The stakes for this Ohio State-Oregon game are not as high as for their most recent meeting, but how could they be?
Seven years ago, the underdog Buckeyes manhandled the Ducks 42-20 to win the inaugural College Football Playoff championship.
Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave was in high school then, and the Californian was a Ducks fan. He felt sick when they lost.
“Oregon was really a powerhouse (when I was) growing up,” Olave said. “I remember watching Oregon growing up with my family. We were all Oregon fans — me and my brother. All the different jerseys. Top five in the country every year. The opportunity to step on a field with them is going to be huge.”
Ohio State football 2021
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While Ohio State has been a mainstay in the CFP, Oregon’s program slipped after its loss to the Buckeyes. Coach Mark Helfrich couldn’t sustain what Chip Kelly had built. Now Mario Cristobal is trying to return the Ducks to the college football elite.
The Kelly-era Ducks were built on tempo and finesse. It helped to have a Heisman Trophy quarterback in Marcus Mariota.
But the Buckeyes laid bare the limitations of that style. Ohio State dominated in the trenches.
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Four years ago, Oregon hired former offensive line coach Cristobal to rejuvenate the program and add some heft to the speed.
“Coach Cristobal is somebody who has a background in line play and brings a style of toughness to the table,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “I think they've embodied that, and they've recruited really well. They're very athletic. It's a very, very good team that's coming in here with a lot of good players, and so it is a major challenge.”
Ohio State is ranked No. 3 after its 45-31 season-opening win at Minnesota. Oregon is No. 12 after surviving against Fresno State 31-24.
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For the Ducks, it was a costly win. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who’s a potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, left the game with a leg injury. Even if he plays Saturday, he’s unlikely to be at full strength.
Oregon also lost linebacker Dru Mathis against Fresno, and he won’t play Saturday. Five-star redshirt freshman Justin Flowe replaced Mathis and made a game-high 14 tackles.
With or without Thibodeaux, Day expects a defense run by Tim DeRuyter to pose a challenge to Ohio State's quick-strike offense.
“Coach DeRuyter is a former head coach at Fresno and was at (Texas) A&M with Von Miller,” Day said. “He really knows what he's doing and creates a lot of chaos. He brings a lot of blitzes and they have a lot of speed and get to the ball fast. This is a good defense that we're going up against.”
Oregon’s offense still has much to prove. Three of the Ducks' scores against Fresno were set up by turnovers. Quarterback Anthony Brown, a Boston College transfer, threw for only 172 yards. Ducks runners averaged only 3.8 yards per carry.
Ohio State’s largely inexperienced defense had an up-and-down performance against Minnesota. The hope is that having a game under their belts and feeding off the energy from the Ohio Stadium crowd will provide a boost.
Buckeyes, Ducks have been waiting to play for a while
The Buckeyes and Ducks were scheduled to play last year in Eugene, Oregon, before the pandemic caused its cancellation. This will be the first game at the Horseshoe with fans since Nov. 23, 2019, a 28-17 victory over Penn State.
“That was as loud as I’ve heard it,” Day said.
He wants a similar atmosphere against Oregon.
“We need Buckeye Nation in this game,” he said. “This is a very, very big game for our program, and we need them to be loud, especially on third down. We need it to be loud when they have the ball.
“I know the louder and the more we can feel this crowd, the better we’re going to play.”