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Ohio State turned question marks into exclamation points all season long

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Urban Meyer now has three national titles at age 50, Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 696 yards in the last three games of the season, and "Ohio State?" turned into "Ohio State!" in Arlington.

Let's take a final look at the key numbers from Ohio State's 42-20 title game win over Oregon in Arlington on Monday night.


Exactly 1,496 days ago, Urban Meyer resigned from his job as Florida's head coach. Just 46 years old, Meyer had already climbed the ladder from Notre Dame's receivers coach to Bowling Green head coach (17-6 in two years) to Utah head coach (22-2 in two years) to two-time national title winner. And 10 years in, he was burnt out. He walked away from $20 million, he became an ESPN analyst, and he recharged.

Exactly 1,142 days ago, Ohio State hired Meyer to replace interim coach Luke Fickell, who had replaced Jim Tressel. Tressel had won at least 10 games in eight of his last nine seasons in Columbus, but he resigned in May 2011 as allegations of players trading memorabilia for tattoos prompted an NCAA investigation. Twenty-two days after Meyer was hired, the NCAA banned the Buckeyes from the 2012 postseason.

Exactly 129 days ago, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech. It was the Buckeyes' third loss in four games following the 24-game win streak that kicked off Meyer's tenure. Incumbent quarterback Braxton Miller had been lost to a season-ending injury in August, and replacement J.T. Barrett looked the part of an overwhelmed redshirt freshman; against Virginia Tech's stout defense, Barrett was sacked seven times in 36 attempts and threw three interceptions. Virginia Tech would win five of 11 games the rest of the season, but the Hokies' 35-21 win in Columbus on Sept. 6, combined with Michigan State's loss to Oregon, was supposed to have doomed the Big Ten to anonymity.

Exactly 66 days ago, Ohio State beat Michigan State in East Lansing. Following the Virginia Tech loss, the Buckeyes had established dominance, demolishing Kent State, Cincinnati, Maryland, Rutgers and Illinois by an average score of 56-17 and surviving a road test against Penn State and Bob Shoop's rugged defense. The advanced stats were falling in love with them, but they ranked 13th in the polls thanks to perceptions and that awful Tech loss. But against an allegedly elite Spartan defense, Ohio State put up 568 yards -- 300 passing, 268 rushing -- and Barrett looked the part of a Heisman candidate. The Buckeyes went on a 35-10 run and cruised, 49-37.

Exactly 45 days ago, Barrett broke his ankle against Michigan. Cardale Jones led the Buckeyes on a scoring drive, and Darron Lee returned a fumble 33 yards for a game-clinching score, but heading into Championship Week, the Buckeyes ranked fifth in the Playoff committee's rankings, and quarterback uncertainty was all but assured of holding them back.

Exactly 38 days ago, Ohio State wiped the floor with Wisconsin, 59-0, in the Big Ten title game. Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns (all to Devin Smith), Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 220 yards, the Buckeyes held Melvin Gordon to 76 rushing yards and forced four turnovers, and Ohio State leaped TCU in the Playoff rankings, snagging a Sugar Bowl and semifinal bid against Alabama.

Exactly 12 days ago, Ohio State beat Alabama at its own game, rushing for 281 yards, surviving an early deficit, going on a 28-0 run, picking off Blake Sims three times, and advancing to the first Playoff final.

And Monday night, the Buckeyes spotted Oregon an early touchdown, went on a 21-0 run, survived horrendous fumbles luck (Oregon recovered all four fumbles for the day -- three of Ohio State's and one of its own), and cruised to a title.

This was Meyer's greatest job, and I'm not sure it was close. He was already a legend because of his work in Bowling Green, Utah and Florida; after three years in Columbus, he has a third ring and is within one national title of Nick Saban's total. Meyer looks younger than he did five years ago in Gainesville. He built a team capable of not only overcoming quarterback injuries and crazy youth -- of 22 starters in the title game, seven were seniors and 10 were underclassmen -- but thriving because of it.

Saban might still be the best coach of this generation, but Meyer's record is shorter and nearly as accomplished. And he's only 50. If he truly is healthier and coaches into his mid-60s as most in his profession do, his odds of adding a fourth or fifth title are good. He is ahead of schedule in Columbus, and while his team will have to deal with a different level of expectation in 2015, the 2014 season was incredible in and of itself.

A season takes on a life of its own based on the types of classic games it produces, the ebbs and flows of the polls, the upsets, and the star power of the players. Through more than 800 games, the subjects, verbs, adverbs and prepositions are in place, and the job of the title game is to add the punctuation.

Ohio State's season was one of question marks, from "How can the Buckeyes overcome the loss of Miller?" to "How can they overcome the loss of Barrett?" to "Are you kidding me? The committee chose Ohio State over TCU and Baylor?"

Monday night was an exclamation mark.


You can distill football into two elements: creating scoring opportunities and capitalizing on them. The teams that create more opportunities usually win, but if you're better able to finish drives in the end zone or prevent your opponent from doing so, you can make up ground.

Heading into Monday, Oregon was tops in the country when it came to opportunity margin -- what I'll call the difference between your own points per scoring opportunity (drives with a first down inside the opponent's 40) and your opponent's. The Ducks were averaging 5.3 points per opportunity, second in the country, and allowing 3.6,13th, a margin of plus-1.7 points. Ohio State's margin: plus-0.2. The Buckeyes were solid at finishing drives (4.9 per trip, 27th) but shaky at stopping them (4.6 per trip allowed, 93rd).

Opportunity margin in the title game: Ohio State plus-1.25. The Buckeyes averaged 5.25 points per opportunity, and Oregon averaged only 4.00.

A fantastic margin wouldn't have saved Oregon. Not only did Ohio State finish better, the Buckeyes created twice as many opportunities.


During the regular season, Ohio State allowed a third-down conversion rate of 37.2 percent. A full-season rate of 37.2 would have ranked 39th in the country. But in the Buckeyes' three-game postseason run -- Big Ten title against Wisconsin, Sugar Bowl against Alabama, championship against Oregon -- they allowed nine conversions in 43 attempts, 20.9 percent.

We tend to make too much of third-down conversions. Hearing a coach say "We need to win third downs" really means you need to win first and second down. The more yards you gain on first down, the shorter your third down, and the higher your conversion rate.

Still, third-down conversion rate is a good measure of efficiency. Monday, Ohio State had it (8-for-15), and Oregon did not (2-for-12). Early, this had to do with Oregon miscues: Charles Nelson dropped a third-and-3 pass on the Ducks' second drive, and Dwayne Stanford dropped a wide-open bomb on third-and-12 on their third.

But as the game progressed, third downs proved who was winning first and second down. After Nelson's third-and-3 drop, every remaining Oregon third down required at least 4 yards to go, eight required at least 6, and six required at least 9. Marcus Mariota hit Stanford for a gain of 28 on third-and-11 and Nelson for 14 on third-and-9, but that was it. Ohio State shut down every other drive on third down when it got the chance to do so.

You cannot execute with the tempo Oregon wants if you aren't moving the chains. On the Ducks' two touchdown drives, they were able to get around third-down issues by avoiding third downs altogether. But it doesn't usually work that way. And after a shaky first quarter, Ohio State established a level of dominance in the trenches that cowed the Ducks.

In the first quarter, Oregon rushed eight times for 49 yards (6.1) on first down. The rest of the game, the Ducks ran seven times on first down, gaining 18 yards (2.6). The Ducks lost faith in the run, which is something we haven't seen in a while.

Despite only marginal first-down success, Ohio State kept hammering with the run, and the faith paid off. The Buckeyes averaged 3.6 yards per first-down carry in the first half (10 for 36) but used it to create play-action opportunities and second-and-manageable situations. Ohio State softened Oregon up in the third quarter (six first-down carries, 56 yards), and only turnovers could delay the inevitable.

It's easy to maintain faith in the run game when your quarterback, Cardale Jones, runs like a large appliance rolling downhill. And it's nearly a requirement to stick with the run when Ezekiel Elliott is doing what he did the last three games.

A sophomore from St. Louis, Elliott was dealing with a wrist injury when the season began. He gained 76 yards in 20 carries against Navy and Virginia Tech, but he averaged 111 yards the rest of the regular season. And when Jones took over, he and Elliott formed one of the most powerful rushing duos in recent history. With Jones keeping the ball just enough to keep defenses honest and a young line obliterating a series of strong defensive fronts, Elliott ran wild: 20 carries for 220 yards against Wisconsin, 20 for 230 against Alabama, 36 for 246 against Oregon. Oregon may have held its own on first down and in the first quarter, but on every series of downs, on every Elliott carry, Oregon's fate became more and more obvious.

Of Ohio State's 15 third downs, seven required 4 or fewer yards; the Buckeyes moved the chains in all seven instances -- four with third-down conversions and three with short fourth-down conversions. But what may have made the difference in the game was Ohio State's success on the others: the Buckeyes moved the chains five of eight times when facing third-and-5 or more (four times on third down, once on fourth-and-2). Jones hit Corey Smith for 26 yards on third-and-8 on Ohio State's first scoring drive and found Devin Smith for 45 yards on third-and-12 on another. Then, early in the fourth quarter, he connected with Jalin Marshall for 19 yards on third-and-5 to set up a short touchdown run and create an insurmountable 15-point lead.

Ohio State was better at creating manageable third downs and digging out of holes on third-and-long. Hard to beat that.


Marcus Mariota did his part. The Oregon quarterback and Heisman winner completed 24 of 37 (65 percent) for 333 yards and two touchdowns, with only two short sacks and a Hail Mary interception marring the stat line. That's 327 net yards in 39 total attempts, an 8.4-yard average. He connected with Byron Marshall for a 70-yard bomb that brought Oregon within 21-17 early in the third quarter, and without the two drops, he would have completed 70 percent for nearly 400 yards while carrying eight times for 45 yards.

The problem was ... well ... everything else. His receivers did drop those passes, and Oregon's run success did shift from stream to drip. Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman combined to gain 84 yards in 22 carries, and Ohio State's tackling on short passes was phenomenal. Tight end Evan Baylis gained 25 yards in five receptions, and nearly half of Mariota's passing yards came on four completions: passes of 70 and 20 yards to Marshall and 28-yarders to Stanford and Keanon Lowe. Take away those four, and Oregon averaged 9.4 yards per completion.

Yes, "take away the good plays, and the averages were bad" can be dicey logic, but it speaks to how well Ohio State's defense executed. There were few breakdowns, few blown coverages, few missed tackles. And it seemed a majority of the mistakes happened in the first quarter. By the second half, Oregon had no idea how it was going to move the ball, even with a Heisman winner. The Ducks faced perpetually long fields -- 10 of 14 drives began at or inside their own 25 (not a surprise considering Ohio State was a spectacular field position team this year) -- and couldn't rely on big plays or first-down rushing success.

Mariota played well, but Ohio State's defense played much better.