In quarterback Marcus Mariota, Oregon has “one of the finest that’s ever played the game,” according to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Even poured through the College Football Playoff title-game eve coach-speak filter, a case can be made.
Operating a warp-speed attack, Mariota has swept all major awards, including the Heisman Trophy, after a season of freakish statistics and team success.
To identify just one measure of Mariota’s dominance: With a combined 56 touchdowns passing and running — and receiving — and six turnovers, he’s the first player in college football history with 50 more touchdowns than turnovers.
Plus, when it comes to demeanor and off-field issues, he’s the anti-Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel, the previous two colorful and controversial Heisman winners.
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But as the Ducks prepare to face the Buckeyes at 7:30 tonight in the inaugural College Football Playoff title game at AT&T Stadium, the opposing quarterback, Meyer’s guy, is grabbing attention in at least equal shares with a faction of the experience.
Ohio State sophomore Cardale Jones will start his third game on Monday, and after amazing performances against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, seeks to complete a storybook run.
When the season opened, Jones had fallen to third on the Buckeyes’ depth chart, behind starter Braxton Miller and reserve J.T. Barrett. This wasn’t a good place for Jones’ ego.
“Very tough, being No. 3 and having two guys in front of you performing the way they were,” Jones said. “It was tough to stay positive.”
Especially after spring practice. Jones actually surpassed Barrett on the depth chart, Meyer revealed Sunday. It turned out, whoever opened fall camp No. 2 for Ohio State was going to end up starting.
Braxton Miller, the team’s starter over the last three seasons and a Heisman favorite entering this year, underwent shoulder surgery in August.
By then, Barrett had moved ahead of Jones.
“He’s a guy that was not a finished person,” Meyer said of Jones. “Was not a guy who would finish drills. J.T. beat him out.”
Jones was crushed, and didn’t handle it well. He admits to losing his focus and thinking coaches had forgotten about him.
“When he came to Ohio State, he fully expected to be a starter,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.
When Barrett broke an ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan, Jones got his chance. Although he had already played himself out of snaps once, there was a different sense about Jones and this opportunity.
“Cardale has always had the talent,” Meyer said. “But really something happened in the last couple of months. Everybody in life has a chance to push restart. Not many people on a grand stage like Cardale has.
“He has hit the right button, and it’s a selfless approach and a serious approach to how he handles his business.”
Jones grew up in Cleveland, the youngest of six kids, and he didn’t know his dad. He grew up big and developed a body that might be better suited for a tight end, 6-5, 250 pounds. But his rocket arm and athleticism made him a top quarterback prospect.
He picked Ohio State over LSU, Michigan and Iowa, and made off-field waves during his freshman season with a message from his Twitter account: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
This week, Jones called that moment, “my stupid tweet.”
Ohio State coaches have seen a different Jones over the last few months, and what he delivered in the Wisconsin and Alabama games was beyond anybody’s expectations. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns against the Badgers and was chosen the game’s MVP.
Jones followed that with 243 passing yards, one touchdown and 43 rushing yards against Alabama’s rugged defense in the Sugar Bowl.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott topped 200 yards rushing yards in both of those games, but Meyer insists the Buckeyes haven’t changed to accommodate an inexperienced quarterback. Instead, Meyer has looked for ways to take advantage of Jones’ size.
“He’s the first quarterback I’ve had that can high-low a pass over the top of a defensive line since Alex Smith, and that’s rare,” Meyer said.
Smith, the Chiefs quarterback, led Meyer’s Utah team to an undefeated season in 2004.
The Buckeyes expect to have the nation’s top quarterback competition next season. Meyer said he expects Miller to return, and Barrett and Jones will be back for their junior seasons.
But there’s a matter of the national championship quest and Jones facing off against Mariota, who could become the top pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
“Our No. 1 concern is their quarterback,” Meyer said.
The Buckeyes’ quarterback might have been that for Meyer, until Jones pushed restart and kept Ohio State on its path to the championship game.