DALLAS — No college football team has played 15 games in a season, but two coaches who are set to break that benchmark Monday are ready to get the show on the road.
“We’re ready to go,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said Sunday in a joint press conference with Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. “Enough talking and questions and answers and flashbulbs. Our guys are excited and ready to compete.”
As soon as Helfrich finished, Meyer was quick to echo his opponent’s sentiment.
“Ditto,” he said.
The Buckeyes (13-1, 8-0) and the Ducks (13-1, 8-1) are set to square off in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday night in Arlington, Texas, with history on the line for both programs.
Not only will it be the first time either school — or any school for that matter — has played a 15th game, but a win for Oregon would mean the Ducks would pick up their first-ever national title, and a win for OSU would mark an eighth title and the first since 2002.
Now on the biggest stage in college football, the Buckeyes have a shot at title No. 8 after battling through a season chock full of adversity and unforeseen circumstances. OSU lost a Heisman trophy candidate in senior quarterback Braxton Miller before the season even started, and then it was without redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett — who fractured his ankle in the Michigan game — for the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin and the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
The Buckeyes also suffered an early loss to Virginia Tech, and they later learned about the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge the day after beating Michigan to cap an 11-1 regular season and an undefeated run in Big Ten play.
Despite all they’ve been through, sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa — a consensus All-American — said the Buckeyes didn’t have any trouble staying focused on the task at hand after toppling the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff semifinal matchup.
“Obviously, it’s really exciting to accomplish something like that as a team,” Bosa said. “And it took all of about four hours to get over the win, because we’re not on a mission to win the Sugar Bowl, we’re on a mission to win the National Championship.”
Meyer said it’s important for his players to keep that focus when the lights come on Monday night, in part because this game represents one last shot to come out on top and go down in history.
“There’s never a game you don’t want to take your best shot, but this one, you try to paint the stage so they’re not shocked when they step in the arena, because it’s going to be — the Sugar Bowl was incredible, and this is even ratcheted up a little bit more,” he said.
“So we talk quite often about when you have that opportunity to step into the batter’s box, you get one swing. You step into a prize fight, you get one swing, and the great champions don’t miss.”
Meyer’s words come with experience: He won two national championships as the coach at Florida before coming to OSU. But similar experience isn’t completely lacking in OSU’s opponent.
Helfrich was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2010-11 when Oregon fell to Auburn in the title game, but none of his current players have ever taken part in a national championship contest.
That includes quarterback Marcus Mariota, but the redshirt-junior helped show he’s ready for the big stage with a Heisman Trophy-winning season and standout performance in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State on New Year’s Day.
Mariota said it’s been great to have time to prepare for the game, but added that the Ducks are itching to get on the field and take their shot at the Buckeyes.
“It’s awesome to go back to Eugene, (Ore.) and be able to work there in our own facility,” Mariota said. “It’s been an awesome week of preparation. Guys are excited, and honestly, we’re just looking forward to playing the game.”
But even with the excitement, the Honolulu native — who is known for his calm demeanor — said he wants to treat the game itself like any other.
“I think once you step on the field and once you get to the stadium, it’ll be an incredible feeling,” Mariota said. “But at the same time we’ve just got to kind of control those emotions and try to play the best game that you can.”
While Mariota is polishing off his third year as Oregon’s starter, OSU redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones is set to start just his third collegiate game when the two teams face off.
As Mariota calmly prepares for the game like any other, one of Jones’ decisions shows he’s just as focused with a different approach.
“I blocked out every contact in my phone except coaches and my mom because she’s traveling down here today, have to make sure she gets here safe,” Jones said Saturday. “But took me like 40 minutes to block everybody on my phone.”
On paper, Mariota’s experience in comparison to Jones’ might give Oregon an upper hand, and Meyer said he views the Duck signal caller as one of the main keys to the game.
“Our No. 1 concern is their quarterback,” he said.
But Meyer also expressed the difficulty of playing a 15th game, something typically reserved for levels of competition higher than college ball.
“The wear and tear, I think that has more to do with the practice, the approach,” he said. “It was drastically different than anything that we have ever done as far as the practice routine.”
While the physical exhaustion of the long season might be new to OSU, one aspect of the game will be familiar for the Buckeyes. For the sixth time under Meyer — and for the third game in a row — OSU is an underdog.
But in those earlier five games, the Buckeyes have gone undefeated.
Overall, the Buckeyes have a 12-game winning streak, which is the best in the nation.
The Buckeyes and the Ducks are set to kick off at 8:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium with title hopes and a spot in the history books on the line.