National Championship Preview: Oregon's secondary

National Championship Preview: Oregon'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, Ohio State's secondary.

Season highlight: The Pac-12 Championship game against Arizona stands out among all of Oregon’s games this season simply because the Arizona passing offense was among the nation’s best coming into the contest. Oregon limited the Wildcats to just 113 passing yards, a season low for both teams, and just one passing touchdown. The Wildcats were held scoreless in the first half for the first time since 2012. The Ducks also managed to nab an interception, something it hasn’t done often this season.

Player to Watch: Senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was the team’s star in the secondary before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the practices leading up to the semifinal against Florida State. That left senior Erick Dargan as the top player to watch in the Oregon secondary. He leads the team in tackles with 90 and grabbed seven interceptions, including one off Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is the semifinal. Dargan also had eight tackles in that game.

Strengths: Oregon doesn’t give up a lot of big plays and is only allowing 11.1 yard per completion. While that might seem like a lot, it’s actually good for 26th in the country. No. 1 Stanford allows 9.7 yards per completion. This is a big stat against an Ohio State team that likes to go for home run passes with quarterback Cardale Jones and his cannon for an arm.

Weaknesses: While Oregon might not give up a lot of yards per completion, it does allow teams to complete 24.4 passes per game, which is one of the worst numbers in the nation. That number has dropped to 20.3 passes per game in the past three games and a lot of that can be chalked up to garbage time stats opponents accumulate while they're behind.

Overview: Let’s not sugarcoat this, Oregon’s defense is not the strong suit of its team. It’s passing defense allows 265.9 yards per game and 20 of the team’s 37 touchdowns allowed on offense have come via the pass. Only twice this season — against South Dakota and Stanford — have the Ducks not allowed a passing touchdown.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why the Oregon passing defense has been abused some this season. Oregon’s offense has a tendency to score and score quickly often putting opposing offenses in a hole where they have to pass on nearly every down and usually when the game is out of reach. So while the numbers are bad, they’re also a little bit skewed.

Oregon did not allow any of its final three Pac-12 opponents — Colorado, Oregon State and Arizona — to pass for more than 216 yards. Florida’s State 348 yards was the Ducks’ third-highest total allowed this season, but much of that was because turnovers put the Seminoles in a deep hole that forced them to pass the ball. Florida State actually started the game run-heavy despite having last year’s Heisman winner under center.

Florida State also threw 48 passes, which was topped only by Washington State’s 63 passes and Cal’s 55 passes. Michigan State also had 47 passes. But in the end, Oregon won all four games by an average of 20.75 points.

Those numbers prove that Oregon isn’t afraid of a pass-heavy game and it's weathered those games in the past. While the Ducks did allow four passing touchdowns to Washington State, the top passing offense in the country, they only allowed two to Cal, two to Michigan State and just one passing touchdown to Florida State, which personifies Oregon’s overall defensive strategy of bend, but don’t break.

Also important to note is that only four of the passing touchdowns allowed against Oregon this season have come beyond the red zone.

Ohio State isn’t a pass-heavy team. If anything, it’s pretty balanced with its running and passing game, but it does have the ability for big passing plays with Jones and receiver Devin Smith, who has emerged as his favorite deep target. Jones’ sample size isn’t quite large enough to make many assumptions about how he runs the passing game. He completed 70.6 percent of his passes against Wisconsin, but 51.4 percent against Alabama. He threw 35 passes against Alabama, which was as many as he had thrown in his entire season. He’s thrown six touchdowns to just one interception, and that pick came against the Tide, which had just 10 picks coming into the game.

If Ohio State follows Florida State’s model — and the model it used against Alabama — it will go run heavy unless it starts to fall behind. The Oregon run defense was gashed early by the Seminoles before they started turning the ball over.

Oregon is at a disadvantage against Ohio State’s passing game, but the Ducks' bend-but-don't-break approach has frustrated a lot of opponents and will surely test Ohio State's young and inexperienced quarterback.

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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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