How do you do something almost no one has been able to? That’s the task facing Ohio State as it prepares for Oregon and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has had one of the most efficient seasons in recent memory. If the Buckeyes are to win the national title, they’ll have to outpace the Ducks or slow Mariota, and neither seems to be an easy gambit.
Oregon is averaging 47.2 points per game and is fresh off a 59-20 thrashing of then-unbeaten Florida State in the Rose Bowl. Mariota has been phenomenal: He has passed for 4,121 yards, rushed for 731 yards and posted an almost unheard of 40-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also ranks fifth in the nation with a completion rate of 68.6 percent.
“Their offense is such a greased machine because of the way they practice and because of Marcus being the perfect engineer of this thing,” Pac-12 Network analyst and ex-USC assistant Yogi Roth said. “He can play beyond the X's and O's. Nobody is giving Marcus enough credit. Obviously he’s the best player this year. But he might go down as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in college football history. You might even be able to make an argument he’s been even better than that.”
The challenge for Ohio State lies in trying to stop a guy with no glaring weakness. If the Buckeyes blitz an extra defender to take away Mariota’s rushing threat, then they give him an easier passing lane. If they load up the box, Mariota can beat them with quick screens. Go all in against the pass, and Oregon will march down the field an eight-yard carry at a time.
“It’s proven to be a nearly impossible task at the college level,” ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said of defending Oregon's 2014 offense. “You’re truly defending the scheme as much as him and deciding whether you want to take your chances bleeding out slowly or taking the dagger in the heart.”
Teams that have found success against the Ducks either got Mariota at a physical disadvantage (Stanford in 2013), exploited their defense (Arizona in '13) or got the best of a banged-up offensive line (Arizona in '14). There is no set blueprint for beating a healthy Oregon team, and especially no one way to stop Mariota.
Of course, the Buckeyes must try. Here are five things they can do.
Slow the system on first down
So much of what Oregon does is predicated on tempo. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost doesn’t just kick it into high gear; he analyzes the down and distance to dictate play calls and allow the flow of the game to come naturally to the Ducks.
How can Ohio State counter? It starts on first down, where the Ducks are always thinking a play or two ahead.
“A lot of people will say Oregon throws a ton of screens,” Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus said. “But if you can really challenge them outside and make them take an early deep shot, and it’s second-and-10 instead of second-and-five, it changes the course of the series for you. You might give up a big play and you get burnt by it, but when you’re facing Oregon you take that chance. They’re probably going to score points on you anyway.”
Getting Oregon in second-and-long situations might lead to third-and-long, and that disrupts the Ducks' up-tempo rhythm. It might contribute to a stop or two.
Force Oregon to kick field goals
For Oregon, space is everything. The Ducks do an incredible job of using the entire field, sideline to sideline. Add that approach to a quarterback who can make touch throws, whether a screen pass or a post route, and that space acts in the opposite manner for a defense -- it becomes suffocating.
When Oregon gets inside 10-yard line, however, things tighten up. The Ducks can’t run their full offense. If there is any area in which they have stumbled a bit, it’s in goal-to-go situations.
“Ultimately I’d be preaching [to Ohio State] -- and I would’ve started preaching it the next morning after they beat Alabama -- the team that kicks the most field goals loses,” Dilfer said. “What that tells me is in those situations, it is a drop-back pass where you have to do whole field reads, where your scheme supremacy doesn’t have as much bearing on the outcome. It is by far their most glaring statistical weakness, so you’re really preaching bend and don’t break. You can break all the way down to the one-inch line as long as they’re kicking field goals.”
Even though the Ducks rank 40th nationally in red zone offense (they score 86.8 percent of the time), they rank 82nd in goal-to-go efficiency, according to Dilfer. A goal-line stop could be what Ohio State rallies behind.
“That’s the mantra I’m sure Urban [Meyer] has hammered into his guys,” Dilfer said. “When I’m getting dressed, I’m thinking about Oregon kicking field goals. When I’m eating dinner, I’m thinking about Oregon kicking field goals. When I’m asleep, I’m dreaming about Oregon kicking field goals.”
Mix up the looks
Mariota will exploit defenses that don’t get creative. Even if a play works once or twice, the Oregon quarterback is so good at picking up tendencies that he’ll adapt and strike for a big gain the next time. It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game in trying to disguise schemes and keep the Ducks on their toes.
“I don’t know that you can trick Marcus Mariota,” Land-Grant Holy Land editor Luke Zimmermann said. “But you have to give him different looks, take advantage of the fact you have one of the most athletic defensive lines in the country and use those guys to confuse him to some extent. The hard part is he’s seen everything under the sun. Ohio State isn’t going to do anything new.”
Factor in the Ducks’ tempo, which makes it difficult to substitute personnel, and it's easy to see why defenses have so much trouble against Mariota.
“I don’t think there’s that one thing you can do,” Palazzolo said. “I would very generically say I’d mix in that blitz where you try to do a little bit more of that pre-snap disguising, but Oregon cheats a lot of that by doing things so quickly and keeping you from being able to make adjustments. But if you can set up your defense and try to mix it up a little bit, that’s your best bet.”
Get pressure with just the front four
This falls under the “best-laid schemes of mice and men / often go awry” category. But there’s certainly something to it.
“I imagine Ohio State is going to do whatever they can to try and get pressure with only their front four and let Darron Lee and Curtis Grant do as much as they can laterally to tackle in the open field,” SB Nation's Dan Rubenstein said. “I can’t see them looking to bring many on blitzes as Oregon will happily turn to quick screens.”
Mariota isn’t infallible. No quarterback is. Stanford had the personnel under David Shaw and then-defensive coordinator Derek Mason to make it work. It found a way to bring pressure without taking extra players out of coverage to blitz. The Cardinal also forced Mariota to pass into tight windows, which are throws he doesn’t often has to make because of how well-oiled the Oregon machine is.
“If you look at the history of teams who have had success against Marcus, they’ve had the ability to get pressure with their interior defensive linemen,” Roth said. “They’re extremely gap sound, and their overhang players [linebackers or a strong safety in the box] have done an incredible job of playing really fast and stringing out plays. If you put on the Stanford film from years ago, they had a really talented guy on the edge who was so big and long that they played their gap, did not have to guess and just strung it out to the sideline and used it as an extra defender. If you can do that, you’re going to have a chance.”
Ohio State has incredibly gifted defensive line with Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller, and the Buckeyes may be able to get pressure with just those four. As Roth noted, gap control will be critical, as will the secondary’s ability to stick with their men if Mariota is forced to rush throws.
Keep the ball out of Mariota’s hands
It might sound like a joke, but this is a popular game plan against Oregon. Mariota can't score if he doesn't have the ball. However, Ohio State isn't a grind-it-out team. The Buckeyes like to use tempo as much as the Ducks do, and it’s not out of the question that Meyer may opt to try to win a shootout.
Still, if Meyer does try to limit possessions, he would likely start by feeding tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who is coming off consecutive 200-plus-yard performances.
“I wouldn’t want to play Oregon and give them 100 plays,” Land-Grant Holy Land editor Matt Brown said. “If there’s one thing this Oregon team may not do super well, it’s defend the run, and this Ohio State team is excellent at that. The offense is equipped to have a couple six-minute drives if they wanted to.”
Florida State ran the ball well against Oregon, and freshman Dalvin Cook had a lot of success getting to the second level. The problem was he couldn’t hold on to the ball. Cook’s two fumbles (and the Seminoles' other turnovers) proved costly. That’s where the Buckeyes must show resiliency.
Turnovers are key to any game, but especially against a quick-strike attack like Oregon’s. In a flash, Mariota could turn Ohio State's mistake into Oregon’s gain.