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Duck Hunt: Watching Ohio State Win the First College Football Playoff National Championship

Plus, the brilliant postseason run of Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott.

Who cares if he wants to be called “12 Gauge”? Sometimes football nicknames are destiny. This week, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound former third-string quarterback named Cardale Jones was supposed to be in his Columbus meditation chamber, worrying that he was going to become Marcus Outzen or Garrett Gilbert. That is, a nonstarter who gets thrust into a college football title game and ground into dog meat. Only Jones wasn’t doing that. He was turning cartwheels while his teammate Tyvis Powell was giving a TV interview. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cartwheel Jones.

We could bury that pun except for what Jones did in the College Football Playoff National Championship last night. Third quarter. Fourth-and-1. Jones took the snap. He had no room to run inside, so he cut left and launched his frame over Ducks defensive back Chris Seisay. “He was big,” a coach whose team had played against Jones in high school in Cleveland said last week. “Real big. HUGE … He can’t be [a] quarterback.” That big old body flipped over and gained the single yard necessary to extend the drive. Cartwheel!

Ohio State 42, Oregon 20 was bound to be deeply weird. The Buckeyes team that wasn’t even favored in its own conference championship game somehow just beat the two best teams in the country back-to-back. The man under center lost his coaches’ spring competitions for playing time and their various tests of moral character. An Ohio State fan stood outside the stadium before the game, drawing from a Miller Lite can and considering the strange season that had unfolded. “I was just hopin’ to get to the Outback Bowl,” the guy said. “9-3, right?”

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elliott-ezekiel-ohio-stateTom Pennington/Getty Images

One of two things is said to happen to college quarterbacks. They either become more vocal or they become more mature. A nice guy must acquire an edge; a not-nice guy must lose one. This is what happens when you look at an unformed 22-year-old and try to discern his “journey.”

So it went with Marcus Mariota and Cardale Jones. Mariota was the smiling, absurdly polite Heisman winner who never did anything worse than drive 80 in a 55 mph zone. “He has become more vocal, obviously, over the years,” said his coach, Mark Helfrich. Jones was the guy who, as a freshman, sent a gloriously impolitic tweet that made him an unlikely insurgent against the NCAA. But then Jones had a baby girl, Chloe, on November 7. He was thrust into the starting lineup against Wisconsin a month later. Now, oddly, he is held up as a case study in how to live. “Of all the things that my children learn in school, I want them to read about the case study of Cardale Jones,” Urban Meyer said this week. Thus Jones was Tebowized by Tebow’s own college coach.

The first quarter will go down as one of the most fun in recent history. Oregon opened the game by driving 75 yards in 2:39. From Ohio State’s 7-yard line, Mariota looked left into the end zone and saw receivers Keanon Lowe and Charles Nelson guarded by a single Buckeyes defender, Eli Apple. Lowe and Nelson were so wide open that they looked like they were playing keep-away with Apple. Lowe got the pass. 7-0, Oregon.

On Jones’s second possession, he began to do weird things. He slipped away from an Oregon defender in the end zone and threw the ball out of bounds. On the next play, Jones threw a 26-yard strike to Corey Smith. His next pass went to Jalin Marshall for another 26 — Marshall took the ball off the cornerback’s back. When the Buckeyes got into fourth-and-2 at the Oregon 35, Jones flipped the ball to Marshall. The refs came out to measure it, and Oregon’s Reggie Daniels got so excited that he ran off the field in ecstatic celebration. His teammates had to grab him and bring him back. The refs said Ohio State got the first down.

To that point, Oregon had held running back Ezekiel Elliott to six yards on three carries. As they say in statistics class, this would not turn out to be a representative data set. Two plays later, Elliott ran 33 yards to the house. He’d finish the night with 246 yards and four touchdowns. Elliott hadn’t had 200 rushing yards in a game until Ohio State played Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. In his last three games, Elliott has 696 yards. Outback Bowl, 9-3, right?

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elliott-ezekiel-smith-corey-ohio-stateRonald Martinez/Getty Images

After the initial flurry, a pattern began to establish itself. An appropriately strange pattern. Ohio State would hand the ball to Elliott, or call on Jones to throw downfield, and it looked like we were going to get a grisly repeat of Alabama–Notre Dame 2013. But then the Buckeyes would make a mistake. Up 14-7 in the second quarter, Jones fumbled while trying to “re-handoff” the ball to Elliott after first pulling it away from him on an option. Oregon recovered.

The Buckeyes stopped Oregon at the 1-yard line after Helfrich called a running play for sophomore Thomas Tyner on fourth down. Jones then threw a 47-yard strike to Corey Smith, who also fumbled. Everybody agreed that the 21-10 lead Ohio State took into halftime could have been much bigger.

Ohio State was an odd underdog in this game. Smart people thought they could not only beat Oregon but actually mud-hole them. (I was not one of those people.) This was due not just to a disparity in talent but to a disparity in coaching. In the run-up to the game, Meyer was treated like a genius; Helfrich like an understudy who got his job when the leading man skipped town. The questions Helfrich got from the media boiled down to: “What does Chip Kelly think of the season you’re having?” Or: “What can you tell us about Urban and Chip’s friendship?”

Winning a national title with a third-stringer will only further the divide. But for all of Meyer’s organizational wizardry, he was more interested in talking up the motivational tricks he imported from various gurus. After a summer seminar, Ohio State players wore wristbands reading “E + R = O.” (“Event plus response equals outcome,” said Jones, sounding a star trainee.) Meyer worked in a plug for a book he’d read called Lead … for God’s Sake! The author, Todd Gongwer, told me he’d written an email to Meyer before the title game in the voice of “Joe,” one of the book’s lesson-dispensing characters.

Did this stuff give Ohio State some kind of intestinal fortitude to overcome four turnovers? Did it open giant holes for Elliott’s runs on inside-zone plays? I doubt it. But when you win three national titles, every stunt seems like a stroke of genius.

The game will be remembered by those who came here for the ferociously cold weather outside AT&T Stadium. Three hours before kickoff, fans were tailgating inside sedans they’d rented from Dallas/Fort Worth airport. You could walk through the parking lot and see them lying in tilted-back seats, with the branded flags attached to the driver’s-side windows flapping madly in the wind. A few Oregon fans sat on camping stools buried under their sweatshirts and hoods. Yes, it got this cold in Eugene, one said. “But it rains more.”

For Ohio State, which had won five titles, it was a gravy championship. For Oregon, which had won none, it seemed like the chance they’d been waiting for since the close loss to Auburn after the 2010 season. Oregon’s fans all feared Jones — the great unknown. “The quarterback, he’s unpredictable,” one Ducks fan said. “He’s a third-string quarterback, but he’s 250 pounds. He’s Cam Newtonesque without the speed.”

But couldn’t he lay an egg? “You ever see an Urban Meyer quarterback lay an egg?” another Ducks fan said. “I’ll go ahead and say it: I’d rather have faced Alabama. We’ve faced Lane Kiffin’s offense before and we know how to defend it.”

They all loved Mariota, Mr. Polite. And Mariota really did seem like a nice guy. It’s not his fault if he’s wielded as a weapon against Johnny Football and Jameis Winston. “We want to win it for him,” one fan said of a potential title, “as much as we want to win it for us.” How Oregon is that?

Nobody will much remember Mariota’s really good line: 24-of-37 for 333 yards and two touchdowns, with only one interception in garbage time. After a Jones pass was intercepted in the third quarter, Mariota threw a 70-yard touchdown and cut the lead to 21-17. An Oregon field goal cut it to 21-20. But then Jones won a head-on collision with Oregon noseguard Alex Balducci. And Elliott scored touchdowns on Ohio State’s next two possessions. And a game that was close in theory didn’t really seem close again. As Jones had said over the weekend: “I mean, this is unreal, man. This is like a frigging movie or a book.”

Up 15 in the fourth quarter, Ohio State got the ball down to the 1-yard line. Jones handed to Elliott. The pile moved forward as it had all night. After the play, OSU center Jacoby Boren leaned in and talked to Jones. “I was just tellin’ him I was proud of him,” Boren said later. “For him to come in these last three games, it’s awesome. That kid’s been through a lot. For him to be able to pick it up like that when you’re third-string … He took us to the Big Ten championship, the Sugar Bowl championship, and the national championship.”

“Mat drills tomorrow!” Jones jokingly yelled at his teammates when he finally got back to the locker room. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing that happened to Ohio State this year.

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meyer-urban-ohio-stateSharon Ellman – Pool/Getty Images

Another Tarzan yell echoed through what Meyer called “the Jerry Jones stadium” Monday night. It was college football congratulating itself. Guess what, NFL? Now we have a playoff, too.

For years, the end of the college season felt unsatisfying and almost rigged, especially to people who kept only one eye on the game. The taint is more or less gone. Two of the three first-ever playoff games were good. The third set a new D-1 record for schadenfreude. Even jilted teams like TCU didn’t undermine the integrity of the playoff so much as make it more interesting and more heated by their exclusion. A few years ago, we were asking ourselves if college football’s season was better off ending with a playoff or a giant argument. It’s now clear how wrong that was. We can have both at the same time.

Other developments gave college football a new glow this year. It’s still pretty shocking that Jim Harbaugh traded his job with the 49ers for a shot at doing what Urban Meyer just did. Chip Kelly — who weathered his own back-to-college rumors — was here in North Texas, wearing that typical jealous-conspiratorial look. The NFL’s moral skid made the college game seem better, too. Not only were there Ricegate, Goodellgate, et al, but for two weeks the NFL referees couldn’t get out of their own way.

None of this is to say that college football is anything other than a morally rotten business. Rather, this year college football made just enough cosmetic changes to allow sports fans to choose between morally rotten businesses.

“It’s history!” crowed playoff honcho Bill Hancock, as black, gold, and white confetti fell on him at the 50-yard line. “Everybody who was here will remember this for the rest of their lives!” He may even be right. Go ahead, men. Turn a cartwheel.