At the time of his injury, Brown has 25 receptions, while his replacements had only registered a total of three receptions. 

The loss of Brown was not a setback for Mariota, who became the first QB in school history to register 50 more touchdowns than turnovers in a season (56 TDs to 6 turnovers).

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Oregon Ducks

Receiver Bralon Addison

Bralon Addison went down with a season-ending injury in August after being the team’s second leading receiver in 2013. He was the Ducks’ “taser,” a Chip Kellyism that refers to a speedy player who lines up in the slot as well as in the backfield. 

In a way, Addison’s injury left the Ducks without two players: a wide receiver and a backup running back. 

The Ducks' receivers, along with a group of young running backs, stepped up in Addison's absence. 

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Oregon Ducks

Center Hroniss Grasu

Like Brown, Oregon Center Hronnis Grasu also went down with a leg injury during the Ducks’ Nov. 8 game at Utah. Losing a center would be a big loss for any team - the center is often referred to as “the quarterback of the offensive line,” because he’s the one tasked with making most of the line’s pre snap reads and calls. 

The injury forced the Ducks to move a guard over to play center, and have a number of guards play musical chairs in the then-vacated guard spot. 

Coaches voted Grasu to the First Team All Pac-12 list for the thirst consecutive year.

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Oregon Ducks

Tackle Tyler Johnstone

An All-American as a junior, Johnstone started 26 games for the Ducks before suffering a knee injury in the Alamo Bowl in December 2013. Prior the start of the 2014 season, Johnstone injured his knee again, requiring season-ending surgery. 

The Ducks its most-consistent pass blocker when Johnstone went down. If he had remained healthy, there’s no doubt that the Ducks could have avoided their mid-season disasters on the o-line.

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Ohio State Buckeyes

Quarterback Braxton Miller

After being voted First Team All Big-10 for two consecutive seasons, Miller went down with a season-ending injury in August. 

Losing your quarterback is never an easy obstacle for any coach to overcome. 

Urban Meyer, however, had a contingency plan. His Bucks went on to have an impressive season on its way to the first-ever College Football Playoff.

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Ohio State Buckeyes

Quarterback J.T. Barrett

When Quarterback Braxton Miller went down, J.T. Barrett stepped in. Despite a loss against Virginia Tech and an overtime scare against hated Penn State, Barrett was able to put himself in Heisman contention. 

Barrett passed for over 2,800 yard while rushing for 938 before injuring his ankle in the Michigan game. 

Third-string QB Cardale Jones, a third-year sophomore, stepped in for Barrett when he went down late in the year and preserved the Buckeye’s season - including the Bucks' Jan. 1 upset win against Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

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Ohio State Buckeyes

H-Back Dontre Wilson

Dontre Wilson went down with a foot injury that required season-ending surgery. The heralded running back had contributed more as a blocker and receiver than as a rusher - he had 21 catches for 300 yards before he went down Nov. 8 against Michigan State.

His impact as a blocker was huge - although difficult to measure. The Buckeye offense didn't miss a beat - Ezekiel Elliot still rushed for over 200 yards against the Alabama defense. 

When playing with backup QBs, even losing one check-down option is a huge blow.

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Ohio State Buckeyes

Wide Receiver Johnny Dixon

Freshman receiver Johnny Dixon, a Florida-native, was a four star recruit coming out of high school. With an inexperienced receiving corps, fans expected Dixon to find his way into the rotation later in the year, hopefully prove to be a big play maker. 

With losing their first two QBs, we’ll never know how big of a year Dixon could have had for the Bucks had he stayed healthy. 


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