Ohio State’s improbable two-game climb from a perch below the cutoff mark for a College Football Playoff berth to Monday’s opportunity to capture a national championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington has been built on the backs of several Buckeyes.
All have played their roles, with the spotlight falling on third-string quarterback Cardale Jones’ 2-0 record as a starter in the season’s biggest games.
But the bigger challenge in the Buckeyes’ playoff push, it could be argued, has fallen to members of a defense asked to tackle a monumental task: Contain all three finalists for the 2014 Heisman Trophy well enough, in consecutive games, to allow No. 4 Ohio State (13-1) to hoist the CFP trophy at JerryWorld.
Thus far, the unit has put the brakes on Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and Alabama receiver Amari Cooper. Those efforts helped carry Ohio State into the playoff field and into Monday’s title matchup against No. 2 Oregon (13-1).
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The group’s reward? They get to face the most lethal weapon in this three-game journey, Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner looms as the final hurdle between the Buckeyes and a national championship.
The opportunity motivates members of the Buckeyes’ defense, who held Gordon (76 rushing yards) and Cooper (71 receiving yards) below their season averages while winning those games. But the Ohio State players, who arrived Friday to begin on-site preparations for Monday’s title game, understand the heightened challenge they will face in efforts to keep Mariota below his season average of 346.6 yards per game (294.4 passing yards, 52.2 rushing yards).
Mariota, who leads the nation in passing efficiency (184.1 rating), has an FBS-best ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions (40-3).
“We don’t back down from any challenge. We actually embrace the challenge,” said Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell, who made the game-clinching interception on the final play of a 42-35 upset of Alabama. “We really don’t care what awards people have. Football is football. We’ve got to figure out a way to work together and stop their No. 1 player.”
It was easier against Gordon, who did not find the end zone during the Buckeyes’ 59-0 rout in the Big Ten championship game that lifted OSU into the final spot in the playoff field. It was easier against Cooper, the top receiver in college football who touched the ball only nine times in the Sugar Bowl (nine catches, 71 yards).
But it will be impossible to keep the ball out of Mariota’s hands in Arlington because he takes the snap to start every offensive play. To the Buckeyes, that only enhances the anticipation for Monday.
“Absolutely,” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “This one, he’s the head of the snake. He’s the quarterback. It’s a win if we shut down Marcus Mariota, and I think we’re ready for that.
“If we can say, not only did we win the national championship, but to do that, we had to shut down two Heisman finalists and the Heisman winner. That’s a pretty big thing. That’s a special story.”
After a sluggish start to the season, lowlighted by a 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, the Buckeyes have rebounded to win 12 consecutive games. During that stretch, the defense has pitched two shutouts (Wisconsin, Kent State) and has collected its share of timely turnovers. Ohio State ranks 17th nationally in turnover margin (plus-10), giving defenders confidence they can stymie the Ducks in crunch time.
“Our program is based off competition. We’ve played some really good teams and they’ve had great personnel,” said linebacker Joshua Perry, who leads the team in tackles (118). “A lot of guys are looking forward to this one. It’s going to be a huge measuring stick about what we have in terms of personnel, scheme and toughness. We’ve worked really hard these last three games in preparation. If we use the momentum we’ve got going, we’ll be successful.”
Oregon, with a nine-game winning streak, has plenty of momentum heading into Monday’s game, too. The Ducks also have the nation’s best player in the estimation of Heisman voters. But he’s stoppable, in the estimation of Buckeyes linebacker Darron Lee, if all three levels of the defense pull together.
“It’s going to take a collective effort. But we all understand that,” Lee said. “We have a real football-savvy team. That’s our strength. Everyone subconsciously knows, ‘We can’t let that guy go running all over the place. We’ve really got to stop that guy.’”
If they are successful, Buckeyes defenders will be able to say they completed a three-game gauntlet like no other en route to college football’s first championship of the playoff era.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760