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Can Ohio State slow down Oregon's relentless offense?

Every offense wants to put stress on opposing defenses. Oregon's methods have changed through the years, but they're still relentless, flexible, and unforgiving. Can Ohio State slow down the run enough to force mistakes in the passing game?

In 1995, Mike Bellotti succeeded Rich Brooks as Oregon's head coach. He had served as Brooks' offensive coordinator for six seasons, offering a sustained upgrade with what was at the time an innovative split-back offense.

Bellotti's first offensive coordinator hire as the Ducks' head man was another split-back guy, Al Borges. The two crafted a system designed to stress defenses horizontally with two-tight end looks and power potential to both sides. In their season together before Borges moved to UCLA, they built around Ricky Whittle, who carried 260 times and caught 55 passes. And when you stretched too wide, they gouged you deep with Cristin McLemore (16.2 yards per catch).

In its own mid-1990s, pro-style way, this was innovative. The wishbone era was coming to an end as defenses got lighter and faster; Bellotti's approach allowed for a combination of sideline-to-sideline stretching and power that smaller defenses couldn't handle.

In Brooks' first 12 years in Eugene (1977-'88), his Ducks never scored more than 296 points in a season. In Bellotti's first season as OC, 1989, they scored 379 and reached their first bowl in 26 years. They averaged more than 32 points per game in 1995 until a late-season fade.

Some people are system guys, but Bellotti was flexible. He just wanted to put stress on a defense. In 1995, that meant hiring Borges, who would go on to success in the same role at UCLA and Auburn, but whose ideas seemed to meet their expiration date recently at Michigan.

Twelve years later, it meant Bellotti hiring an irascible offensive coordinator from New Hampshire.

My philosophy has been to coach an attacking style of football and stretch the defenses in as many different ways as you can. You have to get the ball into the hands of your playmakers and let them operate in order to be successful.

It's conceivable that Bellotti had said the same thing, when Brooks plucked him from Chico State in the late-1980s. That quote came from Bellotti's final coordinator hire, the man who would succeed him as head coach in 2009: Chip Kelly.

Perfecting the formula

In eight years as New Hampshire's offensive coordinator, Kelly tinkered with the meaning of phrases like "stretch the defenses" and "get the ball into the hands of your playmakers." He experimented with extreme tempos and line splits. He figured out ways to stress a defense to its breaking point. And it didn't take him long to do the same in Eugene.

Oregon was averaging 43 points per game in 2007 and producing a Heisman favorite in quarterback Dennis Dixon until he went down with an injury. The Ducks would average 42 points in 2008, and in 2010, Kelly's second year as head coach, they averaged 47 and made the BCS Championship. They averaged 50 in 2012, with a redshirt freshman named Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Like Brooks, Kelly jumped to the pros.

As creative as Kelly had been at inflicting malicious stress on defenses, it took vision to find his own successor. Mark Helfrich was a fast riser with a giant stain on his résumé. A Southern Oregon grad and 1997 Oregon graduate assistant, Helfrich became Dirk Koetter's quarterbacks coach at Boise State in 1998 at the age of 24. He followed Koetter to Arizona State in 2001. When Dan Hawkins became the head man at Colorado in 2006, Hawkins named Helfrich, then only 32, his offensive coordinator.

And for three years under Helfrich, Colorado's offense stunk. The talent level was already falling in Gary Barnett's final seasons in Boulder, but Helfrich inherited an offense that had ranked 42nd in Off. S&P+ in 2005 and led it to rankings of 94th, 73rd, and 118th.

You have to have the pieces. Helfrich didn't. The Buffaloes were a toxic mix of minimal experience and shaky talent, and Helfrich never could figure out the right buttons. Still, Kelly saw the potential. He outfitted Helfrich with more explosive pieces in Eugene, and the Ducks never looked back.

The Oregon vision in full

The first College Football Playoff final pits two good defenses and two great offenses. Oregon's has shifted and matured through the years, but it has only strayed from Bellotti's schematics, not his intent.

In the Rose Bowl against Florida State, Oregon showed everything Bellotti and Borges could have conceived of 19 years ago, in a deeper, sleeker, faster package. If we look at targets and rushes as intended touches, running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner had 27 for 187 yards. Receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson had 12 for 219. Marcus Mariota carried eight times for 62 yards. Out of nowhere, tight end Evan Baylis saw eight targets for 73 yards. Florida State was able to keep two of Oregon's four leading receivers in check -- intended touches for Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford: 13 for 41 yards -- and the Ducks gained 639 yards regardless.

Ohio State's defense, led by coordinator Luke Fickell and co-coordinator Chris Ash, has plenty of strengths. The Buckeyes rank sixth in Def. F/+, powered by a steady secondary and one of the best pass rushes in the country. But when you face Oregon, the game is defined not by your defensive strengths, but your weaknesses. The Ducks will find them, and Ohio State's run defense is in no way spectacular.

Can Ohio State get to third-and-long?

Standard Downs
Oregon Offense Ohio St. Defense Advantage
Rushing percentage 56.1% (80th) 58.8% (73rd)
S&P+ (overall quality) 131.8 (5th) 117.4 (20th) Ducks
Success Rate (efficiency) 54.2% (9th) 45.5% (53rd) Ducks
IsoPPP (explosiveness) 0.98 (3rd) 0.70 (32nd) Ducks
Rushing Success Rate 54.3% (13th) 49.0% (88th) Ducks big
Rushing IsoPPP 0.85 (7th) 0.65 (58th) Ducks big
Passing Success Rate 54.0% (13th) 40.5% (17th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.15 (12th) 0.78 (21st) push

Stats glossary

The stereotype of the Oregon offense is that of a spread-to-run attack. When you've got Mariota running your offense, you can stray from that. Oregon runs less frequently than the national average on standard downs, with Mariota completing more than 70 percent of his throws and choosing the "pass" part of the play-option pass often.

Oregon pecks at you, testing your limits horizontally and vertically, handing to Freeman (1,343 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns) and Tyner (511 yards, five touchdowns), using Mariota in variations of the triple option, and throwing to an extensive variety of targets. Marshall and Stanford set up near the line of scrimmage; on standard downs in 2014, they have caught 74 of 101 passes for 795 yards and six scores.

And once you are stretched out, Mariota pierces you downfield. Devon Allen and Darren Carrington have caught 60 of 84 standard downs passes for a whopping 1,116 yards and nine scores. Allen was injured on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl, and Oregon played like it didn't even notice. Carrington caught seven passes for 165 yards and two scores (he also caught seven for 126 in the Pac-12 title game), and the Ducks dusted off tight end Evan Baylis; the sophomore had only caught two standard-downs passes all season but caught five of five for 68 yards in Pasadena.

Incredible depth has allowed Oregon to overcome a level of injury that would have crippled about 98 percent of offenses. Leading receiver Bralon Addison tore his ACL in the spring and missed all season. Tight end Pharaoh Brown, one of Mariota's most frequent standard-downs targets (20 such catches for 334 yards and five scores in 10 games) was lost to injury in November. The line got shuffled constantly through the first half of the season.

But Mariota, who suffered his own knee injury late in 2013, has remained upright. That's an obvious key. Allen is doubtful for the title game, but as long as Mariota is running the show, Oregon will use every remaining option to its highest potential. And if Ohio State slows down Carrington in a way that FSU and Arizona couldn't, that might mean a big day for Freeman, Marshall, Tyner, or Stanford.

[Update: Carrington is suspended, but former No. 1 receiver Addison doesn't seem to have ruled out burning his redshirt in order to play.]

Ohio State is at its best when it can be aggressive, when it can invade the line. On passing downs, the Buckeyes have one of the best pass defenses in the country, sending a fierce pass rush -- sophomore end Joey Bosa (13.5 sacks), freshman linebacker Darron Lee (7.5), senior tackle Michael Bennett (7.0) -- after quarterbacks who are waiting for receiving options to get open. On standard downs, they have had to remain patient and reactive, and that isn't a strength.

On standard downs, Ohio State's youth shows. Bosa is a sophomore, and a majority of backup linemen are freshmen. It's a similar story at linebacker (Lee and freshman backups Chris Worley and Raekwon McMillan play important roles), cornerback (freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley line up opposite senior Doran Grant) and safety (sophomores Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell lead the way). The Buckeyes are incredibly athletic, but inconsistency can lead to issues with forcing passing downs.

Even against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, when the Buckeyes were making stop after stop in the second half, they were still allowing a 68 percent rushing success rate and a 56 percent standard-downs success rate. They had to completely dominate passing downs to win, and while they did that, removing margin for error isn't a successful approach against Oregon.

Passing Downs
Oregon Offense Ohio St. Defense Advantage
Rushing percentage 43.2% (12th) 32.1% (75th)
S&P+ (overall quality) 163.1 (3rd) 120.4 (29th) Ducks
Success Rate (efficiency) 40.0% (4th) 24.9% (12th) push
IsoPPP (explosiveness) 1.40 (5th) 1.03 (27th) Ducks
Rushing Success Rate 35.8% (11th) 27.6% (63rd) Ducks big
Rushing IsoPPP 1.26 (38th) 1.09 (58th) Ducks
Passing Success Rate 43.2% (3rd) 23.6% (6th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.49 (5th) 1.00 (30th) Ducks

Stats glossary

Ohio State sacks the quarterback 12.4 percent of the time on passing downs, the fifth best rate in the country. And the stress of knowing that Bosa and company are nearby messes with quarterbacks' internal clocks. They rush throws or they flee the pocket, allowing the speedy Buckeye defense to swarm.

Oregon isn't necessarily going to pass on second-and-long, though. The Ducks employ a style that can protect mobile quarterbacks: throw on early downs, when the opponent is fearing the run, and run on passing downs, to make sure defenses can't get too aggressive. That has worked for quarterbacks like Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, and it's almost unfair to employ it with a quarterback like Mariota, who is nearly as fast as Martinez and has an NFL-caliber arm.

So Ohio State is dependent on its pass rush, but second-and-long is a running down for Oregon, and the Buckeyes aren't that good at defending the run on any down. How aggressive can Ohio State be in these situations? If the pass rush is left flat-footed by both the run and Mariota, there will be open receivers.

Carrington has emerged as almost a go-to threat on standard downs. But Mariota tends to look other directions on passing downs. And while Baylis got more involved against FSU, passes to him were only 1-for-3 for five yards on passing downs. Marshall (17-for-27, 328 yards on passing downs) is still the most frequent target in these situations, but Stanford (15-for-24, 298) is almost a co-No. 1. Keanon Lowe (11-for-17, 189 yards) gets more involved, too.

Diversity is once again the key. Mariota has options everywhere, and he shows few tendencies.

As we know from watching Kelly and Helfrich offenses for a while, when the Ducks convert a big passing down, your demoralized defense will have about seven seconds to line up for the next snap. Variety, depth, athleticism, and incredible quarterbacking are the keys to Oregon's attack. Relentless tempo is the finishing blow.

Three key Oregon stats to watch

1. Rushing success rate. Ohio State has been shaky all season at preventing rushing efficiency, and Oregon's ground game is among the most efficient in the country. The Buckeyes will want the Ducks to play to OSU's defensive strengths as much as possible, but that won't happen if Oregon is able to push that rushing success rate over 55 or 60 percent.

2. Passing-downs sack rate. Even if Oregon runs frequently on passing downs, the Buckeyes will still have pass rush opportunities. They must take advantage. Even if they aren't dragging Mariota down more than a couple of times, every forced throw or rushed read counts.

With Ohio State's dominant offense (which we will discuss Thursday), the Buckeyes aren't going to have to make tons of stops. But if they can force a couple of turnovers or big field position plays (sacks, for instance), that could go a long way.

3. Points per scoring opportunity. I define scoring opportunities as drives with a first down inside the opponent's 40. Oregon's offense ranks second in the country, averaging 5.3 points per scoring opportunity. Ohio State's defense ranks a woeful 93rd, allowing 4.6 points per opp. Every field goal (or turnover, of course) Ohio State can force when Oregon knocks on the door is a Buckeye victory.