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CFB Playoff title game preview: Oregon vs. Ohio State

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We're still five days away from the first College Football Playoff national title game, but that doesn't mean we can't do a quick unit-vs.-unit breakdown of the game to get everyone ready.


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Ohio State run offense vs. Oregon run defense

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The numbers: Ohio State averages 262.2 rushing yards per game, with 36 rushing TDs. Oregon allows 156.1 rushing yards per game, with 17 rushing TDs.
The skinny: Because of the season-ending injury to shifty QB J.T. Barrett, sophomore RB Ezekiel Elliott has become an even bigger part of the Buckeyes' offense in the last two games. He has responded with the two best games of his career: He had 220 yards and two TDs in a rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, then topped that with 230 yards and two TDs in the Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. Elliott is big (6-foot-0, 220 pounds) and fast, and he is equally adept at going wide as he is at running inside. Barrett was Ohio State's second-leading rusher; new starting QB Cardale Jones is an effective power runner, but unlike Barrett (and Oregon counterpart Marcus Mariota), he won't run away from anybody. Oregon's run defense is nothing special. The Ducks do flow well to the ball, but they struggled to slow the rushing attacks of Arizona (in the regular season, not in the Pac-12 title game) and UCLA. Ohio State probably feels confident it can run right at the Ducks, then hit some big plays with the read option.
Players to watch: Ohio State (G Pat Elflein, TB Ezekiel Elliott, QB Cardale Jones); Oregon (DE Arik Armstead, DE DeForest Buckner, LB Joe Walker)
The edge: Ohio State


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Oregon run offense vs. Ohio State run defense

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The numbers: Oregon averages 241.9 rushing yards per game, with 42 rushing TDs. Ohio State allows 142.0 rushing yards per game, with 24 rushing TDs.
The skinny: The Ducks' most productive rushing games have come in their past two outings, when they ran for 301 against Arizona and Florida State. Notably, in their loss to Arizona, the Ducks rushed for a season-low 144 yards. The second-lowest total was 172 in a narrow win over Washington State. Both those games were played with a makeshift line, but that's not the case anymore. The Ducks use a committee approach at tailback, but true freshman Royce Freeman is the best; he is a downhill runner who seems to relish running between the tackles. Indiana and Minnesota gouged Ohio State on the ground, but those teams use a more physical rushing style than does Oregon. The Buckeyes haven't played a true spread-option team this season, so it will be interesting to see if they can handle the speedy Mariota.
Players to watch: Oregon (RB Royce Freeman, C Hroniss Grasu, QB Marcus Mariota); Ohio State (S Von Bell, DT Michael Bennett, LB Darron Lee)
The edge: Oregon


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Ohio State pass offense vs. Oregon pass defense

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The numbers: Ohio State averages 247.5 passing yards per game, with 41 passing TDs (fourth-most nationally) and 11 interceptions. Oregon allows 265.9 passing yards per game, with 20 passing TDs and 12 interceptions.
The skinny: Barrett proved to be a more effective passer than expected, and while Jones doesn't have quite the same touch, he has a much stronger arm (hey, there's a reason he is nicknamed "12-gauge"). Indeed, Alabama coach Nick Saban said Tide coaches were surprised how effective Ohio State was throwing downfield with Jones. Senior WR Devin Smith has good speed and can get deep; he is the Buckeyes' main long-ball threat. Sophomore WR Michael Thomas is the leading receiver, and the Buckeyes throw a ton to their backs (three backs have at least 21 receptions). TEs Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are underutilized weapons; then again, Ohio State has a lot of big-play guys. Oregon's secondary held up relatively well against FSU even without star CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is injured. S Erick Dargan has had an excellent season, but a big priority for the Ducks has to be to get in Jones' face and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Oregon seems likely to blitz more than FSU, and those blitzes have to work. You'd think Oregon would try to attack the right side of Ohio State's line and stay away from LT Taylor Decker.
Players to watch: Ohio State (OT Darryl Baldwin, QB Cardale Jones, WR Devin Smith); Oregon (S Erick Dargan, CB Chris Seisay, OLB/DE Tony Washington)
The edge: Ohio State


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Oregon pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense

The numbers: Oregon averages 311.0 passing yards per game, with 42 passing TDs (third-most nationally) and three interceptions (tied for second-fewest nationally). Ohio State allows 191.6 passing yards per game, with 15 passing TDs and 24 interceptions (fourth-most nationally).
The skinny: Mariota's career TD-to-interception ratio is an otherworldly 103-to-13, including 40-to-3 this season. He is not asked to sit in the pocket and make reads downfield; instead, it is his job to quickly determine who has the best matchup and get that receiver the ball. Oregon's receivers are a deep and explosive bunch, though it seems likely the Ducks will be without Devon Allen, the team's second-leading receiver, because of injury. He was hurt on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl but wasn't missed. Redshirt freshman Darren Carrington Jr. torched FSU's secondary in the Rose Bowl, but he was ruled ineligible for this game. Converted RB Byron Marshall has been a revelation as a receiver (team-leading 66 receptions). True freshman Charles Nelson has come on strong of late and is an elusive playmaker. Dwayne Stanford is a physical presence, and sophomore TE Evan Baylis -- seeing more time because of an injury to starter Pharaoh Brown -- had a huge game against FSU (six of his 14 career catches came in that game). Senior CB Doran Grant is the Buckeyes' best pass defender, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Ducks try to attack Eli Apple, the other corner. Ohio State sophomore DE Joey Bosa is a stud and leads the Big Ten with 13.5 sacks. While Mariota does a great job avoiding the rush and extending plays, Oregon senior LT Jake Fisher still must keep Bosa at bay. In the Ducks' lone loss this season, Mariota was sacked five times; he was sacked just nine times in the other 13 games. This is the area that looks to be most advantageous for Oregon and the key to the whole game. Ohio State prefers to play out of its base 4-3 defense, but if the Ducks throw it well, the Buckeyes won't be able to do that.
Players to watch: Oregon (OT Jake Fisher, QB Marcus Mariota, WR Charles Nelson); Ohio State (CB Eli Apple, DE Joey Bosa, S Tyvis Powell)
The edge: Oregon.


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Ohio State special teams vs. Oregon special teams

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The skinny: Ohio State enjoys an advantage at kicker (slight) and punter (big) with Sean Nuernberger and Cameron Johnston. Ohio State has attempted 20 field goals this season, Oregon 19. But Oregon won't be all that confident if K Aidan Schneider (like Nuernberger, a freshman) has to attempt one from more than 40 yards. Johnston has a big leg and more than a third of his attempts (16 of 45) have gone for more than 50 yards, and more than half (23) have dropped inside the 20. Oregon's Ian Wheeler, another freshman, has punted 41 times, and just four have been for at least 50 yards. Both have dangerous punt returners: Nelson for Oregon (two TDs) and Jalin Marshall (one TD) for Ohio State. Surprisingly, for teams loaded with weapons, neither is that good on kickoff returns. Both have good coverage units.
The edge: Ohio State.

X-factor

The skinny: It's a cliché to say turnovers will be big -- but turnovers will be big in this one. Oregon's defense surrenders a lot of yards (421.9 per game, almost 90 more per game than the Buckeyes) but not a lot of points (22.3, basically the same as Ohio State). Turnovers are the reason for that: Oregon is a national-best plus-20 in turnover margin; the Buckeyes are plus-10. As powerful as Oregon's offense is -- and it is going to have success against the Buckeyes -- the Ducks are going to give up a ton of yardage to Ohio State. They need to force turnovers, and Ohio State needs to avoid them because Oregon is lethal in converting turnovers into points. Oregon forced five turnovers against FSU and converted all five into TDs. Oregon has enjoyed a giant advantage in points off turnovers this season: The Ducks have scored 154 points after turnovers, their foes just 13. "When turnovers come, they change momentum," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said after the Rose Bowl, and Oregon is going to need some changes in momentum if it is to beat Ohio State.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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