DALLAS — When the Oregon Ducks have the ball during the College Football Playoff National Championship, it’s no secret where Ohio State’s focus will be aimed.
“Our No. 1 concern is their quarterback,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said during a Sunday press conference.
He was referring to Oregon redshirt-junior signal caller Marcus Mariota, who led the Ducks to an 11-1 regular season record before winning the Heisman Trophy and the Pac-12 Championship Game. His dominance — combined with the work of a plethora of playmakers — helped Oregon average 47.2 points per game this season, along with 552.9 total yards.
Mariota alone accounted for 4,121 passing yards, 731 rushing yards and 56 total touchdowns — including one as a receiver — while throwing just three interceptions.
OSU sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa said Mariota’s success in all aspects of the offense means the Buckeyes have to be ready for anything and everything Monday night.
“He’s such a dual threat with his legs and his arms,” Bosa said. “It’s really not one more than the other, we’ll have to limit both to beat them.”
Beyond keeping on eye on Mariota’s appendages, OSU will be tasked with finding a way to keep up with the tempo of Oregon’s offense. The Ducks have run nearly three plays per minute of possession this season, and outgained their opponents 1,833 yards despite holding the ball for just 27:07 per game.
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett noted that Oregon isn’t always pushing its offense at full speed, but added the Buckeye defense has to make sure it gets set before each play in order to have success.
“The biggest thing is getting lined up,” Bennett said Saturday. “No matter what the situation, you get lined up and you get the call and you put your hand in the ground.”
He added that the pace of the Ducks will be in stark contrast to that of the Alabama Crimson Tide, whom the Buckeyes beat in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day to earn a trip to the title game.
“Against Alabama, they kind of took their time and had a lot more opportunities to scheme against them or gather yourself and get ready for the next play,” Bennett said. “While with Oregon, whether you are ready or not, you need to focus on the next play and put your hand in the ground.”
In order to make their high-flying offense run like a well-oiled machine, the Ducks have relied on more than just Mariota. Freshman running back Royce Freeman led the team with 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, while junior running back Byron Marshall added 834 receiving yards and five scores through the air.
But the Ducks will also be without at least two key playmakers in redshirt-freshmen wide receivers Darren Carrington and Devon Allen. Carrington was ruled ineligible for the game after reportedly failing a drug test, while Allen is out with an injury.
With the wide range of weapons and athletes Oregon has on offense, Bosa said his team is still focused largely on stopping Mariota first in order to slow down the attack.
“We’ve just got to limit what Marcus Mariota can do, try to keep him in the pocket, but they’re obviously going to spread the ball out all game and they’re going to try to hurry it up,” Bosa said. “We’re just going to try and keep up with the pace and try to keep him in the pocket.”
Bosa — who needs just one sack to break the OSU single-season record — said the Buckeye coaching staff has employed a different approach in practice to prepare for a fast-paced matchup.
“We’ve been running a lot more and hurrying in practice, so that’s definitely helped us get in shape,” he said. “These last four practices, we’ve been having hurry-up periods. It’s definitely been tough, but it’s been working.”
Meyer agreed that practice has been slightly different than normal, and said it’ll be important for his team to suppress the exhaustion, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“We have the shot clocks up, we have a lot of emphasis about defeating the demon, the demon that takes place when fatigue takes over, and that’s real,” Meyer said. “And that’s something that we’ve addressed really hard, but ultimately it comes down to those young guys out there playing tomorrow night.”
Bosa said it won’t be easy to keep up with Oregon’s athleticism, including along the Ducks’ offensive line, but stressed that winning individual battles early and often will be key for the Buckeyes to have success, and ultimately win the game.
“It’s going to be tough … we’re going to have to win first down, try to get them to second and long or third and longs,” Bosa said. “That’s a really big goal for us, because if we slow them down on first down, they really won’t go to the hurry up and they’ll take it slow and that’s the whole goal.”
The Buckeyes defense is set to go head-go-head with the fast-paced Ducks on Monday at 8:30 p.m. EST in Arlington, Texas.