Ohio State, Oregon take different paths to overcome injuries
DALLAS (AP) Injuries started picking Oregon apart even before the season started. The one position that was seemingly immune to the injury bug was quarterback. The Ducks could always count on Marcus Mariota.
At Ohio State, it was just the opposite. First one star quarterback got hurt; then another. Otherwise, the Buckeyes stayed relatively healthy, providing a stable supporting cast to whoever was behind center.
The Ducks (13-1) and Buckeyes (13-1) overcame adversity in their own ways to reach the first College Football Playoff national championship game on Monday night at AT&T Stadium in North Texas.
''If you can hit the storm and come out the other end stronger, that's called a real team, and how many of those are out there?'' Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said Sunday.
Receiver Bralon Addison was the first important Duck to go down. He blew out his knee in the spring. A few weeks before the season started, Oregon's best offensive lineman, tackle Tyler Johnstone, injured his knee and was done for the year.
''Before we took a snap in fall camp, we lost arguably two of our best three offensive players for the season and if all we did as sit around and complain about that and whine about that, we be wouldn't be here,'' Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
The season started and the injury problems never seemed to stop. Offensive linemen broke down left and right. Running back Thomas Tyner was hampered by shoulder and ankle issues. Star tight end Pharaoh Brown suffered an ugly leg injury. Last week in the Rose Bowl victory, receiver Devon Allen tore up his knee.
The defense took hits, too. Defensive end Arik Armstead missed games with a sore ankle. Star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had nagging aches all season, and then he went out for good with a knee injury before the Rose Bowl.
The latest loss wasn't an injury. Receiver Darren Carrington will miss the biggest game of the season because of a failed NCAA drug test.
No worries, the Ducks say: In Mariota they trust.
''When you have guys going down around him, it really helps that you still have the Heisman Trophy winner on your side of the ball,'' Addison said.
Despite all the changes around him, Mariota has thrown for 4,121 yards, leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.1) and has accounted for a Pac-12 record 56 touchdowns.
''He's such a great player and he commands the offense so well, that we don't have to worry about too much,'' Allen said. ''As an offensive lineman you kind of just fill in and do your job and Marcus will make the play. If the pocket collapses he'll get out of it and run or run to pass.
''It's the same thing as a receiver, you just run to the spot where you're supposed to be and he'll put the ball right on you. He makes all of our jobs easier with him being our quarterback.''
The Oregon offensive line will be as healthy as it's been all season against Ohio State, and Tyner is coming off his best game of the season (123 yards rushing in the Rose Bowl). But Mariota and the Ducks will have to make do without three of their top five receivers against Ohio State.
''Marcus makes everybody better, there's no question about it,'' Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. ''But if you ask him he wouldn't say that it's a team thing. These guys have been rising to the occasion all year.''
J.T Barrett stepped up for Ohio State after Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller went down with a shoulder injury 12 days before the first game of the season. By the time Barrett broke his ankle against Michigan, the redshirt freshman was a Heisman contender, too, having accounted for a Big Ten-record 45 touchdowns.
Cardale Jones stepped in for Barrett and the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin and Alabama with him.
''To see two quarterbacks go down that were really, really good players and be able to step up as an offense with another guy, and then our defense stepped up also, it shows the culture of our program and what we do in training to get that edge,'' Buckeyes linebacker Joshua Perry said.
Ohio State came into the season with a rebuilt offensive line and looking to find a new top running back. The Buckeyes went from a team (with Miller) that was going to lean on its quarterback to one that allowed the quarterback to lean on his teammates. The Buckeyes average 262 yards rushing per game and Ezekiel Elliott has run for 450 in the last two games.
''When he comes in he doesn't feel like he as to be the best player on offense,'' offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. ''All he has to do is get the ball to the good players on offense. Play with some confidence.''
And now, play for a championship.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP