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The first every inaugural college football playoff will end with a national title game pitting the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Oregon Ducks. The Buckeyes earned the right to play for the title when they knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Ducks left no doubt in their legitimacy after laying waste to Florida State in the Rose Bowl.
Stopping Marcus Mariota
You can’t defend Mariota with conventional means for he is not a conventional quarterback. Among collegiate quarterbacks of the last 15 years, only former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck measures up with Mariota’s talent.
Mariota combines the pocket presence of Russell Wilson with the decision-making of Aaron Rodgers. He is very difficult to sack, as a result. The Seminoles thought they could wear him down by hitting him often, but he got rid of the ball before the pressure could come down on him.
Like Wilson, he does a good job of protecting himself in the open field, knowing when to slide or run for the sidelines. He’s also remarkably efficient, turning the ball over just six times in 2014 while accounting for 56 total touchdowns. He’s the first player in the history of college football with 50 more touchdowns than interceptions.
Simply put, he is playing at a level few -- if any -- have every achieved, and Ohio State’s path to victory goes through him. Ball control is their best bet to stop him.
The Buckeyes pride themselves on their ability to strike quickly, so controlling the clock is a bit of an unorthodox solution for them. Nevertheless, they aren’t going to beat Oregon by trying to outpace the Ducks. They must play a contrasting style.
In the Sugar Bowl, they ran for 281 yards against Alabama’s vaunted front seven. Running back Ezekiel Elliott led the way with 230 of those yards, most of which coming on an 85-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that all but cemented victory for the Buckeyes. Elliot now has back-to-back games with 200-plus rushing yards, making him arguably the hottest running back Oregon will see all season.
Establishing the run is the key for the Buckeyes. Behind a potent running game, they should be able to control the clock and keep Mariota on the sidelines.
Monday night, Ohio State’s best defense will be their offense.
Coaching vs. Talent
Despite the media’s inclination going into the game, Ohio State clearly matched up well with Alabama. Their matchup with Oregon, however, paints a different picture.
The Ducks' ability to evolve over the last several seasons has put them in position to win a title. Teams used to expose them for being soft at the line of scrimmage, but as they proved against Florida State, this year’s team is more than physical enough to make the key stops when they need them. They used to be a run-oriented, up-tempo offense. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost, recognizing the skills of Mariota, has turned them into a balanced machine. No wonder Vegas installed them as 6.5-point favorites, making Meyer’s team an underdog for the third consecutive game.
As head coach of the Florida Gators, Meyer led his program into the 2007 BCS Championship against top ranked Ohio State. The Gators, who were major underdogs, pounded the Buckeyes because they were faster on the edges. The Buckeyes have the speed to give Oregon problems on the edges, but unlike Ohio State that night, Oregon has the speed to match them.
The Ducks don’t have Meyer, though. He’s one of the best coaches of his generation, losing only three times since becoming Ohio State’s coach in 2012. This year’s been his best coaching job, considering he’s put his team in position to win the national title without the top two quarterbacks on his August depth chart.
The advantage on the sidelines could play a role in a close game. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich hasn’t been in this position as head coach. Last year, his first as Oregon's head coach, saw him lead his team to the Alamo Bowl. There’s a monumental difference between coaching in the Alamo Bowl and the National Championship Game. Helfrich will find that out on Monday night.
For the sake of Oregon, let’s hope the moment doesn’t prove too big for him.
And the Winner Is…
A victory by Ohio State would be a coronation of sorts for Meyer. It would be his third national title as a head coach, and he’d be just the second coach since the turn of the century to win a national title with multiple programs. The story writes itself.
However, this game has a different story to tell.
Most coaches don’t deviate from their philosophy. Call it stubbornness or pride, but too many times coaches fail to adapt to their opponent. The Buckeyes will face a superior version of themselves on Monday. The Ducks play at a faster pace than they do, and they generate as many explosive plays. They’re also just as hungry. Meyer will have his team ready to play, but I don’t think he’ll adapt enough to stop Oregon.
One more victory and Mariota solidifies himself as one of the greatest college football players in history. He’ll get the victory on Monday night, and the headline for this game will leave no doubts.
The best player beat the best coach.
Oregon 46 Ohio State 34
Bowl Record: 24-14
Season Record: 79-36