DALLAS — While many storylines have focused on 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota taking on a rebuilt Ohio State defense, the other side of the ball might be just as compelling.
The Buckeyes will be led by third-string redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones, who will be making just his third collegiate career start in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship against the Oregon Ducks.
Jones, who has led the Buckeyes to wins over Wisconsin and Alabama in the Big Ten title game and the Sugar Bowl, respectively, said that while he feels relaxed, as kickoff approaches he has noticed some of his teammates getting antsy.
“You know, pretty calm, cool, collected right now,” Jones said. “But as we get closer, you see guys get a little jittery, guys getting a little more antsy just to put the uniform on, and then when the uniform is on, all that goes away.”
Someone who only puts his uniform on seemingly halfway, sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, has been a key for the Buckeye offense since Jones took over, rushing for more than 200 yards in both games.
Elliott, who has not been held under 100 yards or without a touchdown since a 31-24 win over Minnesota on Nov. 15, said Saturday that establishing a running game early in the national title matchup will be essential if OSU is to bring home the trophy.
“That’s really important for us,” Elliott said. “We’re at our best with a balanced attack when we can pass the ball and run the ball, so we like to establish the run and then be able to run play-action and take shots down the field.”
Taking shots down field is exactly what the Buckeyes have done since Jones took the reigns of the offense, as all four of his touchdown passes in his two starts have been caught by senior wide receiver Devin Smith and all have covered 39 yards or more.
Smith ranks third on OSU’s squad for receptions, but ranks first in yards (886) and touchdown receptions (12) and is averaging 27.7 yards per catch on the season, which is best in the Big Ten with a minimum of 30 receptions.
The Massillon, Ohio, native could be poised for a big day against the Ducks’ defense, which ranks 86th in total defense this season and 111th in pass defense.
To make matters worse for the Ducks, they will once again be without their star senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the 2015 Rose Bowl.
During OSU’s on-campus media day on Tuesday, Smith said that while redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was an effective signal caller, the power behind Jones’ arm brings a new dimension to the Buckeye offense.
“I feel like we are way more effective when we throw deep,” Smith said. “Not taking anything away from J.T., but with the strength that Cardale has in his arm, it makes it a lot easier for us, just run, and he will put it on the money.”
Oregon’s leading tackler redshirt-senior defensive back Erick Dargan said Saturday that he and his fellow Duck defenders can’t take Jones lightly, despite his relative inexperience.
“He is dangerous. I think he’s more dangerous than a lot of people gave him credit for already,” Dargan said. “Anytime you’ve got a quarterback that can throw the ball hash-to-hash and deliver the ball downfield, you’ve got to watch out for him.”
Dargan, who leads the Pac-12 conference in interceptions this season, said that it’s not just Jones’ arm that the Ducks need to prepare for.
“He can run, you know, he’s not scared to take off, he’s not really sliding or nothing,” Dargan said of the 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound Cleveland native. “He’s going to try and deliver a blow, whether he’s ready to go out of bounds or he’s in the middle.”
Oregon redshirt-senior linebacker Tony Washington seemed more focused on Elliott’s ability to run the football, however.
“The dude is really fast. He makes a lot of plays. He’s a tough guy to bring down and he’s going to compete and work hard every rep. He’s determined to make the big runs to get into the end zone,” Washington said. “So, as a defense, we’ve got to wrap up and take him down. He’s not a guy that’s going to let an arm-tackle take him down.”
The Buckeyes and Ducks are set to play for the 2015 College Football National Championship on Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.