Two right knee injuries could have derailed the Oregon Ducks’ run to the national championship, but head coach Mark Helfrich’s squad show great resiliency in its 59-20 pasting of the Florida State Seminoles in the Rose Bowl. The Oregon Ducks entered the College Football Playoff semifinal without senior All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and to make matters worse, receiver Devon Allen went down with an injured knee on the opening kickoff against the Seminoles.
Yet the Ducks flourished and earned a spot in the national title against the Ohio State Buckeyes on Monday night. The Ducks forced five turnovers and no Seminoles receiver recorded more than six catches or 100 yards in the contest. On offense, quarterback Marcus Mariota threw two touchdowns and rushed for another and running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner combined for four touchdowns and 168 rushing yards.
With both Ekpre-Olomu and Allen out versus the Buckeyes, Helfrich will look to his bench to once again save the Ducks title hopes against a dangerous and lightning-fast Buckeyes attack.
Ohio State will send out top receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas, with improving sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones running the aerial attack. Jones will make just the third start of his career against the Ducks, but in his first two games he’s taken down Wisconsin and Alabama’s top ranked defenses for 618 passing yards and six touchdowns.
Smith and Thomas combined for nine receptions for 153 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama, a 17-yards-per-catch rate that well exceeded the 11.8 yards per-catch the Tide allowed throughout the season.
The Buckeyes will also get back senior tight end Jeff Heuerman. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 255 lbs., Heuerman missed four games this season, including the last two, but he’s a massive target for Jones that could wreak havoc on the Ducks defense. Last season Heuerman pulled down 26 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns, and he entered this year as one of the highest-rated tight ends in the country. However a foot injury suffered during spring practice limited Heuerman for the first three weeks of the regular season.
Ekpre-Olomu, who recorded two interceptions with nine passes broken up and 11 passes defended, went down with a knee injury in practice on Dec. 16 and was ruled out for the rest of the season. The Ducks added redshirt freshman Chris Seisay to the starting lineup, and he along with senior Troy Hill, and safeties Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels didn’t allow a pass play longer than 24 yards against the Seminoles.
How Elfrich deploys Hill and Seisay on the outside, and Dargan and Daniels over the top, will play a huge role against the Buckeyes passing game.
As for Allen’s replacements, Oregon is one of the few teams in the country blessed with incredible depth at the skill positions. Throughout the season, quarterback Marcus Mariota has spread his touchdown passes around to 12 receivers, with five totaling more than five scores.
Junior receiver Byron Marshall leads the team with 66 receptions for 834 yards and five touchdowns, and he’s likely to make up for Allen’s absence more than anyone. But there’s also freshman Darren Carrington and his 37 catches for 704 yards and four scores, and sophomore Dwayne Stanford and junior Pharaoh Brown, who’ve each hauled in six touchdowns this season.
The Oregon offensive line has also been hit with injuries this season, but was impressive against the Seminoles. The Ducks will have their unit perhaps as healthy as they have been all season. Tyler Johnstone, who has missed the entire season, is the only offensive lineman that will be sidelined.