This national championship game is a demonstration that it is not what you do after a triumph, but how you return from defeat, when the torment of having had everything you worked for taken away remorselessly by a single game is the only reality you truly feel.
Nobody described the resiliency of a champion better than the great Kipling:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss—and lose–and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss.
Oregon had not breathed a word about its losses after the 2010 Rose Bowl—its first trip to Pasadena in 15 years—when the Ducks were knocked down by Ohio State. They had dusted themselves off and went the next season all the way to the national championship, losing when Auburn’s field goal split the uprights as time expired, giving the Tigers a 22-19 victory, and the title.
Returning intact the next fall—not wasting time feeling sorry for themselves—Oregon played its way back into the Rose Bowl and beat Wisconsin to win the school’s first ‘Grandaddy of ‘em All’ title since 1917.
The Ducks had stayed vital after defeat going all the way back to 1995—where the program’s long climb to the top really began—when a historic season that felt like a once in a lifetime run culminated in a decisive loss to Penn State in Pasadena.
Now the Ducks are back in the championship game, and it feels like their moment to collect the final trophy in this long quest. But the symmetry, the rightness of it, has nothing to do with the final outcome in sports—where nothing is carved into the annals that you do not make the all-in push to carve yourself. A championship is not your destiny until you prove it by winning, which is the most unambiguously Calvinist proposition you will find in this article, for good or ill.
Ohio State is different, because nobody remembers a time when the Buckeyes were not good or expected not to be good. The Columbus, Ohio football program is a colossus that stands watch with four, maybe five, others at the very gates of college football immortality. The Buckeyes are playing for their school's eighth national championship.
But Ohio State, too, has had to dust itself off after lurid embarrassments. Nobody who follows the sport will forget the 2006 and 2007 national title games, when the mighty Big Ten champion Buckeyes failed even to leave the starting gates. First Florida and then LSU routed Ohio State, mortifying a proud program and league—defeats that have taken years to live down.
So both schools, you see, beyond the value inherent in the championship game itself, have other things to play for.
The offenses are the stronger forces on both teams, which paradoxically means it very well could be the defenses that decide the championship.
Against Florida State, Oregon’s defense was great not because it shut down the Seminole’s attack, but because it forced turnovers at incredibly opportune moments. In the end, Florida State gave Oregon the football five times through four fumbles and an interception. The 58 yard fumble return for a touchdown on the "Breathe of God" play in the third quarter essentially submitted Florida State and iced the game for Oregon.
The Duck’s defense has done that all season—come up with opportune turnovers that helped the offense—but one game in which the opponent is not led into mistakes and does not make any unforced errors of its own could be the team’s undoing. Despite losing 59-20, the Seminoles had 528 yards offense on more than 7-yards per pass attempt and nearly 5-yards per rush.
Third down is where Oregon’s defense did its most important work, forcing Florida State into a 6-of-16 conversion number, with an 0-for-2 on fourth down rate for good measure.
Ohio State’s offense is a nasty attack, with everyone basically healthy and a third string quarterback who looks better than the first string, and about the same kind of specimen as the second string. Astonishingly, the Buckeyes have not apparently lost any production at the sport's most important position after losing their top two players.
When that 6-foot 5-inch, 250 pound quarterback Cardale Jones is not running himself, he has plenty of playmakers to get the ball to downfield. Devin Smith is a blazer who has caught 12 touchdowns on just 32 receptions, averaging 27.7 yards per catch. Michael Thomas is a possession guy with 50 catches, nine touchdowns and 15 yards a reception. Jalin Marshall has six touchdowns on 33 catches, but averages nearly 14 yards a reception.
Five other Buckeye’s receivers have caught touchdowns and tight ends Jeff Huerman and Nick Vannett are viable options to do damage if checked down to and targeted.
Jones—who teammates call 12-gauge because of his number and shotgun-strength arm—can throw the ball as far as necessary to reach his man. But this is just his third start and there is no question a quarterback, any quarterback, can get rattled. In the Sugar Bowl Jones played a nice game, but he finished up just 18-of-35 for 243 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Ducks have to feel good about their chances of forcing Jones into a few untimely errors.
It is strange that Buckeye’s sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliot was not better known before juggernaut performances in his team’s two most important games. Combining the Big Ten Championship and Sugar Bowl, Elliot has rushed for 450 yards and four touchdowns against the season’s best competition.
On the season, Elliot went for 1,632 yards on 6.9 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns. The biggest came over 85 swift yards in the Superdome with 3:24 to play against Alabama that knocked the Crimson Tide and the mighty SEC from the playoffs.
That is the sum of duties for Oregon, with their big defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner causing havoc, their four linebackers putting down runners at first contact, and their big-play secondary taking smart chances. Get the ball away from Ohio State, get them off the field on third down and do not surrender the big play—particular a batch of them in the running game.
This game much more likely will be won by big plays from the Buckeyes than it will from Oregon. The Ducks offense is a scoring machine that moves fast or faster, but if they cannot keep the Bucks from a lot of heavy blows after sustained drives, they will be in for a punishing fight.
The Ducks offense likely is going to be able to do its thing, but the Buckeyes might be the best upfront and most athletic in the backend of any team Oregon has played this season.
Getting freshman star Royce Freeman and sophomore running back Thomas Tyner upfield past Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennet will be critical. Wearing them down over the course of the game could make the difference, too, with tempo sapping their power and speed over stretches and allowing the Ducks to score in volume even over the course of just one quarter.
And of course Marcus Mariota—the best player in college football—will be relied on heavily to make and facilitate big plays. As always, if Mariota gets going with his feet, then gets going with his arm, the Ducks are almost impossible to outscore.
Ohio State’s secondary features a freshman, two sophomores and a senior. Combined with its pass rush, the Buckeyes ranked fourth in the Big Ten allowing just 190 yards per game through the air. Its rushing defense came in fifth at 142 yards a contest and the entire unit allowed 22 points per game.
Oregon’s rushing attack is best thought of as a full frontal assault, ranking first in the Pac-12 at 242 yards per game. The passing game was third at 311 yards per game. That unit put those yards to effective use, ending up second nationally in points per game at 47.2, exactly one point behind the leader, Baylor, which fell to Michigan State of the Big Ten 42-41 in the Cotton Bowl.
What does that have to do with this game? Nothing, as far as I can tell.
The Ducks have not spent any time feeling sorry for themselves this season, either because of injuries or suspensions. They lost wide receiver Darren Carrington to a marijuana suspension sent down by the NCAA for the championship. Oregon has a plug and play philosophy out wide, with receivers doing as much important blocking as catching, but Carrington had been on fire as a playmaker.
In the Rose Bowl against Florida State, just as Oregon went into its near-patented stretch of single quarter blowout scoring, Carrington caught back-to-back monster touchdowns. The first was a 56 yard score on a simple ball up the sideline that Carrington used to juke a Seminole to the turf before gliding to the end zone.
The second came just over two minutes later, a 30 yard strike as twilight settled over Pasadena, in which Carrington again made an ankle breaking move before charging into the end zone. The scores sent Oregon up 32-20, and then 39-20—essentially the beginning of the sequence that broke Florida State’s will. The fumble return touchdown came right on the heels of Carrington's second long score.
The Ducks might be fine without Carrington, Devon Allen (injured on the first play of the Rose Bowl), Bralon Addison (out for year), and Pharaoh Brown (injured, Utah), but it leaves running back/receiver hybrid Byron Marshall as the team’s top remaining target. Dwayne Stanford, who has six touchdowns on the season, Keanon Lowe (four), Charles Nelson (five) and tight end Evan Baylis (one) round out the main ranks.
Maybe coach Mark Helfrich is right about what he told ESPN.
"Whatever our situation is, that’s a strength, that’s an advantage for us," he said.
What other way can he think now?
Ohio State has dominated this series, running up an 8-0 record against Oregon, but no player from either of those teams will be on the field.
The last time they met was the 2010 Rose Bowl, while this will be the third ever post-season matchup. The Buckeyes do not play a football game anywhere on earth without a cacophonous backdrop of scarlet and gray menacing the field, and the Ducks should expect a loud Ohio State crowd at Jerry’s World. But Oregon might have a large contingent of its own, those traveling in opposite of the old migration route from the Willamette Valley east to see the apotheosis of an odyssey began by the Ducks in 1995.
When Nike revealed the national championship game uniforms, I got the uneasy feeling that the Ducks would be at the almost unheard of disadvantage in terms of threads. While Ohio State has an amplified version of its traditional, classical look, the Ducks are wearing stark white, gray and chrome. The only other time I remember being non-plussed by an Oregon big game uniform was the 2010 Rose Bowl when they came out in white helmets, gray pants and a forest green jersey that was several shades lighter than their traditional green.
It would be strange to see a team so widely known for its unique yellow and green pairing win its first national title in white and gray, but in the end, it will not be the uniforms that matter. For both schools it has been a long journey, and after Monday night, one of them will have to dust off and try again.