National Championship Preview: Oregon's O-line

National Championship Preview: Oregon's O-line

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, Ohio State's secondary, Oregon's secondary.

Season highlight: This season’s game against Stanford’s second-ranked scoring defense and third-ranked total defense was definitely one of the highlights of the season. Not only did Oregon’s offense run for 269 yards, pass for 258 yards and score six total touchdowns, it also allowed just one sack against a team that ranked No. 5 nationally in sacks. It also only allowed four tackles for loss.

Player to Watch: Hroniss Grasu is not just the team’s center, he’s the anchor of the offensive line. Grasu missed the final three games of the year with a leg injury, but was back for the Rose Bowl against Florida State. In that Florida State game, the offensive line allowed one tackle for loss and no sacks.

Strengths: In the past few games, Oregon has really tightened up its offensive line. In the Pac-12 title game and in the College Football Playoff Semifinal, quarterback Marcus Mariota was hardly touched — three tackles for loss and no sacks — and the offense is playing about as well as it’s played all year. The Ducks have rushed for more than 300 yards in each of the last two contests — the first time all season — and have passed for more than 300 yards as well.

Weaknesses: If there’s one thing that has plagued this Oregon offensive line, it’s injuries. Consequently, Mariota has been sacked a lot (29 times) and there have been a lot of tackles for loss, but those numbers are a little misleading. Throughout the season, the Ducks had to piecemeal their offensive line with several younger players who were exploited in their first starts. While that was definitely a weakness early, the depth has become a bit of a strength as the Ducks head into their final game of the season.

Overview: Oregon was supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country this season.

It had five returning starters that had helped Oregon lead the Pac-12 in rushing, scoring and total offense in 2013. But those plans fell apart early in the season when left tackle Tyler Johnstone suffered a season-ending knee injury during fall camp.

That forced Jake Fisher to move over from right tackle to Johnstone’s spot and put Andre Yruretagoyena at right tackle. That worked well until Yruretagoyena suffered a foot injury against Michigan State in Week 2 and Fisher injured his knee against Wyoming the following week.

When those two players went down, things started to unravel quickly. During the following two games against Washington State and Arizona, Mariota was sacked 12 total times.

And the injuries didn’t stop there.

Tackle Matt Pierson suffered a knee injury against Stanford on Nov. 1 and then Grasu was injured against Utah on Nov. 8.

Yet somehow, the offensive line has rallied late in the season to look like the line many thought it would be when the season started. But a lot has changed. Fisher is back starting at left tackle and Hamani Stevens, who is making his 27th consecutive start and filled in for Grasu at center, is at left guard. Grasu, as noted above, is at center, while Cameron Hunt, who jumped in this season because of injuries, makes his 11th start at right guard, and Tyrell Crosby, who has started the past four games, will be the right tackle. Yruretagoyena and Pierson are both backups.

For the most part, Mariota and the running backs have gotten use to this line in some way, shape or form, and now the line has gotten used to each other. The offensive line is coming off its two best performances of the season, and will need to continue that trend against Ohio State's highly aggressive defensive line.

However, that aggressiveness has been used against Ohio State at times, and Alabama showed that the running game could be effective. Ohio State is allowing 142 rushing yards per game, but Alabama was able to rattle off 170, with bruiser Derrick Henry leading the way with 95. And that was in spite of Alabama going away from the run late. The Tide probably could have put up even more yards as the offensive line continued to knock the Buckeyes off the ball and open big holes for the running game.

Oregon is coming off back-to-back 301-yard rushing performances, their best performances of the season, and they’ve done it with a multitude of backs led by Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. Neither of Oregon’s backs are as big as Henry, but against Florida State, both players carried defenders for extra yards.

The offensive line was the key to Oregon getting on the board early, establishing the run and executing after turnovers in the second half. It doesn’t need to do anything special against Ohio State to be successful, it just needs to keep doing what it’s been doing.

For more Oregon news, visit DuckSportsAuthority.com.

- - - - - - -

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!

And don’t forget to keep up with all of Graham’s thoughts, witty comments and college football discussions on Facebook