I nearly drove off the road this morning when I heard a sports talk radio host say that the Bengals should draft Cardale Jones, if and when he enters the NFL draft. Jones was 18-of-35 passing against the Crimson Tide, with one interception and should have thrown a second pick (Cardale Jones gets away with one). Ohio State beat Alabama by doing what no one had done against Alabama in recent memory and that was rush for 287 yards on 47 carries. Ezekiel Elliot had 230 of those yards. The week prior, Elliot had 220 yards rushing against Wisconsin.
No one saw Elliot coming. Even after the Wisconsin game, it was dismissed as a stat padding game against a middle of the road Big 10 opponent. Then Wisconsin beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl, and in hindsight the 450 yards rushing Elliot amassed over his last two games is a very credible resume. Back to back games with runs of 80 yards or longer is tough to do when the opponents are Wisconsin and Alabama. But still, the outbursts of a recently explosive running came as a surprise.
For instance, against Cincinnati back on September 27, Elliot rushed 28 times for 182 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. His longest run was 14 yards. In fact, up until the Wisconsin game, Elliot had runs of over 28 yards only three times. The first 8 games of the season, he had only surpassed 60 yards rushing, 3 times; including a horrible 8 for 32 performance in the loss against Virginia Tech. Whatever happened over the last month of the season, has changed the outlook of Elliot and the Buckeyes.
Those predicting Ohio State’s demise deserve reprieve. The Buckeyes just hadn’t earned the respect of the college football world enough to be taken as a serious threat to Alabama, who up until ten days ago, had the top rushing defense in the nation. The Buckeyes are going to have to have a three-peat performance out of Elliot against Oregon to become national champions.
Elliot’s outburst has opened up opportunities down the field for Jones, who can throw the ball as far as anyone can run. Buckeye receiver, Devon Smith, has benefited from the explosive running. Smith had two catches for 87 yards versus Alabama. While he hasn’t been Ohio State’s favorite target, he has clearly established himself as the legitimate deep threat that the Buckeyes haven’t had in a while. Smith is averaging an amazing 27.7 yards per catch and has 12 TDs in only 32 receptions.
Alabama only lost to Ohio State by one score despite Ohio State’s record breaking rushing performance. In fact, there were points during the Sugar Bowl matchup that Alabama looked to be in control and ready to takeover. I don’t want to sound like Paul Finebaum here, but lets put that game into perspective; Alabama was running all over Ohio State and chose to try to beat them another way. In 2011 and 2012, Alabama just crushed the spirit of their opponents by suffocating them on defense and letting their physical dominance prevail on offense. It was really boring football but it won. When you are the most talented team on the field, your goal should be to be as boring as possible.
This season Alabama had the mark of Lane Kiffin. Kiffin turned what should’ve been a controlled execution of a weaker opponent (as witnessed against LSU in 2011 and again against Notre Dame 2012) into an old-fashioned donnybrook. Ohio State cracked a beer bottle over Saban’s head and the Crimson Tide got lost in the chaos. We see this kind of thing time after time in pro wrestling; the heel has the hero beaten but stops for a moment to showboat to the crowd; thereby, allowing the hero to roll away and recover.
The Ducks are a different animal altogether. They smother opponents a different way. Oregon has played and handled 5 top 20 teams thus far. The Ducks have averaged 52.3 points per game over their last three games. For the season, they are ranked first in the country in points per road game with 49.6. In scoring margin, the Ducks are at +23 on the road compared to Ohio State’s +19.6 away from Columbus. Oregon has outscored opponents by an average of 23.1 points compared to Ohio State’s almost identical 22.9. Alabama was lagging both at +17.
Oregon and Ohio State have one common opponent, a very good Michigan State team. Oregon defeated Michigan State 46 – 27 at home on September 6. Ohio State went into East Lansing on November 8 and beat the Spartans 49 – 37. By the way, Michigan State was the only team in college football to give up an average of less than 100 yards rushing per game (94). Ohio State has been pretty good against the run, ranked 15th (191 rushing yards per game). Oregon has not been so good, ranked 115th (271 rushing yards per game given up).
The wild card is Marcus Mariota. He has been stellar all season long. In his only loss (vs. Arizona, Oct. 2), he was banged up after being sacked 7 times in a victory over Washington State the week before and still managed to throw for 181 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a touchdown that game. In the PAC 12 championship game, Oregon got revenge against Arizona by handing them a 51-13 drubbing on the back of Mariota’s 312 passing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.
Mariota doesn’t throw interceptions and he can beat you with his feet. So far, he has been unflappable. The Heisman winner has stood tall on the big stage. The key to Oregon beating Ohio State will be Mariota’s ability to control the tempo while keeping the pressure on Ohio State’s offense (not just their defense) to keep up with him. The Ducks need to put Cardale Jones in position to have to keep the ball moving for 4 quarters. Ohio State will need to get to Mariota and get him on the ground and do it consistently in order to win. How well Oregon is able to handle Joey Bosa will be key.
If Oregon is having one of those 49 point nights, then Ohio State isn’t going to be able to hang in the game offensively like they did against Alabama. The Buckeyes forced Alabama into throwing 3 interceptions; which is how and why they were ultimately able to beat Alabama. I don’t see a situation where Mariota throws multiple interceptions against Ohio State. He has just been to unshakeable and smart week after week.
On the other hand, if Ohio State is getting to Mariota, its tough for anyone to throw touchdown passes from their backside. Ohio State must dominate Oregon’s offensive line in the passing game. Even when Washington State sacked Mariota 7 times, he still threw 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions in a 38-30 win. However, this is Ohio State and if the Buckeyes are getting to Mariota 7 times, they will probably be able to maintain great field position and outscore Oregon.
I think tonight’s match up will be a good one. I am predicting a close game unless Ohio State starts laying the ball on the ground like Florida State did against the Ducks. Once the Seminoles starting turning the ball over, they were done because Oregon is very tough to stop especially when the defense keeps having to return to field. If Oregon gets a couple turnovers, they will put Ohio State away. I think the Ducks win and I am basing my prediction 50% on the above and 50% on the following video: