National Championship Preview: Ohio State's secondary

National Championship Preview: Ohio State's secondary

The first College Football Playoff National Championship Game is finally upon us and Dr. Saturday has your pregame prep covered. Every day leading up to the game, we’ll breakdown a piece of each team and preview its role in the upcoming title game. Previous previews: Ohio State's front 7, Oregon's front 7.

Season highlight: The semifinal game against Alabama was arguably the best performance of the season for the Ohio State secondary. Even though it allowed 237 passing yards and two touchdowns, it held star receiver Amari Cooper to nine catches for 71 yards, which was only the second time Cooper didn’t average 10 or more yards per catch. The Buckeyes held Alabama to a 118.08 pass efficiency rating, which was their third-lowest of the season. And the 10.773 yards per completion were the second-lowest of the season.

Player to Watch: Senior cornerback Doran Grant has been the anchor of an Ohio State secondary that is loaded with young players. Grant, a senior captain, has five interceptions this season, including two that came in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. He has 58 tackles and nine pass breakups this year, and was an All-Big Ten first team selection.

Strengths: The Ohio State secondary has specialized in takeaways this year. Of the Buckeyes 24 interceptions, which ranks fourth nationally, 17 have come from players in the secondary. Sophomore safety Vonn Bell leads all Ohio State players with six interceptions and he snagged one off Alabama quarterback Blake Sims in the semifinal.

Weaknesses: Ohio State didn’t face a lot of great passing quarterbacks this season, but against Cincinnati and Michigan State, the two best quarterbacks Ohio State faced this year, the Buckeyes allowed 352 and 358 passing yards respectively. Cincinnati's Gunner Kiel had four passing touchdowns and Michigan State's Connor Cook had two. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is by far the best quarterback the Buckeyes have faced all season and keeping his numbers down will be a tremendous challenge.

Overview: Ohio State’s secondary has great numbers.

It ranks fourth nationally in interceptions and fourth in passing defense efficiency. It’s only allowing 191.6 passing yards per game and of the 39 offensive touchdowns the Buckeyes have allowed, only 15 have come through the air.

However, the numbers can be misleading.

Only one of Ohio State’s opponents this season ranked in the top 25 in passing offense (No. 13 Cincinnati) and Alabama and Michigan State ranked Nos. 28 and 35 respectively. However, five of the Buckeyes opponents ranked 110th or worse in passing offense and seven of the team’s interceptions came off those offenses. Only one of those offenses threw for more than 181 yards. In fact Michigan’s 251 passing yards was a season-high by 31 yards. The Wolverines ranked 110th in passing offense.

There had been questions about the Ohio State secondary early in the season, especially after it allowed Cincinnati's Chris Moore to have 221 yards and three touchdowns. Moore, the Bearcats third-best receiver, didn’t have a 100-yard game and had three contests where he had no yards.

Many of the concerns about the Ohio State secondary were chalked up to youth. The Buckeyes depth chart has freshmen Eli Apple or Gareon Conley as co-starters at one corner spot and sophomores Tyvis Powell and Bell at the two safety positions. Grant is the only senior. However, playing the youth card doesn’t work when you’re about to play your 15th game of the year.

What Ohio State did against the Alabama passing game was admirable. Even though Cooper was able to have some success, it wasn’t his best game. The Buckeyes forced Sims to use other options. Down the stretch, Sims seemed reluctant to do so, which helped the Ohio State defense read his passes and pick him off. There were a couple instances where there were open receivers available, but Sims was fixated on Cooper and Ohio State capitalized.

Ohio State won’t get so lucky with the Oregon passing game, which is by far the best the Buckeyes have seen all season. Mariota has just three interceptions this year compared to 40 touchdowns and 4,121 yards. But what makes Oregon’s passing game so difficult to defend is its diversity. The Ducks do not have a 1,000-yard receiver this season, but they do have seven different players with at least 300 receiving yards and nine receivers with at least 10 catches.

The Ducks lost third-leading receiver Devon Allen to a knee injury on the first play against Florida State, but six different players caught the ball against the Seminoles as Mariota amassed 338 passing yards and two touchdowns.

The Ohio State secondary likely will need help from its linebackers in coverage, especially with the way Oregon uses its tight ends, but this game is going to be a tremendous challenge for an Ohio State secondary who has nothing which to compare this offense.

For more Ohio State news, visit BuckeyeGrove.com.

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Graham Watson is the editor of Dr. Saturday on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at dr.saturday@ymail.com or follow her on Twitter!

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