Even though Ohio State had just beaten what was arguably the most talented team in the playoffs, the Buckeyes weren't receiving a great deal of credit heading into the title game against the Ducks. Oregon was giving six and a half points on game day, and while Ohio State had its share of believers, the common perception was that Oregon was going to at last win a national title thanks to its Heisman-winning QB. If Ohio State won, it would be close.
The stage was not set for the dominant victory Ohio State put on.
Perhaps the most telling stat was that Ohio State turned the ball over four times, yet outscored what had been perhaps the country's best offense, 42-20, and held the ball for 37 minutes and 29 seconds.
As most were quick to note, despite Marcus Mariota's status as a Heisman quarterback, both teams are built around powerful rushing attacks. Oregon had rushed all over plenty of talented defenses over the years, including a 6.69-yard average against Florida State 11 days prior. The Buckeye coaching staff clearly understood this, as well as the fact that Mariota's explosiveness on the ground was a potential back-breaker.
Ohio State was able to outrush Oregon, 296 to 132, almost half Oregon's season average. Mariota ran for only 39 yards after putting up a total of 199 against tough Stanford and Utah defenses. The Buckeyes back, Ezekiel Elliot, dropped a Championship record 246 yards, more by himself than Oregon had allowed to 13 of the other 14 teams it played this season.
Ohio State's thorough domination in the trenches made all the difference. So how was this feat accomplished?
One of the many smaller themes in the national title game was the triumph of two-read coverage, a more conservative version of cover 4 that keeps the safeties deep and safe from run/pass conflicts.
The only problem with this coverage is that it asks a lot from the safeties and linebackers. They have to play with great awareness and have the athleticism to quickly close on the ball. Otherwise, you risk death from a thousand easy cuts. Playing without extra players in the box, the Oregon linebackers and safeties were totally overwhelmed trying to keep their fingers in the dam against Zeke and his escort, TE/H-back Jeff Heuerman.
Ohio State actually got its offense going by throwing the ball with Cardale Jones, who averaged an excellent 10.5 yards per throw, but once they had breathing room to establish the running game, they never relented. They attacked the Ducks a few different ways, but more often than not, they went right up main street with a few basic concepts.
(GIFs via ESPN.)
This was their first big run of the day and the indicator that Elliott was going to eat well. It's a variation of inside zone called "wham," in which the Buckeyes cleverly use the threat of a Jones pass or keeper in conjunction with a trap block by Nick Vannett (No. 81) to seal an inside path for Elliott.
From the center to the left tackle, the Buckeye OL doesn't even block defensive linemen. They advance to the linebackers, though the left tackle does give the end a push before moving on. The Oregon safeties are left to fill the alley and clean up what the overmatched linebackers cannot, but they are incapable of managing Zeke in open grass.
The Buckeyes would run this play again when backed up on their own 2-yard line after stopping the Ducks on the goal line. They ripped off another 20-plus-yard run.
The Ducks eventually responded before halftime, as their DTs became more aware of when the trap block was coming. After halftime, they started dropping a safety into eight-man fronts to try and stop the Buckeye run game.
That was when Ohio State turned to Jim Tressel's favorite play: power.
The Buckeyes' use of sweeps make it all too easy for them to manipulate cover 3 safeties and run power at the safety dropping into the deep middle, as they did here.
When turnovers and passing success brought Oregon within 21-20, the Buckeyes went back to this well over and over again. The Ducks just couldn't stop it. Whereas the Buckeye game plan proved capable for handling the varieties of the Oregon offense, the Ducks didn't have answers to get their players in position. Their outmatched linebackers were virtually a non-factor, a major problem in this style of defense.
Stuffing the Duck option
The Ducks center most of their plays around zone read tactics that include endless methods for giving defenders tough choices, allowing Mariota to punish their decisions.
The classic approach to option football for a 4-3 defense with deep safeties has always been to follow "block down, step down" rules for defensive line play. That's intended to spill the ball outside to pursuit. The goal is to force quarterback indecision and allow help to come, negating the number advantages the offense gains from leaving players unblocked.
Many of the tactics meant to accomplish this have been ruined by modern option strategies, which include quick passes that bring ruin to defensive backs flying to the football. However, Ohio State found ways to mix the classic approach in their base defense with outside-in-style blitzes.
In their base two-read defense, the Buckeyes had steady rules for how they'd line up and handle the option.
Each defensive end would defend his inside gap, unless that gap was already occupied by a defensive tackle, whether blocked or not. The middle of the line would become a pileup. Duck offensive linemen, who are better at reaching and sealing then driving people off the ball, would get tangled up, and the ball would spill out to Buckeye linebackers who could run unencumbered to the football.
Read side linebackers (W in the diagram above) would always attack the bubble screens. Backside linebackers (S) would flow toward the ball. When the Ducks tried to use their unbalanced/trips formations, the Buckeyes would respond by stationing Darron Lee wide (S below) to out-physical the Oregon receivers and force the ball inside.
The result was that Oregon could not run the ball downhill.
The Ducks had to try and run wide, where linebackers were waiting.
The Buckeyes then mixed in pressures to attack Oregon's option plays, bringing Lee off the weakside while dropping a defensive end to cover the quick flat passes the Ducks love so much or bringing five pass rushers, with the blitzer coming off the read side in order to overwhelm the play.
In short, the Buckeyes found different ways to force Oregon to beat them with physicality at the point of attack, rather than optioning and spreading them apart. The Ducks' speed couldn't just blow them away.
Without the benefit of explosive plays in the running game and the ability to get their pace going, due to going two-of-12 on third down, Oregon could not fill up the scoreboard even though Mariota was effective throwing the ball.
Ohio State turned a game between two spread-option running teams into a battle over which team was more physical in the trenches. Once that was accomplished, the outcome was never really in doubt.
Big Jones extended multiple plays and converted third and fourth downs with his power, even running over the Duck nose tackle on a third-and-3 scramble.
Elliott likewise ran through the Oregon secondary all night. The Buckeyes played a base 4-3 package with physical DL that clogged the interior and linebackers who were able to control the line of scrimmage from sideline to sideline thanks to their unique size and speed.
It was never fair for anyone to call Oregon soft, but they aren't a smashmouth team either. The Ducks are built to run you ragged with speed and skill, while Ohio State brings more power to the equation.
In a physical game that's all about imposing your will at the point of attack, just plain fast loses to big and fast.