It will not be good enough for the Ohio State football team, however. For the third consecutive game, the Buckeyes will face a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ohio State fared well against Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon and Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, but the OSU defense will face its stiffest challenge against Oregon and Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Oh, and a national championship is on the line.
“They just say these are the keys we need to win the game and one of them is always to shut down their playmaker,” OSU senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “That is for whatever team. It just so happens their playmaker for the last three games have been Heisman contenders.”
The Buckeyes should have confidence going into the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game after their efforts against Gordon and Cooper. Gordon, who led the nation with 2,587 rushing yards this season, was the first Heisman finalist to battle Ohio State. The Wisconsin junior was expected by some to find plenty of success against an OSU defense that struggled against tough tailbacks such as Indiana’s Tevin Coleman and Minnesota’s David Cobb earlier in the season.
Ohio State flipped the script in the Big Ten Championship Game against the Badgers, though. Gordon was limited to 76 yards and was held out of the end zone in Ohio State’s 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin.
In the Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama, the Buckeyes faced Cooper and the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The junior, who ended his season second in the country with 1,727 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. Cooper entered the game as the Tide’s big-play threat, but that threat was neutralized by Ohio State’s secondary – primarily cornerbacks Doran Grant and Eli Apple. Cooper did lead Alabama in receiving with 71 yards with two touchdowns, but his longest catch went for 15 yards.
“With Wisconsin – more than Alabama – we knew if we shut down Melvin Gordon, he was their offense,” Bennett said. “With Alabama, they had a lot more weapons on offense. Amari Cooper was a part of that, but I think we did a good job of shutting him down as well.”
Now the defense’s sights are set on Mariota. The task of stopping the Hawaiian is a tall one. Mariota has been responsible for 134 touchdowns during his collegiate career and has threw just 13 interceptions in 1,130 career attempts.
“What he does really well is he extends plays with his legs, but he’ll look from one side of the field to the other,” OSU junior linebacker Joshua Perry said. “With a lot of college quarterbacks, you don’t see that as much. Some guys are just primary read, maybe secondary, and then they’re pulling the ball down and trying to go. But he’s going through all his reads and going through all his checks. He’ll take whatever you give him.
“He’s kind of an opportunist in that way, where he’s not going to force anything. He’s taking the throws and he knows where his outlet is at all times.”
Mariota earned 88.4 percent of first-place votes en route to winning the Heisman in December. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said he was glad that Mariota took home the hardware.
“I just love who he is. … I think that’s so good for college football to see a guy like that go out and win it,” Meyer said. “Great player. Great, great person. Great leader, you can tell. Plays his best when it’s hard.”
Mariota might be the biggest challenge the Buckeyes have faced this season, but the defenders told the media that they are ready.
“I hope his fourth pick comes to me,” sophomore safety Vonn Bell said. “I keep watching, he’s a great player. He knows what to do with the ball, he knows when to run it and he knows when to throw it. He controls the offense so well, I just have to watch more film and keep studying.”
Added fellow sophomore safety Tyvis Powell: “We don’t back down from any challenge. We actually embrace the challenge because as you know with the defense took a lot of hits this past offseason so we just want to go out there and show people that the Silver Bullets are still here. We’ve been trying to go basically against our offense because when people come to the game they come to see the offense. We want it to be where people come to see the defense play so that’s basically what we’ve been trying to do these past couple weeks going against these Heisman candidates and what not.”
The goal for the Buckeyes: Shut down Mariota and win a national title. Make the third time against a Heisman finalist a charm.
“If we can say we won the national championship and to do that we had to shut down the three Heisman Trophy finalists, that’s a pretty big thing,” Bennett said. “I think that is a special story.”