That should have been an up-and-down the field romper. Oregon was unbeaten entering the game and scoring nearly 50 points per game on the way to leading the nation. Auburn, meanwhile, boasted Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and scored more than 40 points per game themselves.
And the game? Well the game was kind of an offensive disaster. The final? Auburn 22, Oregon 19. After a scoreless first quarter, the teams got going some at halftime – it was 16-11, Tigers, at the break – but there were only 14 combined points in the second half. The game ended on a 19-yard field goal by Wes Bynum moments after one of the weirder big plays in history, as Michael Dyer bounced off a tackle and ran for 37 yards to set up the kick on a play on which must Ducks defenders thought he was down.
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There were yards but just not a lot of points, as Auburn had 519 total yards and Oregon 449. But there were also turnovers and penalties, the kinds of mistakes that kept two of the most prolific offenses in the nation from putting up the show many expected.
Newton accounted for 329 total yards but ran for only 2.9 yards per carry and had a QBR of 36.4. Oregon’s rushing attack ran for just 2.3 yards per carry, and Darron Thomas somewhat undid 363 passing yards with two interceptions.
So – what if that happens again on Monday night? What if two of the best offenses in the nation – and make no mistake, there are two of the best – again fail to light up the scoreboard the way fans and bettors expect?
Right now, the over/under is set at 74½ after Ohio State scored 42 in its Sugar Bowl win over Alabama and Oregon romped to 59 points in its Rose Bowl dispatching of Alabama. The last time either school failed to reach the 40-point mark? Nov. 15, when the Buckeyes won 31-24 at Minnesota. Oregon’s last such game? It’s only time, a 31-24 loss at home vs. Arizona on Oct. 2.
Oregon enters ranked second in the nation in scoring at 47.2 points per game, while Ohio State is fifth with 45.0 points. So, you might be wondering, I’m sitting here writing a column about defenses?
Well, yes, I am. Ohio State gave up 22.1 points per game, allowing above 30 just three times – the loss to Virginia Tech, the win at Michigan State and the Alabama game. Oregon gave up 31 at Washington State, 31 to Arizona and 41 vs. California in Santa Clara on the way to an average of 22.3 points per game.
To listen to Urban Meyer tell it, these teams play a little bit of defense.
“I think Oregon’s defense is much – especially the last few weeks, they’re playing very well,” he said. “And the Ohio State defense has been playing very well. To do what they’ve done against Alabama, because you take Alabama, our game, the offense put our defense in horrible field position several times, and then they played their best – the best defense that we’ve played in the last three years. We played the best since we’ve been here vs. Wisconsin.”
Yes, the Wisconsin game, where Ohio State shut down a Heisman Trophy finalist in Melvin Gordon, keeping him more than 100 yards below his season average. Even against Alabama, the Buckeyes were victimized by short fields thanks to turnovers twice, and OSU held another Heisman finalist in Amari Cooper to 71 yards and a 15-yard long.
When it was suggested to Meyer today that his team is playing better defense right now, the head coach agreed.
“I noticed that, too,” he said. “We played good defense throughout the year, sometimes great defense and other times not as good. We gave up some big hits. I think obviously it’s the players, and I give Mike Bennett a lot of credit. He’s a guy that has leadership abilities.”
On the Oregon side, the Ducks defense has reached a fever pitch since that game in California in which the Golden Bears racked up more than 550 yards. Only two of six ensuing opponents got to 20 points in Utah and Florida State, and the Ducks kept the Seminoles right on that mark.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty right off the bat,” safety Erick Dargan said. “But we knew if we stayed consistent and kept working, that it would come through at the right time and I think it did. That’s a credit to our coaching staff. We’re redefining the meaning of the word fun in our definition as an Oregon defense, just playing together with communication.”
The Ducks have given up more yard than the Buckeyes but have made up for that with 30 forced turnovers and a plus-20 turnover margin. Dargan leads the way with seven interceptions and two forced fumbles, while outside linebacker Tony Washington and fellow OLB Torrodney Prevot have three forced fumbles apiece.
So that’s the case for the defenses in this game. In this era of fast offenses – both teams will likely reach a point in the game where they go with jet tempo – as well as spread formations and misdirection runs, it’s not fair to expect the 10-7 Rose Bowl the teams played in 1958 to happen again.
But the stop troops from either side, both of which have improved as the season has gone on, deserve some props. Just ask Meyer.
“For me to predict the score, I don’t know that,” he said, “but I think both defenses are much better than they’re getting credit for right now.”