Oregon Ducks: Oregon Ducks

No. 2 Oregon begins its conference schedule Saturday in Pullman, Washington, as it takes on Mike Leach and the Air Raid offense. Here are five things to watch as the Ducks and Cougars take the field at 7:30 p.m. PT:

1. The unbalance in the trenches as Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman do what they’ve done. This season (and past seasons), Washington State has struggled to stop the run. The Cougars have allowed 174 rushing yards per game (4.0 yards per rush), but that’s against teams like Rutgers and Nevada, who aren’t even in the top 45 in the country in rushing yards per game, and an FCS team. Oregon, on the other hand, is averaging 6.3 yards per rush this season, and the Ducks’ 12 rushing touchdowns is tied for third-most in the nation. The Cougars' defensive line was supposed to be greatly improved this season with players such as Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper, but they’ll certainly have their hands full with the Ducks’ three-headed running back monster.

2. Oregon needs to watch the big plays from Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday. On average, the Ducks have allowed only 22 completions per game, however, 58 percent of those completions have been passing plays of 10 or more yards. Now, consider the fact that Halliday is averaging nearly 40 completions a game (on 58 attempts). So, it’s definitely something the Ducks' secondary needs to key in on. However, with all those pass attempts also come quite a few interceptions. Halliday has already thrown five picks through three games, so there will also be a chance for the Ducks' DBs to make big plays of their own while also limiting the Cougars’.

3. How will the Ducks use Marshall against the Cougars? We’ve seen him primarily as a pass-catching guy out of the backfield and as a more traditional back, so will conference play show us a new balance between these two facets of his game? Or will it keep going on a game-by-game basis? Passing coordinator and wide receiver coach Matt Lubick told ESPN.com this week that Marshall’s skill sets make life hard for defensive coordinators because he's so versatile. I have a feeling that every game is going to show us another wrinkle in what Marshall can do for the Ducks.

4. Can the Ducks avoid a trip-up game? Pullman isn’t always an easy place to play, and while this young Oregon team has shown that it has the guts to win an intense game at home, it remains to be seen whether or not they can do it on the road. Oregon's two losses last season came away from Autzen, after all. Statistically and when looking at the rosters, Washington State looks outmatched. But how much of a factor will the 12th man of Martin Stadium play in the final decision?

5. Marcus Mariota has been almost flawless this season. He has completed 70 percent of his passes and thrown for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions while tallying up another three scores with his feet. He has picked apart every defense he has played against this year. And Washington State? Well, the Cougars are fielding A LOT of young defensive players. The starters in their secondary feature two freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. Mariota could have a field day with his group of receivers. Washington State has only given up three passing touchdowns this season, but most of that is due to the fact that the majority of the teams it has played haven’t had too much trouble running against the Cougars. With Jameis Winston’s issues at Florida State this week, it’s just another Saturday for Mariota to step on the field and show that there are no distractions for him and his team on the way to the College Football Playoff and the Heisman.
If we get some spoons, we can dig ourselves out of here!

And other interesting notes and quotes from Oregon coach Mark Helfrich's Sunday teleconference following Oregon's 48-14 win against Wyoming.
  • On Tyree Robinson, Reggie Daniels and the rest of the young players who are getting major reps: "They're coming along. We had some moments in every phase, not only the DB's but offensively, the young wideouts had a few kind of moments that we need to improve upon in a hurry, where it was a misalignment or a miscommunication. That's what happened on a couple of the third-down conversions, just a simple matter of confirming communication and whether it's the safety to the corner or vice versa, we miscommunicated, missed a couple signals at wideout that would've had huge plays each time. Those are the kind of things that absolutely cannot happen."
  • Are the young players ready for conference play? "Absolutely. We're to the point now, there's not freshmen and sophomores and juniors and seniors. It's if you're in there, you're our No. 1 guy. Period. And we expect those guys to play like it and play great, if they've been here for three games or three years."
  • Helfrich gave some props to freshman offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby. Said he did well finishing plays.
  • Oregon played 67 players on offense and defense versus Wyoming.
  • Helfrich referred to Washington State's 59-21 win against Portland State as a breakout game that really showed how Cougars QB Connor Halliday is really getting on the same page as his receivers. He said Halliday is putting up "Playstation numbers." Against Portland State, the senior QB completed 41 of 62 passes for six touchdowns (two interceptions) and 544 yards.
  • On the challenges of entering conference play: "They know you a little bit better, you know them a little bit better. You might know their personnel a little bit more in terms of recruiting and crossover that happens in our conference."
  • Regarding the number of big plays the Ducks have given up: "When everybody has done their job and fits where they're supposed to fit and takes care of their business, like anything, we've been great. There were some breakdowns [on Saturday], just gap-wise, turned into huge plays. … Part of that is on us as coaches and part of that is execution."
  • As far as the big plays, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Oregon has given up 51 plays of 10-plus yards, and 15 of those were 20-plus yard plays. Obviously, some of those plays happened when third or fourth string guys were in, but that is still a number to pay attention to. Giving up 51 plays of 10-plus yards through three games is nothing to be proud of. On a national scale, it puts the Ducks at No. 111, tied with Troy and Washington.
  • On how they get the offensive linemen to be so versatile: "We try to start from the beginning in spring ball, make everyone as versatile as possible, whether that's tackle and guard, right tackle and left tackle. Center is a little more nuanced -- a guy can snap or not, sort of. You can teach that a little bit. But having those guys rotate as much as possible. Hroniss [Grasu] played both guard spots. Everyone in there has played every position except for center, without exception. … Always have the ability to plug in your next-best play, not your next back up."
  • Grasu has practiced at every position, Helfrich said. Would they move him? "Anything is possible."
  • Regarding Marcus Mariota's dive and Oregon's guidelines as to reaching the ball for a TD: "It has got to be fourth down or the last play of the game. Secure the ball. We'll take first-and-goal at the 1 or third-and-inches rather than a touchback."
A sea monster ate my ice cream! ... And other interesting notes from Tuesday's media access with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and defensive coordinator Don Pellum.

GENERAL NOTES/NEWSY NOTES
  • Chance Allen is still a part of the Oregon football team per Helfrich. He didn't play in last weekend's win over Michigan State nor did he practice on Monday.
  • The coach of this week's opponent, Wyoming's Craig Bohl, has won more games in a row as a head coach (26) than the total number of games that Helfrich has been a head coach (15). "That's pretty impressive," Helfrich said. "You're talking about multiple national championships." Bohl previously coached at FCS-level North Dakota State. This is his first year at Wyoming.
  • Right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena won't be available Saturday. He injured his leg during the third quarter of the Michigan State game. Helfrich said that it does effect the offensive line rotation -- it'll change the number of guards and tackles that the Ducks rotate through against Wyoming. However, he feels confident because of how much the players trained across positions during the offseason.
COACH MARK HELFRICH
  • Michigan State played one defense and attacked many different ways coming out of it. Wyoming, on the other hand, has several looks. On how much of a challenge that presents the Oregon offense: "They're all over the map. ... They mix in enough of everything to make you prepare for a lot of stuff. It's like anything: identify it, communicate it and execute it."
  • On how Wyoming has changed schematically (spread under previous coaching staff to more of a pro style now): "It's significant. Their scheme is 180 degrees from what it used to be, although they will have some of those elements."
  • Helfrich said that a big win early in the season, like against Michigan State, can provide more confidence for players, especially some younger guys. He said he hasn't seen any indication of any players resting on their laurels. Helfrich said that both the coaching staff and the team leaders have stressed how there can't be any kind of let up following the win over Michigan State.
  • On how you scout a team that has a first-year coach, especially when the scheme is so different from the program's previous regime: "It's difficult, that's probably one of the biggest challenges in this game. Yes, we have all the North Dakota State film and we've watched a bunch of those opponents. … They did a fantastic job there obviously. You take that and you try to match up a similar team or a similar program or a similar style and you have to try and find that. And then you try to do that this year with the two games they've had, Montana and Air Force were polar opposites in terms of their approaches and there's not that much carryover. ... You kind of have to pick and choose and just be ready for a lot of stuff."
  • Regarding punt and kick returns: Helfrich likes the competition there, he said that he hasn't seen some guys be as consistent across the board -- fielding the ball, being an off-return blocker, communicating. So, it sounds like they're not going to say much...
  • Freshman Charles Nelson keeps getting major praise from this coaching staff but is still only a special teams guy. Here's what Helfrich said about him on Tuesday: "He was awesome [against MSU]. ... He is special. He's putting it all together as many young guys are, as far as offensively, special teams, all that stuff. He definitely will have a much more substantial role here going forward just as he layers on some experience. But that guy is special. He has an unbelievable feel for high speed, change of direction and being able to stay on the move and make contact like he does -- it's rare."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR DON PELLUM
  • He said the biggest improvements that needed to be made between Weeks 1 and 2 were communication and tackling and he saw the biggest gains there. "Is it perfect? No. But there was a lot of improvement in those areas."
  • On linebacker Joe Walker: "I think Joe really excelled with his communication and he did a nice job tackling. Joe really attacked the back field. He made some things happen on the other side of the line of scrimmage, which was significant. And his overall grade between his hustle and the type of plays he made was pretty high."
  • The whole "Can this team beat another physical team?" question was brought up to both Pellum and Helfrich. More than anything it sounds like they're bored of answering the question, but it is still a valid question considering their past and the lapses experience during last Saturday's game. This is what Pellum had to say about whether or not this game was a statement: "It was an opportunity to go out, and more than anything, prove to each other that we can go out and play good, sound, gap-controlled defense with fundamentals and tackling. And that's how we looked at it going into it. And coming out of it, it felt like we were able to do that. It wasn't great, but it was pretty good."
  • On Arik Armstead and whether Pellum has seen major jumps in his skill since he stopped playing for the Oregon basketball team: "I'm not sure if leaving basketball per se had a big impact from a stand point of leaving basketball. I know that him being here full time, in the weight room full time and being around the players full time has definitely had a real impact."
Oregon got a much-needed win against Michigan State on Saturday. But even more, it grew up in a way that wouldn’t have happened against a subpar team.

In so many regards -- which will be of importance to the College Football Playoff committee -- a W is a W. And so, the Week 1 win against South Dakota and the Week 2 win against Michigan State are both wins, both positive things for the Ducks’ playoff resume.

But what Oregon took away from MSU is something so different than what it took away from South Dakota. The Spartans were able to put pressure in different ways on a young squad in Week 2 of a crucial season for the Ducks. They sent Oregon into the locker room at halftime with a deficit, with all the momentum turning green and white.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesRoyce Freeman and several other young Ducks showed their mettle against Michigan State.
Many young teams -- even at home -- could have shrunk under that pressure. And yes, even with a Heisman-leading quarterback in Marcus Mariota, the game could have turned out differently considering the youth at wide receiver and the reliance on freshman at running back, right tackle and on defense.

"The biggest thing I think we can take away from this is that our team really grew up in the second half," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "We’ve got a lot of young players and a lot of them haven’t been in a game like that before. I think it really showed their character that they were able to respond the way they did."

"We thought we had a pretty mature group of young players," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich added. "I think that was very evident in the second half."

Helfrich said that at halftime he noticed the young players were composed, which could have been tough given the moment, the stage, the opponent.

"There was no panic," Helfrich said. "There was no element of fear."

That kind of attitude would be expected out of Mariota or cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu or center Hroniss Grasu, any of the guys who have been apart of these games before.

But the fact that it was coming from players like wide receivers Devon Allen and Darren Carrington, running back Royce Freeman and defensive back Tyree Robinson, who were playing in just their second collegiate football game ever, says way more than a 40-point blowout win over an FCS school.

This experience is going to pay dividends going forward. Allen, Freeman and Robinson are going to be huge contributors for the Ducks this season and thanks to Michigan State, they really aren’t freshmen anymore. They are top targets in the run and pass game who proved themselves worthy of Mariota’s attention in tight situations. They are top tacklers on the team. They are guys who went from untested youth to valuable experience in about 30 minutes.

And that could be the difference between later W’s and L’s this season.

The Ducks have talent and experience, high power and big names. Now, they just need consistency, and a lot of it is going to come from guys whose age wouldn’t necessarily dictate that kind of play.

But age is just a number, and the Ducks don’t care about numbers, just W’s.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Greetings from Eugene where No. 3 Oregon defeated No. 7 Michigan State 46-27. It was one of those games that felt like a toss up ... until it wasn't and the Ducks ran away with it.

It's the first big national statement that the Ducks could've made, and they certainly made it. But, if you feel like reliving it, here's a bit of a dose of the day, as told through social media and a bit of commentary.

In case you missed it, the Duck appeared as the guest picker on ESPN's College GameDay this morning. He got pretty creative with his usage of props. There were Lucky Charms, a blender and a large hand on a stick (which he enjoyed pointing toward Herbstreit and Desmond Howard's faces). And naturally, when it came to picking the winner for Oregon-Michigan State, he went with the Ducks. As did Lee Corso, whose headwear tradition made us see double as he sat next to the Duck (if you're wondering, he's the one on the right).



And if you feel like reliving that part of the show, you can watch the whole thing here.

There were a lot of questions and rumors about what exactly Michigan State would be wearing when they took the field against Oregon. The Ducks are famous for their uniform combinations and many people assumed the Spartans would bring out something different and new. The biggest rumor was that they'd be wearing white helmet (MSU coach Mark Dantonio had specified the team would be wearing "white" earlier in the week). But, when they took the field, they were sporting their typical helmets and all-white uniforms. If you were watching on TV or in the stadium you might not have noticed it, but MSU did something pretty cool with their decals on their thigh pads. Maybe it's something Oregon tries in the ensuing seasons?

[+] EnlargeMSU-Oregon
Courtesy Chantel JenningsThe Oregon and Michigan State mascots share a moment before the Ducks and Spartans took the field on Saturday.
But the game started at it was in the low 90s, but as always, a really beautiful setting for a really important football game.

After the two teams traded some punts, Oregon finally reached the end zone as running back Thomas Tyner punched it in on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. The Ducks followed that up with a two-point conversion that had the Spartans' head spinning.

Oregon would strike again, at the beginning of the second quarter, with a 28-yard field goal. But it'd be MSU who'd find the end zone next as running back Jeremy Langford -- who finished the day with 86 yards and one rushing touchdown -- ran in a 16-yard score on third-and-1.



But any kind of excitement that garnered for Spartans fans was quickly ruined when Oregon receiver Devon Allen did this video-game-like move.



But this is where it got interesting. The Spartans went on to score 20 unanswered points. Then Oregon scored 28 unanswered points. It had the press box a buzz about momentum shifts and the craziness of college football.



There were even a few hypotheses made as to why the momentum swings were happening.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu made a diving interception of a Reggie Daniels tip as Michigan State was marching down the field (MSU was only down 12 at this point). Before the INT, the Spartans had made it all the way to the 31-yard line and Ekpre-Olomu made the pick at the 4-yard line. It seemed like a slow motion play, and Ekpre-Olomu said later that though it wasn't a "difficult play" (his words, seriously), his eyes did get a bit big when he saw Cook attempt that pass.



Ekpre-Olomu's pick would nearly seal it but the Ducks' offense put it out of reach when freshman RB Royce Freeman found the end zone on fourth-and-2 with 1:25 remaining. The extra point provided the final 46-27 margin.

It was an all-around awesome game, and the energy in Autzen Stadium was incredible. The Ducks answered several questions tonight and kept the ball in the court.

[+] EnlargeOregon football
Courtesy Chantel JenningsAutzen Stadium was at its finest when Oregon and Michigan State took the field.
After the game Mariota said he was going to go spend some time with family, reiterating how he's the antithesis of so many other top players in the nation, and the feeling around the facilities was obviously positive. But, just because the Ducks beat up on the Spartans doesn't mean everyone can just be friends, right Sparty?
What to know as Oregon takes the field for its matchup against Michigan State:

1. Marcus Mariota will have his hands full with the pass rush the Spartans throw at him. At the center of the Spartans’ attack is Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. He’ll be going up against Michigan native Jake Fisher (who held an offer from Michigan State) most of the game. It will be a crucial matchup, one that the Ducks really haven’t been able to replicate in practice this week. “We don’t have too many Shilique Calhouns walking around campus on either side of the ball, and certainly not on our scout team,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said earlier this week. Keeping Calhoun away from Mariota is key and it’s going to come down to several factors -- the offensive line playing as a unit, the running backs helping in pass protection, receivers running their routes efficiently and Mariota making the right decisions about when to be patient and when to take off.

2. Michigan State isn’t just a defensive team anymore. Since last October, the Spartans offense -- led by quarterback Connor Cook -- has seriously turned a corner. In the first seven games of last season, he had nine touchdowns and two interceptions. In the final eight games of the season, those numbers jumped to 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. He became more comfortable in the passing game and quickly gained chemistry with his wide receivers, many of whom are back in 2014. His downfield passing percentages skyrocketed during that same time period. In the first seven games of the season, he completed nine passes of 15 yards or longer (with a 28.1 percent completion rate). In the final eight games of the season, he completed a Big Ten-leading 31 passes of 15 yards or more, including 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions (with a 48.4 percent completion rate). And in Michigan State's season opener against Jacksonville State, the junior played just one half, but completed 12-of-13 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns.

3. Explosion plays (plays of 25 yards or longer from the line of scrimmage) are going to be something to watch in this game. In 2013, the Ducks had 67 explosion plays and 21 of them resulted in touchdowns. Against South Dakota last weekend, Oregon accounted for seven, with three ending in the end zone. However, the Spartans are very good against explosion plays. “Big-play ability is what you see with Oregon,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “They can be stopped for four or five plays and then all of a sudden hit a 70-yarder. You have to be able to take that away from them. We've been good at that lately with not giving up a lot of explosive plays, particularly last season. This year remains to be seen because there are so many games left, but that's something we have to hang our hat on.” Those plays are limited the more a defense can force a three-and-out, which the Spartans did with a high success rate in 2013. Last season, Michigan State led the nation in this statistic, forcing offenses into three-and-outs on one-third of their drives. The Oregon defense did the same about a quarter of opponent's drives.

4. Michigan State punter Mike Sadler is a must-follow on Twitter. OK, maybe you don’t want to follow him right now (or right after the game, depending on how it all shakes out), but he's entertaining. Which other special teams player in the country has more than 16,000 Twitter followers? He does. And it’s deserved.



Hopefully zoology class can shed some light on that at some point.

5. Eleven players caught passes for the Ducks last weekend. Running back Byron Marshall led the group with eight receptions, but it will be interesting to see how much that list narrows and how much certain players are targeted. We really didn’t learn too much about the true identity of this team in a blowout win like South Dakota, but against a more quality opponent, expect to see where and on whom this team will rely most heavily. Has Mariota developed enough chemistry with Devon Allen to try and get the ball to him against the Spartan No Fly Zone? Or will Keanon Lowe show his seniority and become Mariota’s security blanket? Or maybe they’ll try to take shorter shots and attack the field with some passes out of the backfield? The receivers were one of the biggest questions -- and still are -- through the summer and fall camp. Expect some answers by Saturday evening.
Duck tales. Duck tales.

RUNNING BACKS
  • After Saturday's performance it's no surprise that the backs were a big topic of conversation on Monday. Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman combined for two touchdowns and 229 yards on 29 carries against South Dakota. Running backs coach Gary Campbell said that he thought they did well but that they need to get better -- so there's the obvious note of the day.
  • On where the backs must improve: "One-on-one, I think we need to be able to break tackles and one-on-one be able to avoid guys," Campbell said. "We have to make plays one-on-one and avoid getting tackled."
  • Campbell was happy with Freeman's performance (10 carries, 75 yards, two touchdowns). "Obviously he made a few mistakes, freshman mistakes," Campbell said. "But, physically he played pretty well. I expect him to be more physical and I think that'll come along with maturity."
  • The backs were also involved largely in the pass game. Marshall led the way for all receivers with eight catches. Tyner recorded three catches and Freeman recorded one. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost complimented the running backs' versatility. "I think all three of our backs have exceptional hands," Frost said. "It gives us an ability to use them in different ways."
  • QB Marcus Mariota said that he has worked on his chemistry in the pass game with Marshall. "He has had great hands out of the backfield," Mariota said. "We needed to find ways to get that guy on the field and he has done a great job. He's still learning out there and he's getting better every day."
SOME MARIOTA QUOTES
  • He stressed communication up front so that the Ducks will be able to take their shots downfield. Mariota referred to Michigan State's defensive backs as some of the best in the country. Though the Spartans' "No Fly Zone" lost a few big names from last year, their secondary still looks very strong.
  • His evaluation of the receivers in the South Dakota game: "They did a great job," Mariota said. "For young guys, some of those guys playing in their first game, they handled their emotions well and they were able to get some catches in."
  • On whether he's concerned about going up against an experienced MSU defense with his young receivers: "These guys, even in practice today, they did a good job of understanding our game plan and making sure they're in the right places. For those guys, I think they're excited."
  • He said the MSU defense doesn't really remind him of any Pac-12 defense.
  • On recovery from actually playing in a game: "It was good to get the first hit -- that's always nice to kind of get those jitters out of the waym" Mariota said. "But I feel good. My body feels good."
  • He was impressed with the freshmen, saying they did an unbelievable job (though, during the postgame news conference on Saturday he did make a joke about some of the freshmen being a little overeager and putting on their pads three hours before game time). "We applaud those guys," Mariota said. "They came in wanting to make an impact, and that's what they did."
  • On where the offense needs to improve going into Week 2: "The tempo -- I think we can play a lot faster," Mariota said. "We understand our tempo is one of our greatest assets and if we continue to push that, push the potential of that, it'll really be a weapon for us."
BONUS NOTES FROM MARK HELFRICH'S SUNDAY CONFERENCE CALL
  • On freshman offensive lineman Tyrell Crosby getting some snaps. The good: athleticism, explosive. Helfrich also said that he did a lot of good things as well as a lot of bad things, so basically what you'd expect from a freshman with a high talent ceiling. "It's a little bit of a mixed bag," Helfrich said. "I think ideally you're going to redshirt those guys, but as we've experienced if those guys are ready to go we're going to play them."
  • Oregon played 70 players on offense and defense (not including special teams), 10 of those were freshmen.
  • On what Mariota could improve on from Week 1 to Week 2: "He had a couple odd plays for him -- he had one ball that just kind of flubbed out of his hand, he tried to kind of run the route for the receiver and it's hard to do that with a quarterback trying to redirect mid pitch. That's something that happens. Another time he was kind of off balance. … I thought he coached the young guys up when he was out of there and did a good job in that regard."
  • Was he happy with how the Ducks tackled in space? "No." So, another obvious point to end the day.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Every Sunday through the season we’ll be giving out a handful of helmet stickers to deserving Ducks. After Saturday’s 62-13 blowout win over South Dakota, when really everyone and their mother could’ve gotten one, it was tough to narrow down, but here are the three big winners (and one honorable mention).

QB Marcus Mariota
The redshirt junior completed 14 of 20 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns. He took off six times and picked up 43 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown, his final play of the day. With 23 yards against Michigan State next weekend, Mariota will take the top spot for overall offensive yards at Oregon. The best part of his performance might’ve been the chemistry he showed with his receivers and running backs. Though he only connected with three receivers, there’s definitely promise in the young group and Byron Marshall proved to be a sure handed pass-catching running back that Mariota will be able to rely on this year.

RB Royce Freeman
The freshman lived up to his hype as he accounted for two touchdowns on 10 carries (he also caught one pass for 11 yards). Mariota said that he knew Freeman was going to be special earlier this summer during a 7-on-7 session after he juked some linebackers. “He stepped onto campus with kind of a confidence that you could tell right away that he believed in himself that he could do whatever he needed to do,” Mariota said. “For a guy his size to be that elusive and to be able to have the ability that he has, it’s special for us.”

Injury gods
Too often we see some player go down with some freak injury in a cupcake or gimme game. And with Michigan State coming to Autzen Stadium next weekend, the Ducks needed to make sure they go into that weekend firing on all cylinders. And whether it was the strength and conditioning staff (most likely) or the injury gods that kept the injury bug away from the Ducks in the opener, they deserve some credit. Props to them.

Honorable mention
Any fan in Autzen Stadium who stayed to watch the whole game, especially when most of the starters exited after the first half. Give yourself a pat on the back. Nothing like doing the wave at 10:43 at night when your team is up 49 points.
Five things to know as the Oregon Ducks take the field for their season opener against South Dakota (10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network):

1. Chances are this is going to be a blowout win (though, yes, I cautioned against being cocky earlier this week because anything can -- and sometimes does -- happen). But it will be the first chance to see the 2014 version of the Ducks and in the first year of the College Football Playoff, Oregon is going to want to leave no stone unturned. The best way to get to the playoff is to go undefeated. And the first step in that is beating South Dakota. According to the ESPN Power Football Index, the Ducks have a 6 percent chance of going undefeated this season -- third-best chance in the nation. Florida State has the best shot (38 percent) and Marshall has the second-best shot (10 percent).

2. Keep an eye out for how fast the Ducks are able to score. Speed is a part of their DNA and they will be the bigger, faster, stronger team on the field. If all goes to plan, Oregon should have a multiple-touchdown lead by the end of the first quarter. The Ducks are one of the fastest scoring teams in the country and it has been that way for quite a while. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since the start of the 2009 season, Oregon has 88 one-minute TD drives (tied for No. 1 in the country), 208 two-minute TD drives (No. 1 in the country) and 77 three-play TD drives (tied for No. 1 in the country).

3. The statistics really aren’t going to tell that big a story this game, so don’t get too excited about macho numbers. They don’t really mean that much. But keep an eye on how the Ducks O-line moves together. With the Tyler Johnstone injury and the recent shuffling along the line, it’ll be interesting to see if they’re moving as a unit. They’ll be going up against smaller defensive linemen, and certainly none of the caliber of Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, but if they’re looking out of sorts on Saturday, that will be a big red flag.

4. The only real position battle happening right now is at running back, where it’s a three-man race between Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. The three are listed as co-starters and chances are, just to keep the questions coming, we’ll see a multi-back set for the first play (and chances are it will be Marshall and Tyner, just because they won’t want to throw a freshman in for the first down) so they don’t have to differentiate a true starter. However, running backs coach Gary Campbell said that game production will begin to weigh heavily the longer this battle goes. And again, the South Dakota run defense isn’t the greatest test, but if one guy absolutely separates himself against the Coyotes, there’s a good chance that “OR” could be removed from the Week 2 depth chart at running back.

5. Week 2 opponent Michigan State is playing Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET against Jacksonville State. The game airs on the Big Ten Network. If you feel like checking out the Week 2 opponent (and I recommend you do), follow the @ESPN_BigTen twitter account. They’ll be tweeting about the game and providing great insight.
Some notes and quotes from Oregon Ducks 's media access on Monday. Feel free to turn on the theme to Duck Tales if you feel so inclined.

DEPTH CHART NOTES
  • Obvious note: Marcus Mariota is the starting quarterback. His knees looked fine today. No word on whether he has received his letter from Hogwarts. Onto more serious things.
  • The running backs are listed as an "OR" situation between Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman. Each is pretty similar but brings something different to the table according to running back coach Gary Campbell. You can read more about the running back situation here.
  • Other "OR" situations -- WR: Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington, RG: Jake Pisarcik and Cameron Hunt, TE: Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis, No. 2 DE: T.J. Daniel and Stetzon Bair, S: Tyree Robinson and Reggie Daniels, No. 2 PR: Keanon Lowe or Carrington.
  • As far as wide receivers go, chances are both Stanford and Carrington are going to get good reps. "It's tough to decide because both deserve to play. … We're going to play a bunch of receivers just because we run so much and play so much." Frost said that Carrington has come a long way and that Stanford is really consistent. He also said the top three guys on the outside are going to play about equal and that this wide receiver group is the most depth they've ever had.
  • Devon Allen is listed as one of the starting wide receivers. According to Frost, Allen did "everything right. ... The best thing that we can hope for is that his best days have been in scrimmages and games when the competition is hot so I hope that carries over to the football field for him." He's definitely one of the players that I'm most intrigued to see this spring. I watched him win the 110-meter hurdle race at the NCAA Track & Field Championships and then follow that up with his "Yep, football is still No. 1" talk. If he wins national and world titles in track, what is he going to be able to do on the field?
  • Cornerback Dior Mathis got the nod in the spring game, it seemed but the depth chart lists Troy Hill as the starting CB opposite Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
OFFENSIVE LINE SHUFFLE
  • With Tyler Johnstone's injury, it was unsure where exactly the Duck O-line would go from here. Andre Yruretagoyena had emerged as the front runner initially, just because he had taken many of Johnstone's reps in the spring while Johnstone was still rehabbing. However, the depth chart now lists Jake Fisher as the starting left tackle (in the spring he was at right tackle). Yruretagoyena is listed as the starting right tackle. Hamani Stevens and Hroniss Grasu are still listed as starting left guard and center, respectively. And then -- as stated earlier -- the right guard spot is listed as an "OR" battle. This shuffling definitely leaves some question marks. Coming into the fall the O-line was thought to be a huge strength with five returning starters. Now, there are position battles with a week to go and new starters on both sides of the line.
ON HOW MUCH THE OFFENSE HAS CHANGED
  • Frost said that the offense has evolved a bit, by necessity. "We definitely have some new wrinkles and we've evolved. We've done a good job around here that we've had enough things in that we could keep other people guessing a little bit and we've definitely tried to make a few changes this year to do the same thing." He said that they have looked outside the program for a few wrinkles, but that a lot of the ideas have come from coach Mark Helfrich.
MARIOTA SPEAKS
  • His thoughts on the three running backs: "Any one of those guys could come in and play for us right away. We have all the confidence in the world in each of those guys and each of them are preparing as if they are the starter, so whoever it may be, we have all the confidence in them."
  • On what he wants to know about the team after Saturday's game: "I want to be able -- as an offense -- execute it to the best of our abilities. Go out there and start fast. We had a tendency last year to kind of start off a little slow, including myself."
  • On the national publicity. Does he like it? "Not at all. To be honest, for me I like to keep my personal life private. With more media, bigger media coming in, that's getting tougher. But at the same time, I just like to keep myself low-key, out of the spotlight. This is a team sport."
  • Oregon doesn't start classes until Sept. 29 whereas many of the Ducks opponents will begin shortly or are already in session. Mariota said that it's a "huge" advantage because it allowed the Ducks to spend much of the first month of the season just focusing on football. "It gives us an opportunity, like right now, right when we're done with practice, to go watch practice film. You can lay low and relax a little bit."
EUGENE, Ore. -- It can be tricky to make too many assumptions during fall camp, especially when all the practices happen behind closed doors.

One coach’s thoughts might be to ramp up the attention for a less-prominent guy, someone who has shown flashes but likely won’t get consistent playing time during the season. With the media unable to see anything, it has to go off the coach’s word, so why not give some pub to a guy who won’t get it later?

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
AP Photo/Eric GayCan Royce Freeman go from starring in high school last season to starting at Oregon?
And other coaches might downplay a younger, less-experienced player. Why put the limelight on him before he even takes one significant snap as a college player? Could that harm his overall development if he gets too big of a head?

But if depth charts are to be believed, then Oregon running back Royce Freeman is in neither of those categories. All fall the freshman was talked up by players and coaches, and on Monday, the Ducks’ depth chart backed that up. He’s listed in a three-way battle for the top running back position for the Ducks, alongside sophomore Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.

“We don’t plan on redshirting anybody -- every guy we bring in here we’re preparing to be a starter,” Oregon running back coach Gary Campbell said. “And he came in with that attitude.”

Marshall rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Tyner was right there, improving consistently through the season and finishing with 711 yards.

And Freeman? Well, he rushed for 2,824 yards and 41 touchdowns … but it was against high school competition.

Try searching for Freeman on Google. The first handful of links go to recruiting profiles. The images that pop up of Freeman are him in his red and white Imperial High School (Calif.) Tigers uniform.

Even in the past when the Ducks have had abundant talent in the backfield, they’ve listed it out as a first, second and third string. In 2011, on Oregon’s fall camp depth chart, La’Michael James was listed as the top back, Kenjon Barner was next and De’Anthony Thomas came in third.

And that’s exactly how the season played out. James led the way with 1,805 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Barner finished second with 939 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, and Thomas concluded the season with 595 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.

Last year, Thomas was listed as the first-string back, Marshall was listed as second and Tyner was third. It played out that way as well.

Now, just five days from the Ducks’ season opener against South Dakota, the Ducks have a freshman, sophomore and junior all on an even playing field. The word “or” is acting as the public equalizer of all three.

The one starting Saturday will be the one who’s practicing best and from there on out, game production will weigh more heavily. Campbell said the players can tell who’s making progress and who’s not, so presumably the practices this week are going to be heated for the backs.

He said all three players are pretty similar but that Marshall has the advantage of experience, Tyner has the advantage of speed and Freeman has the advantage of strength.

Put all three of those together and the Ducks would have the best singular running back in the nation by far. Instead, they have a three-headed monster.

Is that a good problem to have?

“It’s a great one,” Campbell said.

The depth chart has backed up the fall talk. Now, it’s the waiting game until Saturday to see if the on-field play backs up the depth chart, and if this freshman -- who has been the talk of the town -- is as good as we’ve heard and seen (on paper).

“We never are sure what we’re going to get with our freshmen until they get here,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “You can look great in high school but if you don’t come in mature it just takes longer for you to pick it up. … You never know what you’re going to get with freshmen, but you can tell the guys who can do it almost from day one because they come in in-shape with the right attitude and they start learning right away.”

Could Freeman be that guy? Saturday will reveal at least some of the answer.
[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesCornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu says practicing against Marcus Mariota lets him prepare for all the other experienced Pac-12 quarterbacks.
EUGENE, Ore. -- If the Pac-12 is a quarterback league this season, then it must also be regarded -- at least a bit -- as a league for opportunistic cornerbacks. Given the depth of talent at quarterback, there will be plenty of chances for cornerbacks to make big plays against bigger names.

And that idea is exciting a few Oregon Ducks defensive backs.

"I'm ready to play against all the best people," cornerback Dior Mathis said.

And yes, every college football player says that, but not every one actually gets to play against the best.

The Pac-12 cornerbacks, however, do.

With 10 returning starting quarterbacks in the Pac-12, cornerbacks are going to be tested by experienced, talented signal-callers.

Last season the Pac-12 passed more frequently than any other Power Five conference. On average, each Pac-12 quarterback attempted 386 passes through the season. That works to be just a bit more than 32 passes per game. Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday's numbers do skew the average a bit. But if even if we exclude Halliday, the average Pac-12 signal-caller still threw about 30 passes.

Compared across the other four power conferences, that's quite the jump. The Big Ten led the rest of the power conferences with each quarterback averaging 309 passes through the season.

That means that per game, Pac-12 defensive backs will get about 11 more chances at a pass than a Big 12 defensive back. It works out to be nine more opportunities than DBs in the SEC and ACC and about six more chances for Big Ten DBs.

But Oregon isn't getting cocky just because there are more opportunities. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu knows that all 10 of those returning starters have gotten better than they were last season when he collected three interceptions and six pass break ups.

"Playing in the Pac-12 you pretty much know you're going to play against some pretty good quarterbacks," Ekpre-Olomu said. "But at the same time, you play against the same guys for three years. Just like they improve, we improve."

But the one advantage that Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis have over other cornerbacks, across the conference and country, is that they face Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota every single day in practice.

There might not be better practice for facing a Halliday or Sean Mannion or Taylor Kelly or Kevin Hogan, than going against Mariota.

"Going against him every day and seeing how he progresses and seeing his accuracy when he throws to receivers, going against him, it's cool," Mathis said of Mariota. "You get the best quarterback in the country, in my opinion. [We're] going against him every single day. It's doing nothing but making us better."

"Going against Marcus you have to be smart and you have to be on your toes really," Ekpre-Olomu added. "To get a ball thrown at you, especially playing against somebody like that, you have to outsmart the quarterback."

And if Ekpre-Olomu and Mathis can find a way to outsmart Mariota, the Duck defense might be taking a huge step forward when it plays teams with quarterbacks-not-named Mariota.
Fall camp is underway but there's still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. This week and next, we'll be outlining a few storylines to keep track of as the month wears down and the Oregon Ducks' opener on Aug. 30 against South Dakota approaches.

On Monday, we looked at the running backs and who might emerge at that position, and today we're moving on to receivers. If the problem at running back is one of abundance -- a problem that most coaches welcome with open arms -- then the one at wide receiver is quite the opposite. The coaches say there's a lot of talent in the room, but it's untested, unproven talent. Which, until it's proven this season is really just a bunch of words.

[+] EnlargeKeanon Lowe
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsSenior Keanon Lowe should provide leadership for a Ducks' receiving corps that enters the 2014 season as a rather young and unproven group.
"We've got a lot of inexperienced guys," wide receiver coach and passing game coordinator Matt Lubick said. "So it's a good opportunity for guys to get experience and we're trying a lot of different combinations."

But one of those guys -- or preferably for the Ducks, many guys -- needs to step up, and step up fast, because the Ducks' season (as well as quarterback Marcus Mariota and any Heisman hopes he might have) completely rest on that.

On Monday, Mariota pointed out Keanon Lowe (referring to him as a "proven veteran" despite the fact that he only caught 18 passes last season), Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Chance Allen as receivers that have stood out to him through fall camp.

"They've all made a lot of plays," Mariota said. "Now we just have to get these guys lined up in the right positions, lined up in the right formations and get our offense rolling."

Lubick is convinced the offense will roll. He's quick to admit how young his group is, but he also believes it's one of the deepest.

"Last year we played four guys because four guys were ready to play and then there was a big drop off," Lubick said. "This year, we feel pretty good. … If we played tomorrow, we would be able to play seven, eight guys."

Here's a closer look at some of those eight guys. Keep track of them as this depth chart works its way out.

Keanon Lowe
2013 statistics: 18 catches, 233 yards, 3 touchdowns
What Lubick says: "The thing that he does such a great job of -- through example that other guys are starting to do -- is the way he prepares. No one out-prepares that guy. And what I mean by that, any situation he's in, he's going to do the best that he can and if he's in the meeting room, he's going to sit in the front row and take notes. He's going to pay attention to every single word. He's going to know the spots. He's always going to be early. He's going to be the first in every drill so he can get extra reps. Our young guys see that and they're trying to do the same thing."

Devon Allen
2013 statistics: redshirted
What Lubick says: "Devon's attitude has been awesome. He was a guy who had tremendous success on the track that everyone knows about, but he never used that as an excuse to get out of anything that we required of him in spring football. And in spring football, we required everything out of him. He balanced track and football unbelievably. … Very mentally tough. He's one of those guys, never count him out from doing anything because he's always proving he can do it. And if you challenge him -- intellectually or physically -- he always rises to the occasion."

Chance Allen
2013 statistics: 5 catches, 98 yards, 1 touchdown
What Lubick says: "Allen has gotten a lot better. Another guy that the one thing he's really lacking is experience. He did a great job in the offseason conditioning himself. He's a very smart football player. He has taken a lot of reps, even though he hasn't had a lot of game reps, he has taken a lot of reps in the practice field and that shows. He's in the right place at the right time, which is very important for a receiver."

Dwayne Stanford
2013 statistics: redshirted
What Lubick says: "He has put a tremendous amount of time in off the field. All of our guys are here in the summertime, but we also give them breaks. He decided to not even go home on those breaks we do give them, because he wanted to stay here and get better. It's very important to do well. He's his own worst critic. He takes this very serious. … If there's a weakness, he wants to know what it is and he's going to do his best to improve it. He doesn't want to avoid it."

Jonathan Loyd
2013 statistics: DNP
What Lubick says: "It's a hard situation when you haven't played football for four years. … His effort is unbelievable. He has put a lot of time in on his own to catch up to speed. In the spring, he was kind of thinking through things which when you think you can't play fast. Now he knows what he's doing and he's playing a lot faster."

Other storylines to keep track of:
EUGENE, Ore. -- As the Oregon football players filed into the annual media day last week, one thing was visibly clear from the start: One of these things was not like the other ones.

Yes, each player sported his green uniform. And all -- except one -- wore matching green shorts with their number on the thigh.

That one, redshirt senior Johnathan Loyd -- who will play as wide receiver on the 2014 team after exhausting his basketball eligibility at Oregon after last season -- was wearing black Jordan basketball shorts. He got the Nike part right, but the sport part wrong.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Loyd
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJohnathan Loyd is shifting his focus from basketball to football as he prepares to line up at wide receiver for Oregon.
“It’s a part of me,” Loyd said. “It’s my personality.”

And though he’s not going to be playing any real basketball at all during the season, he’ll certainly still have that basketball part to his play and personality. But the more time he spends playing football, the smaller that part will be.

And he certainly noticed the basketball to football difference between day one of spring ball and day one of fall camp.

“When I came into spring, I was more in basketball mode,” Loyd said. “It’s definitely a different type of pace you have to play at. Because football, you play as hard as you can, then stop, as hard as you can, then stop. Basketball is more constant movement, you have to tempo yourself so you’re not out of control.”

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said he saw that kind of trepidation out of Loyd in the spring.

“The guy had a great attitude in the spring,” Helfrich said. “But you could tell that he hadn’t played football for five years and it’s not like he’s showing up and playing intramural flag football. He’s showing up and playing elite-level, Division-I football. There’s rust. There’s uncertainty, which then makes him slower than he really is in how he plays.”

Loyd said that what he needed to get rid of that rust was just a lot of repetition in order to build the football muscle memory and get rid of the basketball mentality. That point never hit during spring ball, but after two weeks of being thrown to by quarterback Marcus Mariota in the summer, it finally just became instinctual.

“I was able to play football rather than just think about playing football,” Loyd said.

With more free time in the summer, Loyd was able to get more film study in. He and fellow wide receiver Keanon Lowe watched Oregon tape as well as NFL film -- mostly Steve Smith and Wes Welker.

Loyd attributed much of his summer growth to Lowe, who helped remind him to exert total energy on each route because he’d get a break soon. Unlike basketball, there was no turn-around fast break or zone to retreat into. And while that might’ve taken Loyd a bit longer to grow accustomed to, he is used to it now and ready to fight for a spot at wide receiver, a spot he legitimately has a shot to earn some important reps at considering the lack of experience as a whole in the unit.

That’s not too bad for a football player who stills wears his basketball shorts.
Byron Marshall, Thomas TynerScott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall and Thomas Tyner will give the Ducks two potent options at running back this season.
Fall camp is underway but there’s still quite a bit of work that needs to be done. This week, we’ll be outlining a few storylines to keep track of as the month wears down and the opener against South Dakota approaches.

Today, we start off with one of the more heavily discussed topics of the summer: the situation at running back.

The top dogs in the race are Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner. Though, there are names mentioned outside of those two as a possible tempo change throughout the game -- Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit, Tony James. But don’t get too distracted. This is a two-man game right now.

Marshall has the experience factor -- he was the only 1,000-yard rusher on the team last year as he led the Ducks with 168 carries and 14 rushing touchdowns. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said that Marshall’s next step would be “cutting it loose.”

There shouldn’t be any hesitation considering he knows his main competition is coming off strong year-end performances. Last week, Helfrich spoke about how Tyner took more time to grow accustomed to the college game, but Helfrich was happy with the progress he made during the season. Tyner ended up toting the ball 115 times for 711 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. So, there’s definitely a benefit to getting 50 extra carries, but there’s also a benefit with year-end momentum, which Tyner had.

But to think that the Ducks could only have one special running back would be shortsighted, especially considering the obvious lack of experience the Ducks have at wide receiver. Helfrich has made no bones about the fact that the team is looking for whatever offensive formation works best for the Ducks. If that means two running backs, then so be it. And if these two backs are as good as everyone is lauding them to be then two backs could be the way the Ducks go.

“I like that we have two running backs because all the pressure isn’t on either one of them,” left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. “I think they’re just as talented, either one of them. They can platoon. If we have two running backs of their caliber, they’re always going to well rested and they’re always going to be explosive.”

Plenty of teams have had success going with a tandem at running back and experienced success. In 2005, USC used Reggie Bush and LenDale White to amass 3,042 rushing yards. Two seasons later at Arkansas, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones rushed for more than 3,000 yards in a season. This season, Texas could employ something similar with Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown and Georgia may do the same with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

But what none of those teams have is Marcus Mariota.

Throw Mariota into that equation and the Oregon run game gets pretty difficult to stop. Could run game coordinator Steve Greatwood get really creative this season? Absolutely. Could either Tyner or Marshall explode so much during fall camp that they force the hand of the coaching staff into choosing a featured back? Absolutely. It's still early, but it's something to keep track of.

Realistically, this story line won’t play itself out for the public until the Michigan State game. The Ducks aren’t going to give too much away in the season opener, knowing that Mark Dantonio and his staff are going to see that game tape. In 2013, the Spartans finished in the top three nationally for rushing yards per game (86.3), yards per rush (2.84) and rushing touchdowns (8).

So come week two, we’ll get a much better sense of what the Oregon run game will actually look like this fall. If anyone truly believes we’ll know anything much sooner, they’re overreaching. Helfrich is going to keep his cards close to his chest and only show them when he must. And he’s going to need to against the defending Rose Bowl Champions.

Either way, it’s something to keep an eye on this fall camp to see if any hints are dropped regarding what exactly the Duck run game will look like this fall.

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