Don’t you dare label the Ducks ‘soft’
ARLINGTON, Texas — It was a cruel picture, really.
Oregon, which easily dispatched Michigan State earlier in the season and rolled over Florida State 11 days ago, spent much of the last week scoffing at the idea they were not a "physical" team.
And yet, there Ohio State was, hoisting a gigantic golden tube of lipstick amid confetti, thanks to 296 yards of rushing on the way to a 42-20 win. For a second time, the Ducks retreated to their pond in Eugene without the program’s first title.
But bullied? Physically outmatched?
"Nah, not at all," defensive lineman Sam Kamp said.
Oregon’s front four didn’t spend its Monday night getting blown off the ball, but it did spend much of the night bouncing off running back Ezekiel Elliott, who darted and trucked his way to 246 yards and four touchdowns on 36 carries.
"We’re used to guys just trying to hit downhill. That’s what a lot of teams try to do against us: Just go," Kamp said. "These guys were patient. He’d stay in the backfield and he had great vision."
Added 290-pound Arik Armstead: "They were able to get the edge and get some creases for Elliott to run in."
It’s easy to point to Oregon’s 2-of-12 performance on third downs, well short of their average: 51.6 percent. That was good enough for fifth nationally this season. You could point to the four turnovers forced that became only 10 points, too.
But Ohio State’s running game–and Oregon’s inability to stop it–is why the streets of Columbus were flooded with students (and tear gas) early into Tuesday morning.
Oregon didn’t struggle to stop Elliott and the Buckeyes running game for the reasons many expected. Oregon was outschemed more often than it was outshoved.
The Ducks studied Ohio State and saw how much the Buckeyes loved running behind their twin tight ends, Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. Oregon was ready for it and often shifted its defensive line to give them more beef on the strong side of the field.
Ohio State countered by pounding Oregon with counters on the weak side. The runs the Ducks had been waiting for and prepared for came sparingly in the first half and even less in the second, after Ohio State noticed the Ducks’ approach and checked to run to the weak side even more often.
"People say whatever they think are the ‘tough’ teams, the Michigan States and Stanfords of the world, the power teams," outside linebackers coach Erik Chinander said. "They line up and try to go. These guys do a nice job of getting into formations. … It’s a little bit of a different animal."
Add to that Oregon’s mounds of missed tackles which lead to yards after carries and you get a near impossible task for an offense, even one like Oregon’s, which finished second nationally in scoring offense.
"Everything everybody’s thrown at us this year, we’ve handled," Chinander said. "This team’s done this to a lot of other great defenses. I’ve got a lot of respect for Nick Saban and their defense. They’re a perennial power and they had success against those guys, too."
The Buckeyes racked up nearly identical numbers against the Crimson Tide 11 days ago, running for 281 yards. Their 6.7 yards per carry far outpaces the 4.9 Oregon surrendered on Monday night.
On the other side of the ball, Oregon lacked its trademark explosiveness, but still averaged four yards a carry and surrendered just two sacks.
"They did a great job of finishing tackles and not allowing us to get first downs," said quarterback Marcus Mariota, who sauntered into the locker room wearing a gigantic lei his family gave him after the game. "We didn’t finish drives in the red zone and it cost us."
Once again, Oregon settles for second place, earning a painful runner-up ribbon. But the "soft" label? The idea the Ducks can’t compete in the trenches?
Little would be further from the truth.
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