Less than two weeks ago, in a monumental Sugar Bowl win against college football dynamo Alabama, Ohio State appeared to finally extinguish a belief that it lacked the speed to compete against Crimson Tide and other elite programs across the nation.
Yet as the Buckeyes bunker down for the National Championship Game against Oregon on Monday, they are trying to dispel a similar notion, one that’s now edged with a new twist.
It’s no longer a matter of whether they are fast enough. Rather, the question is: Can they keep up?
“I think this will be without question the fastest team we've faced. I think this is the fastest team in America,” head coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday at Media Day in downtown Dallas.
“More importantly, they play very fast. They look pretty fast, but that's a sign of preparation. They know what they're doing, and I think that's going to be a big part of this game.”
But so do the Buckeyes, who feature a roster with an influx of speed at every position. It’s the bedrock of Meyer’s coaching style and while Ohio State has long churned out NFL athletes, the former Florida and Utah coach appears to have improved the school’s team speed — be it at running back with Ezekiel Elliott, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson or defensive standouts in linebacker Darron Lee or unanimous All-American defensive end Joey Bosa.
Make no mistake about it: Ohio State is fast. Consider the way it raced past Alabama in a 42-35 win that saw its offense, operated by its third-string quarterback, amass almost 600 yards against Nick Saban’s vaunted defense.
Yet, this week, the Buckeyes have been barraged by a bevy of questions over whether they can keep pace with the Ducks and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, who is as lethal as any dual-threat quarterback in the country. And despite an injury to Devon Allen and suspension for Darren Carrington, Oregon has a stable of wide receivers recruited to, as its coach Mark Helfrich says, “ride on.”
Unlike the month prior to the Sugar Bowl, less has been made over whether Ohio State has comparable athletes to the current elite mainstays like the Crimson Tide, the Ducks, and — depending on the season — various Southeastern Conference programs. That thought was duly obliterated on New Year’s Day in New Orleans.
There remains a sentiment, though, that the Buckeyes won’t be able to sustain the kind of intensity needed against Oregon’s famous up-tempo style of play.
It’s unclear if that will be the case Monday night, but Meyer will be among the first to tell you fatigue is a real concern.
“It's just so fast. We've been trying to prepare them because I think it's as much mental as anything,” he said. “We've certainly practiced it, now it's being able to fight the demons … it's called your body.”
This, senior defensive lineman and captain Michael Bennett said, is the threshold where teams either match the Ducks or fall behind.
“Most of Oregon's games are really close in the third quarter. Then you hit mid-third quarter through the fourth and Oregon is just throwing up points,” he said.
“I think that has to do with wearing the defenses down and their defense able to hold onto it. They know in the stretch they are in better shape than the teams they are playing and they keep going to trying to wear them down and hurry it up in the second half.
“The biggest thing for us is mental toughness and physical toughness and just being able to say the third quarter or the fourth quarter we just need to take care of business to the end.”
There’s little doubt lingering over whether Ohio State has foundation to do so. Its strength and conditioning coach, Mickey Marotti, is regarded by those in the profession as an innovator and one of the best in the business.
Combined with a crop of young talent — Elliott, Lee, Bosa, Marshall, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple come to mind for most — that has bloomed into a cast of playmakers, the Buckeyes don’t look to be in over their head. Far from it.
“I think tempo is very overrated,” Helfrich said. “I think it's our players and our assistant coaches that do a great job of coaching those guys up.”
The same could be said for Ohio State.