Ducks vs Buckeyes: Hidden stats that will determine the National Championship

Helfrich, Meyer  Conversation
Helfrich, Meyer Conversation

The National Championship Game is a surprisingly even matchup between two very similar teams. Here are the hidden stats that will make the difference.

The college football national championship will be determined in one of the closest matchups we've seen in the history of the sport. Unlike many of the non-compelling games that were produced by the BCS, this year's game has the potential to be a truly intriguing matchup. The BCS is gone, thank goodness. Indeed, if this were 2013, the championship game would have pitted No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 2 Alabama. Instead, the combatants were determined on the field.

So much for the BCS. So far, it could be said that the College Football Playoff has solved most of the problems that caused so much hatred of the BCS among fans.

How closely matched are Oregon and Ohio State? Consider:

The Ducks rank No. 2 overall in scoring offense, and No. 27 in scoring defense.

The Buckeyes rank No. 5 in scoring offense; No. 26 in scoring defense.

The Oregon Ducks are 22-3 against FBS opponents over the past two seasons; the Ohio State Buckeyes are 24-3.

Oregon has lost their probable first round pick and shut-down cornerback, Ife Ekpre-Olamu, to injury.

Ohio State is starting their third string quarterback, Cardale Jones, for only his third ever start.

Oregon's last loss was October 2. Ohio State's last loss was September 6.

Urban Meyer studied Oregon's system while Chip Kelly was the head coach.

In many ways, these teams are mirror images. With opponents so closely matched, we need to take a deeper look into each team to see who has the advantage. There are hidden stats that will give us clues.

Let's take a deeper dive and examine those factors that will affect the outcome, followed by a prediction.

Turnover margin: Advantage Ducks.

Ohio State did a good job of producing turnovers on defense this year. The Buckeyes defense came up with eight fumble recoveries and 24 interceptions. Their 32 turnovers were two more than the Ducks produced on defense. On offense Ohio State lost 22 turnovers. They ranked a respectable No. 17 in the nation with a plus-10 turnover margin.

The Ducks were second in the nation in that category. Plus-20 for the year. Oregon led the nation in fewest turnovers, coughing up seven fumbles and only three interceptions. Their 30 turnovers produced on defense included seven interceptions by ball hawk safety Eric Dargan. Oregon created a runaway train in the Rose Bowl with a spate of turnovers by the Seminoles in the third quarter. Ohio State must avoid a similar fate.

Oregon's ball protection was impressive, and it started with Marcus Mariota. Check this out, courtesy ESPN:

Touchdowns vs. turnovers

56 – Mariota has been responsible for a Pac-12 record 56 touchdowns this season. He has been responsible for at least four touchdowns in 10 games, tied for the most such games in the last 10 seasons with Tim Tebow (2007) and Colt Brennan (2006).

50 – Mariota is on pace to become the first player in FBS history to account for at least 50 more touchdowns than turnovers in one season (56 touchdowns, six turnovers)

0.7 – With three interceptions in 408 passes, Mariota is threatening the record for lowest interception percentage in a season. If Mariota throws at least 23 passes in the national championship game without an interception, he will break the record for lowest interception percentage in a season, held by Boise State's Kellen Moore (2009).

Ohio State had a troubling propensity to give up the ball all season, averaging almost two turnovers per game. Cardale Jones threw a pick against Alabama, and they also lost a fumble. Oregon excels at producing and capitalizing on timely turnovers, so if Ohio State hopes to win this game, they can't get sloppy with the ball.

Ohio State is better at preventing third down conversions.

Both the Ducks and the Buckeyes sport electric offenses that can score quickly, from anywhere on the field. Both offensive units also excel at sustaining drives and moving the chains, while taking advantage of fatigue in the opposing defense. Sustaining drives provides the hidden advantage of winning the field position battle. Neither of these teams relies on keep away ball, but both strike quickly while enjoying a strong field position advantage over their opponents.

Which defense will be able to get off the field better?

The stats show a clear defensive advantage for the Ohio State defense. They rank No. 24 in the nation, allowing a 35.5% conversion rate on third down. Oregon is No. 82 in the nation, allowing opponents to convert 41.6% of their third downs.

Oregon routinely loses the time of possession battle on offense, preferring to strike quickly. The Ducks are going to need to be patient, though – if Ohio State is able to create enough third and long situations, the Ducks may find it difficult to get their offense in gear. Meanwhile, Oregon's defense has struggled at times in letting their opponents to stay on the field and pile up first downs.

Third down conversions are often determined by success on first and second down. Watch for the response to running backs Royce Freeman and Ezekiel Elliott to see if either team enjoys an early advantage.

Oregon has a better red zone defense.

Not every score will come on a 50 yard seam route from Mariota to Marshall, or a long run from Ezekiel Elliott. Many of the big plays on both sides will set up opportunities in the red zone, putting the spotlight once again on the defensive units.

Which defense performs better in the red zone?

On the surface, it appears that both Ohio State and Oregon struggle to keep teams from scoring once they reach the red zone. Oregon is No. 66 in the nation, allowing scores on 83.3% of opponent red zone drives. Ohio State ranks No. 84, allowing scores on 85.5% such drives.

However, if you break it down by points per drive, a different picture emerges. Accounting for touchdowns vs field goals allowed shows a clear advantage for Oregon. Oregon's defense allows 4.2 points per red zone drive (not including extra points), ranking 59th nationally. Oregon is somewhat proficient in forcing opponents to opt for field goals and producing turnovers once they reach the red zone.

The Buckeyes allow 4.8 points per red zone drive (again not including extra points), ranking a dismal 116th in the nation.

If Oregon can force Ohio State to settle for field goals, the Buckeyes will have a tough time keeping up with Oregon's prolific offense.

Can Cardale Jones keep up with his high-powered counterpart?

We know all about Marcus Mariota's brilliant career, and a magical season that has culminated in a Heisman Trophy and chance at the national championship. On the surface, the quarterback matchup between the three-year starter vs Ohio State's three game starter, Cardale Jones, seems like a mismatch of historic proportions.

This may not be the mismatch it seems.

We don't have much of a sample size to examine how Cardale Jones performs against different types of defensive formations. His two starts, however, were on very large, loud stages, and he held up very well to the pressure.

Let's first examine his Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama's vaunted defense. Jones went 18-35 for 243 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He added 17 rushes for 43 yards. Not bad, especially given the quality defense he faced.

Even more impressive, however, was his first career start, which came in the B1G Championship Game the previous week. Cardale Jones' production against a stout Wisconsin defense was absolutely eye-popping: 17 pass attempts, 12 completions, 257 yards and three touchdowns. That's a completion rate of 70.3% and fifteen yards per pass attempt.

So far, Jones hasn't put up a ton of production with his legs. If he can find the form he had against the Badgers, though, it won't matter. That kind of big play ability in the passing game could make it a long day for the Ducks' secondary. The key will be the creativity in the pass rush deployed by the Ducks – if they can disguise coverages and pressures against Jones, they can neutralize his big play ability and produce costly turnovers.

And hey, Marcus Mariota did have his third interception of the season in the Rose Bowl.

Can Joey Bosa from the outside, and Michael Bennett from the inside, put pressure on Mariota?

Joey Bosa has put up video game numbers this year for Ohio State: 13.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles (two of which returned for a TD), four games with multiple sacks, and seven games with multiple tackles for loss.

Meanwhile, his teammate on the inside has applied just as much pressure. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett has produced six sacks and two forced fumbles on his own, a high number from the DT position.

Oregon's only loss this season came against a team that put a ton of pressure on Mariota. Oregon's offensive line played poorly against Arizona, surrendering seven sacks. Scoobey Wright owned his personal match ups for the Wildcats, providing pressure from all over the field and producing the game winning strip-sack-fumble recovery at the end of the game.

Ohio State will make it difficult on the Ducks if they can produce a pass rush without blitzing. Bosa and Bennett have the ability to do just that.

If Oregon hopes to win this game, they cannot let Joey Bosa have a Scoobey Wright type of night. The offensive line, which is much healthier than it was on October 6, must play its best game of the year to slow down the Ohio State pass rush.

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