Oregon is 60 minutes away from its first national championship after a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks had plenty of help from the Seminoles, using five turnovers by the Seminoles to score 41 points in the second half. As usual, Oregon had plenty of explosive plays by its offense, averaging 7.9 yards per play behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner started slow but finished with 338 passing yards and two scores and added 62 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
The Ducks were pegged as one of the favorites to win the college football playoff in the preseason and used a huge win over Michigan State on Sept. 6 to start 4-0. However, injuries took a toll on the offensive line, and Oregon lost 31-24 to Arizona in early October. But the Ducks regrouped after the loss and finished the year with nine straight victories.
Oregon has eight previous matchups against Ohio State. The Ducks are winless against the Buckeyes and lost their last trip to the national championship game, as Auburn defeated Oregon 22-19 in 2011.
Five Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the National Title
1. Marcus Mariota
When Oregon and Ohio State kick off on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, Marcus Mariota will undoubtedly be the best player on the field. The junior claimed the Heisman after throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 touchdowns and adding 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground. While Mariota’s overall production in yardage and touchdowns is impressive, it’s his efficiency that doesn’t get enough credit. Mariota completed 68.6 percent of his passes in 2014 and tossed only three interceptions on 408 attempts. The junior also led the nation by averaging 10.1 yards per pass and recording 31 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Ohio State’s secondary has made marked improvement under the direction of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013 but cut that number to just 18 in 2014. However, despite an improved secondary and fierce pass rush, this is the best passing attack Oregon has played this year.
2. Defensive Improvement
Considering Oregon’s pace of play on offense, the Ducks are always going to struggle to rank among the nation’s best in total defense. However, yardage allowed is an overrated stat for judging the effectiveness of defenses, and first-year coordinator Don Pellum has settled in over the course of the season. Oregon allows 5.5 yards per play (58th nationally) but lowered that mark to 5.1 since November. The Ducks also held their last four opponents to less than 20 points and made steady improvement on getting opposing offenses off the field on third downs late in the year. Oregon is still far from a shut down defense and will bend to allow opponents to drive the field. However, this unit has played better since an uneven start to the year, as evidenced by five forced turnovers in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State.
3. Improving Health
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff has done a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season. The Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a significant knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State, but this team is in much better shape in terms of health than it was earlier in the year. Running back Thomas Tyner missed the last three games of the regular season and announced his return to the lineup by recording 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts in the Rose Bowl. The offensive line was dealing with several injuries throughout the year and is nearly at full strength. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and was forced to miss three games but returned to anchor the offensive line against Florida State. With Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, this line is one of the best in the nation. And the return of Grasu back to full strength comes at a critical time, as Ohio State’s defensive line is capable of creating plenty of problems and havoc at the line of scrimmage. Tyner’s return also gives coordinator Scott Frost another weapon on offense.
4. Winning the Turnover Battle
Turnover margins vary greatly from year-to-year. Additionally, forcing and recovering turnovers is largely an exercise in luck. Oregon has been one of the best in the nation in turnover margin this year, recording a +19 mark headed into the national championship. The Ducks lost only 10 turnovers in 2014 – the fewest in the nation – and forced 30 (tied for 10th) this season. How good (or fortunate?) has Oregon been in turnover margin this year? The Ducks were the only team in the nation to record a zero or positive margin every game this season. Ohio State lost 22 turnovers in 14 games but has a +10 overall margin. The Buckeyes are better in the turnover department than Florida State, but the Ducks have consistently generated takeaways to overcome a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy on defense. In a tight game, turnovers could be the deciding factor. And that aspect of the national championship matchup favors Oregon.
5. Skill Talent
Few teams in the nation that can rival Oregon’s depth and overall talent at the skill positions. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the workhorse for the ground game, recording 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on 242 attempts. Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12, and the freshman recorded three 100-yard efforts over the final four games. Tyner’s return will help take some of the workload off Freeman’s shoulders, and the Ducks can use all-purpose threat Byron Marshall on the ground (7.5 ypc) when needed. At receiver, Devon Allen will be missed, but Marshall (66 catches), Darren Carrington (19 ypc), Keanon Lowe (14.3 ypc), and Dwayne Stanford (39 catches) are big-play targets for Mariota. This group also contains talented freshman Charles Nelson and tight end Evan Baylis – caught six of his 10 passes in 2014 against Florida State – as additional options. Oregon’s deep group of skill players is a tough assignment for any team to stop, especially with the Ducks becoming more physical on the line of scrimmage and in the rushing attack. Slowing down Oregon’s offense will be a huge challenge for Ohio State on Jan. 12.