'We Won The Game On Third Down'

Ohio State was excellent on third down on both sides of the ball Monday and it went a long way towards a national title.

Ohio State was better than Oregon Monday night, a deserving national champion after handing the Ducks a convincing 42-20 defeat in the inaugural CFP National Championship Game. The Buckeyes were markedly better in one particular phase of the game.

“We could really say tonight we won the game on third down,” Luke Fickell said.

While the defensive coordinator was talking about his unit’s success in that area, the sentiment could be applied to both sides of the ball. Ohio State converted eight of their 15 third down attempts (and all three of their fourth-down tries) while they held Oregon to just 2-of-12 on the most important down.

On the Ducks first drive of the game, a 75-yard touchdown march, they didn’t face a third down. Once they did, they struggled.

Oregon didn’t convert a third down until the final two minutes of the first half, failing on their first five tries. They converted on consecutive third-down attempts during that second-quarter drive, but the Buckeyes defense found a way to get a stop on that possession as well, halting Oregon on a a third-and-4 stop and forcing a field goal.

“We knew the importance of it, we knew that we had to stop them on third down because we knew that our package we had only three defensive linemen so we knew that if they got that first down, they was going to go hurry up and we just knew that we had to stop them,” junior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.

“It definitely was a mental thing. We pretty much knew what they were going to do most of the time and we got the job done.”

Washington, who had a third-down sack and helped stop the Ducks on one of their two failed fourth-down attempts with a tackle, played a big part in the defense getting Oregon off the field.

Oregon entered the game converting over 52 percent of their third downs on the season, the fifth-best mark nationally. Fickell said a big part of the reason the Ducks connected on just under 17 percent of tries Monday was the variations the Ohio State defense had.

“I know they had a plan and we messed it up,” he said. “We didn’t do the same thing more than once probably. We mixed from man to Cover 2 to Cover 3, from pressure to not pressuring and our guys believed in it. You know what, when you do a lot of those different things those guys have a lot of things on their shoulders and we knew they could handle it and they did a great job of it.”

They weren’t the only ones as the Buckeyes offense held up their end of the third-down bargain. Ohio State entered the game with a record of success on third down, converting 51.9 percent of their attempts on the season. Their 8-of-15 mark in the title game was even better than that.

“We just know that’s a big part of the game and how it goes,” offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. “These last two games actually we’ve done a lot better on third down. That really helped us keep drives alive and helped to keep their offense off the field and we knew that was a big part.”

As the right tackle said, the win over Oregon was the second time in a row the Buckeyes excelled on third down. They converted 10 of 18 attempts against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl while holding the Crimson Tide to two conversions in 13 tries.

The rate over the last two games – and the overall season numbers on third down – become even more impressive when looking at the Buckeyes early-season struggles in that area. Ohio State began the season just 6 of 24 on third down, struggling to convert in its narrow win over Navy and in its loss to Virginia Tech. Since then, they’ve been excellent, converting on nearly 56 percent of tries.

“Our practices were really, really high execution and we knew what was at stake,” receiver Mike Thomas said. “The stakes were high, it was like a prize fight and we knew when those opportunities came on third down someone was going to have to make a play and that’s what we did. It’s all a mindset pretty much.”

Of course, third downs are not converted in a vacuum but rather a product of a team’s success in earlier downs. That was the key to the disparity between Ohio State and Oregon’s success Monday. The Buckeyes needed to gain an average of 5.3 yards on their 15 third downs compared to an average of 9 yards for the Ducks. “Third down was a big deal,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “And part of that was precipitated by not being great on 1st and 2nd down and getting in some third and longs which is not where you want to be against any defense along the lines of those guys.”

That defense got the job done on third down consistently in the national title game and the Buckeye offense matched them. Overall that down was a big reason Ohio State hoisted the CFP National Championship Trophy at night’s end.

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