National Championship Preview: Oregon's running game

Oregon running back Thomas Tyner, front right, runs past Florida State defensive back P.J. Williams during the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Jan 1, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks running back Thomas Tyner (24) is tackled by Florida State Seminoles defensive back Tyler Hunter (1) during the first half of the 2015 Rose Bowl college football game at Rose Bowl. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)
Jan 1, 2015; Pasadena, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks running back Thomas Tyner (24) is tackled by Florida State Seminoles defensive back Tyler Hunter (1) during the first half of the 2015 Rose Bowl college football game at Rose Bowl. (Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports)

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, Oregon's O-line, Ohio State's O-line.

Season highlight: The Ducks rushed for 267 yards and four touchdowns against Stanford, one of the nation’s best rushing defenses. While the Ducks did not have a 100-yard rusher in the game, Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner and quarterback Marcus Mariota all rushed for 63 or more yards. The 267 yards was the most Stanford allowed all season and the Cardinal did not allow another opponent to rush for more than 198 yards.

Player to Watch: True freshman Freeman joins a long line of Oregon running backs that have made the Ducks’ offense one of the most potent in the country year after year. As a true freshman, Freeman rushed for 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns this season. He became one of eight true freshmen to run for 1,000 yards in college football this year. And Freeman has been consistent this season, rushing for at least 75 yards in all but two games.

Strengths: The Oregon running game thrives on diversity. Freeman, Tyner and Mariota all bring a different running styles, making the Ducks tough for which to gameplan. Freeman has been the workhorse most of the season, but against Florida State, Tyner became the bruising back that carried Seminole defenders up the middle for big gains. And even if defenses think they have the Ducks running backs stopped, Mariota has run the read option to perfection this season. And, with the speed at which the Oregon offense plays, it’s often tough for defenses to get their bearings ahead of the next running play.

Weaknesses: Like any other team, the Oregon running game depends on its offensive line, which has struggled at times this season. When the O-line has struggled, the running game has still gained yards, but hasn't often found the end zone. If the Oregon line has problems against Ohio State’s speedy defensive threat, it could cause the Ducks to become more one-dimensional than it wants to be.

Overview: The Oregon running game has been good all season, but it’s gotten infinitely better for the College Football Playoff thanks to the addition of a healthy Tyner.

Tyner missed the Ducks three games leading up to the playoff, but came back with a vengeance against Florida State last week, leading the Ducks with 124 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. Yes, that’s 9.5 yards per carry. Tyner’s yardage nearly doubled his previous season-high of 64, which was set in the season opener against South Dakota.

Adding Tyner to a backfield that was already potent with Freeman and Mariota makes the Ducks an incredibly dangerous team. Not only do they have a quarterback that can run the read option and get outside quickly, it has a speedy back in Freeman and now a bruising back in Tyner. That diversity coupled with the speed at which Oregon runs its offense will put a strain on Ohio State’s 34th-ranked rushing defense.

Alabama’s bruiser Derrick Henry, who is bigger than either of Oregon’s backs, had great success up the middle and to the left against the Ohio State defense and even more success dragging defenders at the second level. Oregon was able to do something similar against Florida State and will have the opportunity for big yardage against a sometimes overly aggressive Ohio State defensive front.

Oregon has only rushed for fewer than 200 yards once in the past nine games and 301 yards in each of its last two games against Arizona and Florida State.

The potency of the running game mixed with its speed open up space for the Oregon passing game. For the most part, Oregon likes to have a balanced offense and because it runs so many plays, that usually means 40-50 running plays, which is more than most defenses see. Only four teams ran more than 40 times on the Ohio State defense this season and only one for more than 44 (Navy, 63). And the Ohio State defense hasn’t seen that many rushing plays since seen Minnesota ran 44 times on Nov. 15. The Gophers managed 218 yards and three touchdowns. However, Minnesota only threw for 85 yards.

And that’s the thing, most of the teams that did run a lot against the Buckeyes didn’t do much with the pass. Virginia Tech threw the ball 23 times to go with 41 rushes, which was the most times a team threw the ball that rushed more than 40 times. That also was Ohio State’s only loss.

In the past two games, Oregon has rushed 54 times and 45 times respectively. It’s also thrown the ball 40 and 36 times. The overall yardage in those games was 627 and 639 respectively.

While the Ohio State defense had little trouble stopping Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, the nation’s best running back, it hasn’t faced a three-headed monster like Oregon boasts and it hasn’t faced an offense this fast. Moreover, it hasn’t faced a team with a strong running game and passing game this season.

The keys to limiting Oregon’s running game sound simple — keep your assignments and don’t get out of position — but that’s easier said than done when you’re winded and Oregon is running plays every 10-20 seconds. Ohio State’s success against the running game will hinge on discipline, rest and recovery.

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

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