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UO sizes up Buckeyes, strategizes for championship title

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Quarterback Marcus Mariota (center) and the defense, led by linebacker Tony Washington (left) and others, figure to have their hands full with the again-imposing Ohio State Buckeyes in Mondays national championship game at Arlington, Texas.EUGENE — In January 2011, Marcus Mariota was a senior at St. Louis High in Hawaii. Mariota had committed to playing for Oregon the following year, and was able to persuade his teachers to excuse him and a couple of his friends from school early so they could watch the Ducks play Auburn in the BCS national championship game.

Mariota and his buddies went to his house to watch the game. That was when disaster struck. The power in the house went out. Mariota and his friends scrambled around the island, trying to find a television. It took them until the second half. Oregon lost 22-19.

“It was tough to watch them lose it,” Mariota says. “But it was fun to watch that game.”

Four years later, the Ducks (13-1) have climbed the mountain again. They will face Ohio State (13-1) at 5:30 p.m. Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with the national championship on the line.

“The amount of work and preparation that it takes to get this far, it’s tough,” Mariota says. “You have to have a lot of things go the right way. We wanted to be a part of the game every year. That was a team goal. I wouldn’t say it’s a disappointment that it’s been this long, but it shows how much it takes and how hard it is to get there.

“Now that we’re a part of it, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Mariota grew up dreaming of winning the Heisman Trophy. The greater dream, though, was to lead his team to a national title.

“I’d trade the Heisman to win this,” Mariota says. “No disrespect, but it means a lot more to me than the Heisman.”

For the dreams of Mariota and the rest of the Ducks to come true, they will have to defeat an Ohio State team that is far better than it was rated throughout the year.

Everything for the Buckeyes starts with coach Urban Meyer, who won national championships in 2006 and 2008 at Florida and is one of the most innovative and successful coaches in NCAA history.

“He’s won a ton wherever he’s been,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich says. “Not just at Ohio State. Go back in the archives of Florida, Utah, Bowling Green — wherever he’s been, they’ve been successful. They’ve done it with a lot of different guys and a lot of different ways.”

Helfrich, in his second year as the head man at Oregon, says he doesn’t allow his ego to be wounded when he’s compared with a more experienced opposing coach.

“As long as we’re still playing and there’s a matchup to talk about, you can say whatever you want,” Helfrich says. “It’s not me versus anybody. It’s us versus them. Our guys believe 100 percent in what we do, and our staff is in lockstep. We’re playing an outstanding team, and we know we’ll have to prepare to the best of our ability to have a shot.”

The Buckeyes are averaging 45 points and 509.7 yards per game.

Their big gun is a 6-0, 225-pound sophomore running back, Ezekiel Elliott. He has rushed for 1,632 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. The only Ohio State backs with more yards in a season are Eddie George, Keith Byars and Archie Griffin. Elliott tore up Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last week with 230 yards and two TDs on 20 carries.

Quarterback Cardale Jones, No. 3 on the depth chart when the season began, has started the last two games. Against Wisconsin and Alabama, the 6-5, 250-pound sophomore was a combined 30 of 52 passing for 500 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception.

“He’s an unbelievably accurate deep ball thrower,” Helfrich says. “They do so much with the run game to create confusion and get guys in the backfield, get safety reaction and then one-on-one on the outside.

“The receivers go up and make play after play. They’re about 70-30 on 50-50 balls. That’s not good percentages (for us).

“He’s a physical guy. He’s done a bunch of different stuff in the passing game and is tough to bring down. He’s a combination of (former Buckeyes star) Terrelle Pryor and (ex-Auburn star) Cam Newton.”

Jones’ arm allows Ohio State to stretch the field.

“He’s got a big, strong arm,” Oregon defensive back Troy Hill says. “He’s not afraid to go out there and make plays. Being a third-string quarterback, you can just go out on a limb and do what you’ve got to do to make plays for your team. That’s what he’s doing.”

Michael Thomas is Ohio State’s go-to receiver with 50 catches for 746 yards and nine touchdowns. Devin Smith is even more dangerous, though, with 32 catches for 886 yards and 12 TDs, and Jalin Smith has 33 catches for 447 yards and six TDs.

“It’ll be the best receiving corps we’ve seen as far as being able to make plays,” Ducks defensive back Erick Dargan says. “Each one of their receivers can get the ball, then make a play. When you’re playing aggressive receivers who can make you miss in space, you have to be on your game. You have to tackle and work your technique.”

Oregon’s secondary will need help from the defensive line.

“(With Jones’ arm), you have to understand the balls are going to be a lot longer, higher and farther,” Dargan says. “You’ve got to mentally prepare yourself and understand the routes are going to be a lot longer because of his arm strength. You’ve got to hope your D-line is going to get pressure.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Ducks coach Mark Helfrich says Ohio State has a very sound defense that runs and tackles well, and doesnt take a lot of chances.The Buckeyes will be running a no-huddle spread attack similar to Oregon’s, yet different in many ways.

“They have different plays, different formations,” Oregon linebacker Tony Washington says. “Not every spread is the same. Our spread is much different than Cal’s or Washington State’s. Just because you have four people lined up at receiver doesn’t mean you’re going to get the same style of play. You get different blocking schemes, different routes.

“Their system is such a dynamic thing. We haven’t seen a lot of that style of play in the Pac-12. For them to have a third-string quarterback, that shows what their team is about. They’re going to push through it all. They’re going to fight. They’re going to be tough. They have a lot of weapons, running the ball, throwing the ball.”

Seeing Oregon’s spread in practice will help the Ducks, though.

“It helps us because we have the same amount of talent as they do,” linebacker Derrick Malone says. “They have a really good system. They have great coaching and really good players. They’re really talented. They’re really quick. We have to make sure we have good eyes and read our keys because they can trick you.

“They’re a spread offense with a lot of play-action, a great quarterback who can run the ball and extend plays. They’re pretty quick (at snapping the ball), similar to us.”

Ohio State’s defense has held opponents to 22.1 points and 333.6 yards per game.

“They’re really good defensively in a completely different way than Florida State was,” Helfrich says. “They’re very sound. They run well. They tackle really well. They don’t take nearly as many chances (with blitzes) as Florida State does.

“Like any team, when they get you in third down, that’s where they impose their will. We need to stay out of those third-and-long situations. It’s even more important in this game than others.”

Center Hroniss Grasu says Ohio State’s defense is simple, but effective.

“They’re a very, very good team,” Grasu says. “What they do defensively is not complicated at all. But what they do, they do very, very well. They’re the most talented defense we’ve faced all year. Especially the defensive line. They get after the runner. They get after the quarterback.

“They’re a four-down defense. You’re going to get a 4-2 box, both safeties are up high. They try to disguise every kind of blitz they have. They’re going to try to use their D-linemen to set the line of scrimmage in their favor. We have to make sure we don’t let that happen. We have to control the line of scrimmage.”

Says running back Royce Freeman: “They’re physical up front. They have a great defense.”

While Ohio State’s basic defensive package is simple, offensive tackle Jake Fisher says Oregon must be prepared for the Buckeyes to throw some cleverly hidden blitzes at them.

“They play hard, they’re very sudden,” Fisher says. “They hide their blitzes, they hide their defensive philosophy.”

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