FishDuck.com editor Natalie Liebhaber reports from the National Championship game in Arlington, TX.
Urban Meyer beamed with pride as he took his seat at the post-game press conference after his Ohio State Buckeyes left the field at AT&T Stadium as the inaugural College Football Playoff National Champions. Meyer expressed his respect for his opponent, our Oregon Ducks, over and over throughout the week of pre-game preparation, and again post-game. He knew he would face his toughest challenge of the season in the Ducks, and last night he emerged as the victor.
No one should have doubted Meyer’s confidence in his OSU team, but its growth throughout the season that culminated in this complete team effort seemed to surpass even the coach’s expectations.
“I think you had two great teams out there. We have a lot of respect for Oregon and Coach [Mark] Helfrich, but I love these players,” Meyer said after the game. “This team wasn’t supposed to do this. They fought through adversity and got stronger and stronger. I don’t want to get over dramatic, but it’s as improved a football team [as I’ve ever seen]. From Game 1 to Game 15, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Oregon, the favorite to win the title game, struggled to contain both redshirt sophomore QB Cardale Jones and sophomore RB Ezekiel Elliott all night. The Ducks’ defense brought an extremely high level of physicality throughout this record-setting season, but that intensity seemed to shrivel against Jones’s passing game and Elliott’s rushing game. Jones, a former third-stringer making only his third start, passed for 242 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for another score. Elliott, who rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns, moved to second place on OSU’s all-time single-season rushing list (with 1,878 yards) and earned MVP honors.
In preparing to face the Ducks, Meyer said last week that his No. 1 concern was containing Oregon’s Heisman quarterback, Marcus Mariota. The Ducks’ special teams play and aggressive defense were also on Meyer’s radar, and he designed a game plan that catered to his Buckeyes’ strengths. Meyer said it was a “testimony to the improvement [OSU’s] defense has made.”
Mariota passed for 333 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 39 yards, but dropped passes by Oregon receivers and OSU’s defensive stands on fourth down limited Mariota’s ability to put up the points we’re accustomed to seeing from the Ducks. Oregon and OSU’s total yards, rushing yards, passing yards, total plays and time of possession after the first quarter were very similar, but the Buckeyes found a rhythm early and never looked back. The Ducks struggled to find momentum and Meyer seemed completely prepared to face their up-tempo offense.
Asked about those preparations, Meyer referenced Oregon’s pattern of running a play once every 16 seconds, on average. ”We challenged [the Buckeye players] and we had 16 signs everywhere,” Meyer said. “Every time our players went to get something to eat we had one of those big signs that lights up, and we thought if we could eliminate the fatigue factor and make [Oregon] block us and make them play football that we’d be in pretty good shape, and that’s what we did, even after all those turnovers.
“It’s phenomenal that we held them to a field goal when Cardale dropped it going way deep into our own territory. That to me was a changing point of the game. It made it 21-20 if I’m correct, and when that happened, I thought we had a chance to win this game.”
Like every coach to cross paths with Mariota, Meyer had high praise for the redshirt junior and understood what an accomplishment it was to come away with a win against him and his team.
“We slowed that guy down, and he’s one of the best players in the country,” Meyer said of Mariota.
It was apparent that Meyer did his research on the Ducks, and I asked him if anything he saw from Oregon last night surprised him.
“No, I thought they were a great team,” he said. “I think we tackled well, and we played — other than turnovers, that’s as well as we played. I’ve got a lot of respect for them. Marcus, I wish I had a chance to see him. I’ll see him again some day. But I’ve just got a lot of respect for the Oregon program and that whole outfit.
“Defense won the game,” he continued. “I don’t want to take away from these two guys to my left [Jones and Elliott] and the offensive line, but we lose that game if we don’t stop them on turnovers. We consider that a stop when you hold them to a field goal. Championships are won with defense, and our defense has been on a difficult journey the last couple years, but the future of our defense is even better because there are a lot of young guys playing.”
Meyer joins Alabama’s Nick Saban as the only other head coach to win National Championships at two different schools. Ohio State took its eighth title in program history, and first since 2002. Meyer is now an astounding 3-0 in his career in National Championship games, and what a feeling it must be to win one for your home state!
“I’m not shy about the love I have for this great state,” Meyer said. “Ashtabula, OH, is my hometown. I’ve got to travel all around the country and I realized how fortunate I am to grow up in a great town like that in a great state. I played college football here, and to bring now a national title to the great state of Ohio, it’s almost surreal.”
While Oregon ended the season without bringing home the grand prize, the success of 2014 and the continued strength of the program should inspire optimism and pride in Duck fans as well.
I think we can all agree the College Football Playoff Selection Committee got it right in this first year of the new landscape of the post-season. Ducks and Bucks fans alike will certainly count 2014 as a season to remember. Congratulations to the National Championship Buckeyes and runner-up Ducks!
Top Photo by John Sperry