Ohio State QB Cardale Jones has saved his best game yet for Oregon
DALLAS — Cardale Jones thinks it’s “frigging weird” that so many people think he played so great in Ohio State’s 42-35 Sugar Bowl win against Alabama.
“All you guys see are the numbers and the big plays,” the Buckeyes’ overnight sensation of a quarterback said at Saturday’s College Football Playoff Media Day. “I missed a couple of easy throws that would have kept drives alive . . . I didn’t even grade out a Champion.”
That’s true. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman later told FOX Sports that Jones graded out at 78 for the game — which is “just OK.”
Said Jones: “I agreed with them.”
Jones, who finished 18 of 35 for 243 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the Buckeyes’ semifinal win, burned the Crimson Tide on a few deep balls (including a 47-yard touchdown to Devin Smith) and some big runs (including a 27-yard gain). He’ll likely need to do even more for Ohio State to keep pace with Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and Oregon in Monday night’s national championship game.
One thing’s for certain: He’s not going to sneak up on the Ducks like he may have on Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Those teams appeared to treat Jones like one might expect to treat a purported third-string quarterback, daring him to beat them with his arm. The Badgers and Tide mostly played man coverage, allowing Jones to connect with Smith and the Buckeyes’ other talented receivers on those long balls. He averaged 16.7 yards per completion in those games.
By point of comparison, Mariota averages 14.7.
“I joked the other day, they’re about 70-30 on 50-50 balls,” said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich.
Oregon’s is a definitive bend-but-don’t-break defense, but one thing the Ducks definitely do well is get after the quarterback with an array of blitzes. They’ll willingly give up yards in exchange for a couple game-swinging turnovers, as was the case against Jameis Winston and Florida State.
Jones is not concerned about Oregon throwing some new wrinkle at him, only that he’ll need to improve on his underneath accuracy should the Ducks take away the deep ball.
“They’ve got to game plan for us,” he said, “but I can’t see them doing anything drastic or out of their character to prepare and to play us, because that didn’t get them where they’re at today.”
During an hour of interviews here at the Dallas Convention Center, Jones and head coach Urban Meyer were repeatedly asked about the quarterback’s ongoing maturation. It’s been well-documented that Jones, who spent a year at a military academy before coming to Columbus, was a chronic thorn in his coaches’ side much of the past few years. But a light bulb went off this season, even before J.T. Barrett’s injury threw him into the spotlight.
Perhaps it was the birth of his daughter, Chloe, on Nov. 7. Perhaps he got one too many talking-tos from Meyer and Herman.
Whatever the case, Jones’ focus for Monday’s game caused him to do something very drastic, and very time-consuming, this week. He spent about 40 minutes going through his phone and blocking every name on his contact list save for his coaches and his mother. No one else can call or text him between now and Monday night.
“Just to eliminate as many distractions as possible,” he said. “. . . I just want to put that much more into my preparation.”
Watching Jones handle Saturday’s media crush — there were about 20 television cameras waiting in front of his riser when he arrived — you would never know he was largely anonymous even among Ohio State’s local media as recently as late November. Just as he did at the Sugar Bowl, Jones answered all questions with a smile and with the poise of a three-year starter like Mariota.
“Can you believe that?” Herman said of the mob scene surrounding his pupil. “Isn’t that unbelievable?”
Herman, who will leave after Monday’s game to take over as Houston’s head coach, said he’s been watching closely for any signs that the extra attention might be affecting his quarterback. So far, so good.
“He’s an interesting character,” said Herman. “Everybody sees him as this two-game starter. When Cardale came to Ohio State, this is totally what he expected to be. When you expect that, getting that [attention] doesn’t surprise you. This isn’t abnormal to him.”
Jones doesn’t view his ascension quite so stoically.
“I mean, this is unreal, man,” he said. “This is like a frigging movie or a book. The best way I can describe that is basically just unreal.”
As for his actual performance, though: so far, just OK.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.