Five reasons Oregon will take down Ohio State for national title

Oregon is 60 minutes away from its first national championship after a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks had plenty of help from the Seminoles, using five FSU turnovers to score 41 points in the second half.

As usual, Oregon had plenty of explosive offensive plays, averaging 7.9 yards per play behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner started slow but finished with 338 passing yards and two scores and added 62 yards and one touchdown on the ground.

The Ducks were pegged as one of the favorites to win the college football playoff in the preseason and used a huge win over Michigan State on Sept. 6 to start 4-0. However, injuries took a toll on the offensive line, and Oregon lost 31-24 to Arizona in early October. But the Ducks regrouped after the loss and finished the year with nine straight victories.

Oregon has eight previous matchups against Ohio State, all Buckeye wins. The Ducks lost their last trip to the national championship game, falling to Auburn 22-19 in 2011.

FIVE REASONS WHY OREGON WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE

MARCUS MARIOTA

When Oregon and Ohio State kick off on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, Marcus Mariota will undoubtedly be the best player on the field. The junior claimed the Heisman after throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 touchdowns and adding 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground.

While Mariota’s overall production in yardage and touchdowns is impressive, it’s his efficiency that doesn’t get enough credit. Mariota completed 68.6 percent of his passes in 2014 and tossed only three interceptions on 408 attempts. The junior also led the nation by averaging 10.1 yards per pass and recording 31 passing plays of 30 yards or more.

Ohio State’s secondary has made marked improvement under the direction of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013 but cut that number to just 18 in 2014. However, despite an improved secondary and fierce pass rush, this is the best passing attack Ohio State has played this year.

Marcus Mariota is reason enough to love the Ducks in the national title game.

DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT

Considering Oregon’s pace of play on offense, the Ducks are always going to struggle to rank among the nation’s best in total defense. However, yardage allowed is an overrated stat for judging the effectiveness of defenses, and first-year coordinator Don Pellum has settled in over the course of the season.

Oregon allows 5.5 yards per play (58th nationally) but lowered that mark to 5.1 since November. The Ducks also held their last four opponents to less than 20 points and made steady improvement on getting opposing offenses off the field on third downs late in the year. Oregon is still far from a shutdown defense and will bend to allow opponents to drive the field. However, this unit has played better since an uneven start, demonstrated by the five turnovers it forced in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State.

IMPROVING HEALTH

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff have done a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season. Though the Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a significant knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State, this team is in much better shape in terms of health than it was earlier in the year.

LEAVING SO SOON?

Running back Thomas Tyner missed the last three games of the regular season and announced his return to the lineup by recording 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts in the Rose Bowl. The offensive line was dealing with several injuries throughout the year but is nearly at full strength now. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and was forced to miss three games but returned to anchor the offensive line against Florida State. With Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, this line is one of the best in the nation. And the return of Grasu to full strength comes at a critical time, as Ohio State’s defensive line is capable of creating plenty of problems and havoc at the line of scrimmage. Tyner’s return also gives coordinator Scott Frost another weapon on offense.

WINNING THE TURNOVER BATTLE

Turnover margins vary greatly from year-to-year. Additionally, forcing and recovering turnovers is largely an exercise in luck. With that said, Oregon has been one of the best in the nation in turnover margin this year, recording a +19 mark headed into the national championship.

The Ducks lost only 10 turnovers in 2014 — the fewest in the nation — and forced 30 (tied for 10th). How good (or fortunate?) has Oregon been? The Ducks were the only team in the nation to record a zero or positive margin every game this season. Ohio State, meanwhile, lost 22 turnovers in 14 games but has a +10 overall margin.

The Buckeyes are better in the turnover department than Florida State, but the Ducks have consistently generated takeaways to overcome a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy on defense. In a tight game, turnovers could be the deciding factor. And that aspect of the national championship matchup favors Oregon.

SKILL TALENT

Royce Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12 this season.

Few teams in the nation that can rival Oregon’s depth and overall talent at the skill positions. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the workhorse for the ground game, recording 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on 242 attempts. Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12, and he recorded three 100-yard efforts over the final four games. Tyner’s return will help take some of the workload off Freeman’s shoulders, and the Ducks can use all-purpose threat Byron Marshall on the ground (7.5 yards per carry) when needed.

At receiver, Devon Allen will be missed, but Marshall (66 catches), Darren Carrington (19 yards per catch), Keanon Lowe (14.3 yards per catch), and Dwayne Stanford (39 catches) are big-play targets for Mariota. Sophomore tight end Evan Baylis — who caught six of his 10 passes this year against Florida State — and freshman wide receiver Charles Nelson are additional options for Mark Helfrich. Oregon’s deep group of skill players is a tough assignment for any team to stop, especially with the Ducks becoming more physical on the line of scrimmage and in the rushing attack. Slowing down Oregon’s attack will be a huge challenge for Ohio State on Jan. 12.

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