The College Football Playoff has seen an Oregon football program peaking at just the right time. The Ducks cruised to a 59-20 victory in the Rose Bowl, employing their famous uptempo offense to burn out the Florida State defenders and their oppressive defense to pressure quarterback Jameis Winston, generating fumbles, turnovers, broken plays, and disrupting just about every aspect of the Seminoles’ game-plan. If these Ducks wish to achieve their national title aspirations, they must beat the Ohio State Buckeyes, an unfulfilled challenge dating back roughly half a century.
The long history between these two teams dates back to the 1958 Rose Bowl, pitting Len Casanova’s WebFoots against a Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes team featuring halfback (and cornerback) Dick LeBeau and wide receiver Leo Brown. Oregon was the heavy underdog. In a run-heavy offense, Oregon quarterback Jack Crabtree put forth an impressive aerial performance, completing 10 of 17 passes for 135 yards. After tying the game, the Buckeyes scored a late field goal to hold off the courageous Ducks for a 10-7 win. Casanova’s team’s performance impressed the country, capturing national media attention in its valiant Rose Bowl effort.
“Len Casanova undoubtedly performed the greatest coaching feat of the season for the Rose Bowl classic … there couldn’t have been a bowl team anywhere in America yesterday that dazzled with more spectacular finesse,” Vincent X. Flaherty of the San Francisco Examiner wrote.
Hayes wouldn’t hear any of it and spoke plainly in his response to the media.”The best team always wins,” Hayes said. “And we won.” Despite the loss, Crabtree was named the most valuable player of the Rose Bowl game.
A 57-year-old Buckeye tree on the University of Oregon campus symbolizes that Rose Bowl game and marks the first of eight meetings between the Ducks and the Bucks since then. In those eight meetings, Oregon has never beat the Buckeyes.
The last time Oregon played Ohio State was in the 2010 Rose Bowl under former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. That time, the Ducks with their nationally recognized blur offense were heavy favorites. Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes head coach at the time, put forth a power running game that kept the ball out of Oregon’s frustrated hands for most of the game, surprising Oregon fans and beating the Ducks, 26-17.
“I don’t think power will ever go out of fashion in football,” Tressel told the Plain Dealer. “Not at the highest level. There’ll be a lot of statistics made without it, but there won’t be too many championships made without it.”
The Buckeyes have won seven national titles, three of which, interestingly, had to go through Oregon. It seems fitting that in order for the Ducks to claim their first national title, they must face their demons, again, and snap their winless record against Ohio State.
But the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship game won’t be a battle between cornfed Rust Belt brutes of Ohio and relatively unknown athletes from Track Town, USA. These two teams have a lot more in common now than in years past. Each program is led by meticulous and successful head coaches in OSU’s Urban Meyer (37-3 at OSU) and Oregon’s Mark Helfrich (24-3), both with a keen ability to prepare and develop young talent. Meyer and Helfrich operate the spread offense with extreme efficiency, both having benefitted from the tutelage of offensive sage Chip Kelly. Both teams have established strong running games with Oregon’s backfield duo of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, and for Ohio State, the hefty and elusive Ezekiel Elliot.
And both squads have overcome adversity, battling injuries throughout the regular season and even into the post-season. Ohio State will start its third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, replacing J.T. Barrett (who replaced Braxton Miller, but then broke his ankle in the season finale against Michigan. For Oregon, early season injuries to seasoned offensive linemen resulted in stellar performances from their young replacements, showcasing Oregon’s ability to quickly develop effective, interchangeable parts. Oregon and Ohio State have shown that while they have youth, their talented rosters run deep.
This is as good a national championship pairing as fans could ever hope for. It has all the makings of an instant classic with a storied history, competing storylines of underdogs and vengeance. For Ohio State, it’s dynasty maintenance. And for Oregon, earning its first national crown. For Oregon, the difference is the unflappable Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota and his band of playmakers that continue to exceed our expectations.
Legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells once said, “If you’ve ever won a championship, then that’s all you’re interested in doing.” Oregon has never won a national championship, but in Eugene, that’s all anyone associated with the football program is interested in doing. And these Ducks have a wonderful opportunity to not only win it all, but to also end a tired winning Ohio State narrative.
Top photo from video