Oregon Ducks: Pac-12
The Ducks could manage to sneak into the top spot when the College Football Committee rankings are released on Tuesday night considering the crazy shake-ups and disappointing wins that plagued the top 10 this past weekend.
But there is a chance that the Ducks won't move into that top spot. The rankings are in constant flux, and the determinants are always changing. To keep you up to date at the possibilities of which teams' wins and losses could impact Oregon, here is a brief look around the top 10.
No. 1 Mississippi State lost to No. 5 Alabama: Mississippi State will drop. The question is: Will it be Oregon that moves into the top spot? Depends what the committee decides to place importance upon. Does taking down a No. 1 team make you the No. 1 team? If so, maybe Alabama jumps up to the No. 1 spot. Or does FSU, with an unimpressive win (which we will get to) trump an Oregon team that didn't even play this last weekend? This will be interesting to watch. These kinds of decisions can give us brief looks into what exactly the committee believes is most important.
No. 2 Oregon -- bye
No. 3 FSU beat unranked Miami, 30-26: FSU had to score 20 second-half points to avoid a loss. The Noles are undefeated, so congrats to them for that. They have two wins against teams that are currently in the top 25 -- No. 19 Clemson and No. 18 Notre Dame -- but come Tuesday both could be unranked as Notre Dame lost to Northwestern and Clemson lost to No. 22 Georgia Tech. They probably don't deserve to be in the top spot, but if the committee chooses to place importance on being undefeated or showing grit in comeback wins (FSU has a habit of getting down early so it can mount a lovely second-half comeback) then the Seminoles could find their way to No. 1.
No. 4 TCU beat unranked Kansas, 34-30: Like FSU, TCU had to put together a second-half comeback to beat an unranked team. C'mon top 4, you're supposed to be the best. Not the best second-half teams. But again, if the committee decides to place importance on teams that show they can pull it together and win late in games, then maybe TCU could move up. Like Oregon, the Horned Frogs have just one loss. TCU has two wins against teams currently ranked in the top 25 -- No. 25 Minnesota (though the Gophers will likely drop out after their loss this weekend to Ohio State) and No. 13 Kansas State (on a bye this weekend).
No. 6 Arizona State lost to unranked Oregon State, 35-27: Buh bye, Sun Devils. It was great while it lasted. Won't be surprising to see Arizona State drop out of the top 10 after losing on the road to an unranked team that had lost four in a row. This isn't great news for the Pac-12, so it only increases the importance for Oregon to carry the conference's banner moving forward.
No. 7 Baylor -- bye
No. 8 Ohio State beat No. 25 Minnesota, 31-24: It wouldn't be surprising to see the Buckeyes jump into the top 5. They won on the road and continue to get better as quarterback J.T. Barrett finds his footing in Urban Meyer's offense. Duck fans are going to want to keep an eye on this team out of the Big Ten. If anything goes wonky, it could be the Big Ten and Pac-12 fighting for that fourth spot, in which case it would be a Buckeyes-Ducks battle. However, this could also be a matchup (and a fun one at that) we could see in one of the semifinals. Either way, Ducks fans, keep your eyes and ears on Ohio State. It's a team to know.
No. 9 Auburn lost to No. 15 Georgia, 34-7: Auburn will drop a few spots, which is good news for Oregon. The SEC West struggling is beneficial to the Ducks.
No. 10 Ole Miss -- bye
But in order to get to that ultimate goal, here are four ways the Ducks need to use this bye week:
1. Get healthy
Uh, duh. Tight end Pharaoh Brown won't be back this season (we'll get to that later), but cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and center Hroniss Grasu need to use this week to rest up and get back on the field.
2. Continue building chemistry in the pass game
This is a perfect time for Mariota to just go out and throw and throw and throw with his group of wide receivers. They've all looked good recently, but coach Mark Helfrich has said that some of the incompletions are because Mariota is running the routes for the receivers or there's some kind of a misstep somewhere. Again, against the Beavers or Buffs, Oregon probably can get away with a few of those. But against a stronger team? Not so much. They need to use this week to keep getting Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford, Keanon Lowe and Charles Nelson some catches.
3. Find a tight end to fill Brown's shoes
It's unfortunate to see Brown go down at this point in the season. He had really stepped up (15 catches, 289 yards, five touchdowns in the past five games), and he was poised to keep contributing more and more. Now, the Ducks will look to Evan Baylis or Johnny Mundt -- both of whom Oregon was high on coming into this season -- to step up and step into the reps left behind by Brown. Baylis is known to be the better blocker, while Mundt was known to have better hands. So who can address his weakness? That'll likely be the guy they bring in and count on.
4. Defense needs to get in the film room
OK, offense does, too. But the Oregon defense took some major steps forward in the past few weeks. The Ducks have been better on first down, which has made second- and third-down situations a far better scenario than earlier this year. While some of this is obviously going to be opponent-based, Don Pellum has said that the Ducks just need to keep working on themselves defensively. So, Ducks, work on yourselves defensively. Get in the film room and figure out where the miscommunications are happening, why so many big plays are happening, which nuances can and should improve. Like points Nos. 1 through 3, the Ducks will be able to survive the rest of the regular season with these glitches still in their systems. But, if they want to be a national championship-caliber team, those glitches need to continue disappearing over the next three weeks.
- Helfrich had only good things to say about Erick Dargan (no surprises there). The senior has five interceptions on the year and leads the team with 65 total tackles. When I met with him in the spring he seemed very confident coming into this fall, but I don't know if anyone saw him having this kind of a season considering this is his first year as a starter. "He has grown up a lot," Helfrich said. "He's a guy who is a very competitive guy, a very passionate guy and has done a good job in practice -- especially with the young guys -- of leading those guys and teaching them how to compete." Helfrich complimented Dargan's instinct, referring to him as a "ball hawk." Dargan was named the defensive and special teams player of the game for the Stanford win.
- The offensive player of the week was running back Thomas Tyner. Helfrich said he liked how physical Tyner was, especially after being out last weekend. Helfrich went on to compliment all three of the running backs (despite the fact that Byron is now a "wide receiver"). Rushing stat update on those three:
- Royce Freeman: 155 rushes, 846 yards, 13 touchdowns, 5.5 yards per rush
- Thomas Tyner: 76 rushes, 342 yards, 3 touchdowns, 4.5 yards per rush
- Byron Marshall: 38 rushes, 307 yards, 1 touchdown, 8.1 yards per rush
- While we're on the topics of giving some props to players, let's move over to freshman Charles Nelson who had his first career touchdown reception, which was also the first of the game for the Ducks. He also had a key block in one of Marcus Mariota's touchdowns and played well on special teams, per usual. "He's a dynamic dude," Helfrich said. "He just does so many things well and not just with the ball in his hands. He's a very physical guy and on special teams both on the ball or off the ball, whether it's a returner or as a cover guy, just a rare, rare talent. [He's] smart, tough, unselfish and a guy that we'll continue to try to create some stuff for."
- Regarding the Oregon linebackers. Helfrich said that he sees more and more players in that group playing with more confidence including Danny Mattingly and Joe Walker. Helfrich made it sound like it was easier to see how much a lot of those players have improved because the Stanford offense-Oregon defense battle was a more "in-close space operation."
- Following the game Saturday several of the players kept referring to the win over Stanford as just another game. Helfrich made multiple comments that the Ducks wouldn't be getting extra credit for that win. When asked if this shows signs of a mature team, Helfrich said "They've probably seen the film on Utah. They know every week is a huge challenge. You look at some of the scores across the conference and a couple low-scoring games yesterday, a couple high-scoring games with a bunch of turnovers. You have to be on point in every phase to get it done. We're going to a very hostile environment against a very good team and I'm sure that was part of the reason."
- Looking forward to Utah ... Helfrich said that the Utes are playing "lights out, especially on the defensive side of the ball." He noted how fast and physical the Utes are up front, so it'll be a good match up to see with the Oregon running backs, whether the Tyner/Freeman combo performance was a flash in the pan, or whether this tandem-like situation of production can be sustainable against top defenses. Against Stanford those two averaged 5.6 yards per rush against a defense that came in giving up just 2.6 yards allowed per rush. The Utes come into this weekend with their defense giving up 3.2 yards per rush, so it should be another great match up in the trenches.
- Helfrich was asked whether he gives himself the time or not to survey the national landscape with what's happening with other teams (let's be serious, the other teams that are specifically the Ducks' biggest competitors for getting into the College Football Playoff). "The only time that I personally do that is after our game on Saturday," Helfrich said. "Or maybe a little bit prior to." He said that this weekend he really didn't have time to do that prior to the game since there were so many recruits in town. Helfrich did say that after the game he'll try to catch some highlights or analysis of other games.
- What's on Helfrich's to-do list for getting his team cleaned up? Glad you asked:
- Fits in special teams. He thought the Ducks' covered "OK" on kickoffs.
- Hitting the easy throws -- Helfrich detailed a bunch of these, some were -- in fact -- Mariota's fault, but also, they need to work more on some route issues.
- Fits on defense -- Leverage, tackling.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Marcus Mariota threw for 326 yards and five touchdowns as No. 6 Oregon rang in the first college football game at Levi's Stadium with a 59-41 win. Cal kept it interesting for a while -- it trailed 31-28 late in the first half -- but the Bears aren't quite ready to seriously compete with a team of Oregon's caliber. Here's what happened.
How the game was won: Oregon scored and scored and scored. Then it kept scoring. For Cal to have had a chance to pull out a miracle, it would have needed a big edge in the turnover battle, but despite Mariota's first interception of the season -- which needed two Cal players to tip it first -- that didn't happen.
Game ball goes to: Oregon WR Byron Marshall. Playing 15 miles north of his high school, Marshall contributed as a receiver (4 catches, 133 yards, 1 touchdown) and carrying the ball (7 carries, 57 yards).
What it means: They are who we thought they were. Both teams. Oregon piled up 592 yards of offense and cruised in the second half, while Cal continued to show progress. It was the fourth game this year that Cal and its opponent both accumulated at least 560 yards of offense. Only one other team in the country (Bowling Green) has been involved in two such games.
Playoff implication: No change here. Oregon remains the Pac-12’s best bet at a playoff berth and is in good position as the top-ranked one-loss team outside the SEC. However, the Ducks' performance on defense will undoubtedly raise some red flags for the College Football Playoff selection committee.
What's next: Oregon (7-1, 4-1 Pac-12) hosts Stanford at Autzen Stadium next week, where it will try to end a two-year skid against the Cardinal. With two wins needed for bowl eligibility, Cal (4-4, 2-4) has an important game at Oregon State. The Bears have No. 20 USC, Stanford and BYU after that to try to get to six.
- Helfrich seemed to be very, very happy with the special teams' performance against UCLA. Four of the Ducks' seven kickoffs started inside the 25-yard line and the other three were touchbacks (so that's always a good thing). On average, UCLA starting position was 80.9 yards from the end zone -- nationally, that was the third best this weekend (average was 72.3 yards from the end zone). Oregon punted three times and all three times UCLA fair caught the ball (again, good). UCLA's average distance from the goal line following an Oregon punt was 80.3 yards (16th nationally). And as far as Oregon's returns, the Ducks had three kick returns and the average return was 19.3 yards, leaving the Oregon offense -- on average -- 61.8 yards from the goal line.
- On the team's response after losing to Arizona last week: "I really liked their response starting with last Friday, right after the Arizona game our guys were back at it. … The biggest thing they took into the UCLA game was, we talk all the time about earned confidence, true confidence because you've done it before and trained and you trust it. So, our young guys and some of our older guys, too, just didn't trust it. ... We did a better job of that, not a perfect job by any stretch, but that's an encouraging thing too that we can win on the road against a very, very good team and still have a ton to work on."
- On continuing that growth going into the Washington game: "Win or loss, hopefully you build on the things you need to sustain and work on the things that you have to improve again." Helfrich noted how many young players got good road experience in the UCLA game. The biggest jump the Ducks made between the Arizona loss and the UCLA win was the offensive line play and that will need to take another step forward this week as Washington's front seven is nasty. Oregon's offense was very efficient behind that improved O-line. Marcus Mariota posted the third-highest adjusted QBR of the weekend, 93.2, and the run game was vastly improved as well. Just 7.3 percent of the Ducks' rushes were for no gain or negative yardage, which was the best in the country this weekend. The closest Pac-12 team was USC; 15.4 percent of the Trojans' rushes were for no gain or negative yardage.
- Junior tight end Pharaoh Brown had his most productive pass-catching performance of the season as he hauled in five catches for 84 yards and one touchdown. Helfrich had some praise: "He had even a bigger impact on the game as a blocker. … We put a ton of stuff on his plate this week and he has been practicing really well and he did it in every phase -- at the line of scrimmage, in space on the perimeter, he did some dirty work that got those guys some big yards, all the backs and Marcus included. And having a great game with the ball in his hands, too." Seeing Brown get more involved in the pass game is a positive sign for the offense. Having a player like Brown, one who can be an effective weapon as a blocker and as a receiver, is only going to make this offense more difficult to plan against. It's sort of like having another Byron Marshall-type weapon on the field. When defensive coordinators see the personnel groupings and Marshall is out there, they're not exactly sure what he's going to do. In a similar way, the more that Brown asserts himself as a weapon in the pass game, the more defensive coordinators will be forced to scratch their heads when they see No. 85 on the field.
- Helfrich has watched tape only on Washington's defense so far. On that group: "They create a ton of pressure on the quarterback. They've had a million takeaways defensively and they are very versatile on defense." Though Helfrich might've exaggerated a bit about the number of takeaways the Husky defense has produced, he certainly has a point. They've recovered 10 fumbles and picked off quarterbacks five times. They lead the nation with five defensive touchdowns and linebacker Shaq Thompson is going to be a name that Oregon fans will want to keep an eye out for. And yes, Washington's defense puts a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They've recorded 24 sacks so far this season (third best nationally) and feature Hau'oli Kikaha, the nation's leader in sacks (10).
Here’s a deeper dive into some of those numbers.
Marcus Mariota passing: Following Thursday's loss, offensive coordinator Scott Frost acknowledged that Mariota was injured during the Ducks’ victory at Washington State and wasn’t 100 percent healthy for the Arizona game.
However, the numbers from Mariota’s first four performances to his game against Arizona do tell a story of a player who was not the same. Whether that was because of Arizona’s pressure (five sacks) or Mariota’s injury, again, is something we won’t know 100 percent, but here’s what the numbers say:
However, when comparing how and where he got those passing yards is where the numbers really start to jump. In his first four games, Mariota averaged 146.8 yards per game on throws of 15 yards or longer. So, about half of his yardage was coming on deeper passes. But against Arizona, just 80 yards of his 276 passing yards came from throws of 15 yards or longer -- 29 percent.
Mariota also wasn't as effective in the play-action game.
Coming into the Arizona game, 732 of Mariota’s 1,135 passing yards came from the play-action pass. He had completed 71.4 percent of his play-action passes through the first four games, as opposed to 58.8 percent against the Wildcats.
A drop of 12.6 percent in those figures between Games 1-4 and Game 5 is notable, but the more important statistic was the result of those completions. In his first four appearances, Mariota averaged 13.1 yards per play-action pass. Against Arizona, he averaged half that -- 6.5 yards per play-action pass.
Oregon rushing attack: In Arizona’s first four games, the Wildcats allowed 14 rushes of 10 yards or more. During that same time span, the Ducks had been running wild. Oregon had 31 rushes of 10-plus yards (7.8 per game).
But, injuries to the two starting tackles had an effect, specially running inside.
In its first four games, Oregon had averaged 5.6 yards per designed run attempt between the tackles, including two yards after contact. Against Arizona, the Ducks averaged 2.8 yards per designed run attempt between the tackles and just 0.7 yards after contact.
Five of the Ducks 12 rushing touchdowns had come off designed runs between the tackles this season. Against Arizona, Oregon didn’t have a rushing touchdown.
Against the pass: Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon used short passes to attack the Oregon defense. Every one of his 20 completions was a pass of 15 yards or less downfield.
Coming into the game against Oregon, the majority of Solomon’s completions (73 percent) were passes of 15 yards or less downfield. So it certainly kept with the trend of what he was doing well coming into last Thursday. But because Rich Rodriguez chose to call so many short passes, he probably saw holes in the front seven that he thought he could exploit.
But that doesn’t mean that Wildcats receivers weren’t able to take major chunks of yardage in the pass game as well. Eight of the nine receivers who caught a pass for Arizona (Solomon is counted among that eight) had automatic first-down catches.
What’s more worrisome is the timing of these catches. In the first four games, the Ducks had been able to recover from their slow starts and put together stronger performances as the game goes on. But against Arizona, the exact opposite was true. The Ducks allowed just three pass plays of 10 or more yards in the first half and eight in the second half (including six in the third quarter alone).
Good teams are able to recover from intermittent big plays. Typically, even one 25-yard pass play or one 40-yard running play doesn't cause a loss. However, when these inconsistencies pop up and defenses aren’t able to coral the momentum of opposing offenses (as in the 21-point, 220-yard third quarter), then it becomes troublesome.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
1. Can the Wildcats get to Marcus Mariota?
2. The battle of the true freshman running backs
This will be the best freshman battle we might see all season. Oregon has Royce Freeman (48 rushes, 261 yards, 5 touchdowns). Arizona has Nick Wilson (77 rushes, 482 yards, 4 touchdowns). Freeman was a highly touted player who came in and lived up to the hype, beating out Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall (though the Ducks are using Marshall in a more quasi RB-WR role, anyway). Because the Ducks have a more balanced rushing attack he averages only 65.2 yards per game (as opposed to Wilson’s 120.5 yards per game). However, the fact that both of these freshmen average more than 5 yards per carry is just ridiculous -- Wilson averages 6.3, Freeman 5.4. And they've both been able to avoid tackles in the backfield. Freeman has accounted for 7 negative rushing yards on 48 carries while Wilson has accounted for just 5 negative rushing yards on 77 attempts (that’s crazy).
3. Can the redshirt freshman QB hold up against the Ducks' defense?
Anu Solomon won the starting job for the Wildcats right before the season started and he has made a pretty good name for himself. He has completed 111 of 175 passes (63.4 percent) and thrown 13 touchdowns and three picks. On top of that, his dual-threat qualities make defenses play a bit more honest considering he has already tallied 167 rushing yards on 39 carries (4.3 yards per rush). Not bad for a first-year player. But he hasn't had to face a defense quite as stout* as Oregon yet.
*Yes, Oregon is stout and it will probably throw the kitchen sink at him to rattle him early. Look for cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to come into the box for some pass-rushing opportunities. However, that being said, while the Ducks have given up only so many yards this season, a lot of those have come in big chunks. Sixty-eight of the 310 plays run against Oregon have resulted in plays of 10-plus yards -- so about one in five plays accounts for a first down. And that statistic looks worse when we're just talking about passing. Oregon has given up only 109 passing completions this season, but 48.6 percent of those have been passes of 10-plus yards.
There are chances for the redshirt freshman to find holes and big plays against the Oregon defense, so can Solomon pick his moments? Or will the defense pick him off?
4. Exorcising demons
The Ducks need to do it. As great as beating Michigan State was for their national perception and their perfect record and their yada yada yada, until they beat Arizona and Stanford, they’re no better than they were last year. In 2013, the Wildcats absolutely dismantled then-No. 5 Oregon, holding the Ducks to just 16 points on their 506 yards of offense. Two of Mariota’s four picks from last season came against the Wildcats. Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey made the Oregon defense look like a junior varsity team as he rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns (for those keeping score at home, that’s just under 10 percent of the rushing yardage and a quarter of the rushing touchdowns Oregon gave up all season). There’s a monkey on the Ducks' back. Its name is Arizona and they need to get it off.
5. Cayleb Jones is a legit threat to the Ducks' secondary
He’s the Wildcats’ No. 1 receiver threat. He has accounted for three consecutive 100-yard receiving games and has six touchdowns on the season (Devon Allen leads the Ducks with five receiving touchdowns). He sat out last season after transferring from Texas and has already made the most out of his redshirt sophomore season. He’s fifth in the conference in receptions per game (7.2), second in the conference in receiving yards per game (118.8) and second in the conference in yards per catch for receivers with over 20 catches (16.4). He’s a name to know both this game and going forward because he could be tearing up the Pac-12 until 2016.
This Thursday, Oregon will have the chance to see Arizona again, a year removed from one of the biggest blemishes of the Ducks' recent history. Which got us thinking about other big conference upsets -- how did teams respond in those matchups the following season? Well, we’ve got you covered with four different examples.
2007: Stanford 24-No. 2 USC 23
And in 2008 ... No. 6 USC 45-Stanford 23
No. 6 USC played a rough first half and entered halftime tied at 17 with unranked Stanford. But a strong second half propelled USC to a 45-23 win. From the AP write up: "From the highlights of the game played on the video board during warm-ups, to the "Greatest Upset Ever" T-shirts worn by many fans in the crowd, to the Stanford band spelling out the score of last year's game at halftime, the Cardinal did their best to extend the memory.”
2003: No. 13 Kansas State 35-No. 1 Oklahoma 7
Kansas State put up 519 yards of offense against the vaunted Oklahoma defense, giving the Sooners their first loss of the 2003 season (though, they would still go on to play in the BCS Championship, where they endured their second loss of the season, against No. 2 LSU).
And in 2004 ... No. 2 Oklahoma 31-Kansas State 21
The Sooners, like USC in 2004, started slow against the team that had upset it the previous season. Oklahoma had 60 penalty yards midway through the second quarter and started the game with two three-and-outs. But a strong second half -- Adrian Petersen rushed for 104 yards -- propelled the Sooners to the win.
1998: NC State 24-No. 2 Florida State 7
NC State was a 25-point underdog, but managed to make the Seminoles look like the one that was far overmatched. Florida State was riding a 47-1 ACC record heading into this game, but when your quarterback throws six interceptions, it’s pretty hard to win.
And in 1999 ... No. 1 Florida State 42-NC State 11
This year it was the NC State quarterback who struggled, throwing four interceptions and losing two fumbles en route to a 31-point loss. Two of those turnovers resulted in FSU touchdowns, and the FSU kicker made five field goals -- so it wasn’t exactly an impressive performance for the FSU offense, but overall, the Seminoles managed to avenge their upset from the previous season.
1985: Oregon State 21-Washington 20
Oregon State came into this game after being shut out offensively in the two previous games and was a 38-point underdog against the Huskies. With just under four minutes left and the Beavers trailing by six, Oregon State failed to convert a fourth down at its 11 yard line. But minutes later a blocked punt turned into a defensive score and the extra point gave the Beavers the edge they needed for the win.
And in 1986 ... No. 13 Washington 28-Oregon State 12
The Beavers had already lost three games to ranked opponents in 1986 (by a collective score of 103-24) when the Huskies visited Corvallis. They were overmatched for against their fourth top-25 team of the season and ended up with a 16-point home loss to the team they had shocked the year before.
But they got the win and improved to 4-0. Though it’s a perfect record, this team is far from perfect and this week, they will try to get a few steps closer to that benchmark. Here are some areas in which the Ducks must improve before they continue their march toward a Pac-12 title.
1. The offensive line must protect Marcus Mariota better
A true freshman at left tackle isn’t exactly a comforting feeling for anyone. Nor is the idea of a former walk-on at right tackle. Nor is the idea of three guys who could play offensive tackle sitting together with braces on their legs, watching these younger guys struggle so mightily.
OK, so there are a lot of non-comforting feelings. No matter how much that hurts, it probably doesn’t hurt quite as much as Mariota did after being sacked seven times against Washington State.
What is the answer? I’d imagine the Ducks are hoping that Jake Fisher will be healthy enough to play against Arizona next Thursday, and that would relieve some of the stress on at least one side of the line. But, as a whole, this group needs to improve fast. It can’t allow Mariota to be hit seven times. In the perfect world, it can’t allow Mariota to be hit at all.
2. Stop giving up so many big plays
The defense has done well in making in game adjustments this season, but it has been a little too porous a little too often. Already this season, the defense has given up 68 plays of 10-plus yards. To put that in perspective, there are 116 teams that have allowed fewer. TCU leads the country allowing just 16 plays of 10-plus yards. Stanford (19) and Oregon State (25) are both in the top 10.
Of those 68 plays, 21 went for 20-plus yards. That, once again, puts Oregon outside of the top 100 nationally in that category. There are definitely times when statistics don’t say too much, and yes, you can say this isn’t too important because Oregon is 4-0. But the Washington State game and the first half of the Michigan State game (heck, the first quarter of the Wyoming game) would have been much, much different if the defense didn’t allow quite so many big plays.
2b. Be better against the pass
Sixty five percent of opposing quarterback completions have resulted in a first down or a touchdown against Oregon. Again, that’s very, very bad (like No. 113 in the country bad). The average completion against Oregon goes for 11.6 yards. And this isn’t one of those situations where you can say, "Well, teams aren’t completing that many passes against us so who cares if 65 percent of them go for a first down or touchdown?" because you would be wrong. Teams are completing 27 passes per game against Oregon. There are only five teams in the country that have more passes completed against them per game -- BYU, Nevada, Bowling Green, Cal and Indiana.
3. Keep using as many people as possible in the offensive attack
The more the Ducks have four different names show up under the running statistics and eight different names show up under the receiving statistics, the more opposing defensive coordinators are going to shake in their boots.
Royce Freeman is leading the way for the Ducks right now with five rushing touchdowns on 48 carries and Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall have both accounted for one rushing touchdown on 40 carries and 21 carries, respectively. In the pass game, Devon Allen, Keanon Lowe and Marshall have all accounted for at least three receptions per game, and Pharaoh Brown and Darren Carrington both have nine catches this season.
It seems really, really basic to say the problem of abundance is a good one to have. But the Ducks need to keep playing this up, especially given the offensive line problems. If opponents know that every single skill position on the field is one that can burn a defense and make them pay, then maybe they won’t throw the kitchen sink at the offensive line? And if they still do, Oregon fans can be grateful they have a quarterback as smart as Mariota who knows how to get the ball to his arsenal of weapons.
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.
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."
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.
- 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."
- 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."
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.
"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.
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?
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.
Jeremy Langford yet another example of B1G's depth at RB this year. #underrated— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) September 6, 2014
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.
Those points end a 20-0 Michigan State run. What you got, Connor Cook? Or are we officially changing momentum? #MSUvsUO— Ted Miller (@TedMillerRK) September 7, 2014
Well of course the Ducks weren't going to go quietly. Mariota to Devon Allen for a TD, and it's 27-25 Michigan State.— Lindsay Schnell (@LindsayRaeSI) September 7, 2014
MSU's defense in the same position Oregon's was early in the 3rd, desperately needing someone to make a play.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) September 7, 2014
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.
Since the DJ played Outkast here in Autzen Stadium the Ducks have outscored Sparty 14-3.— Spencer Hall (@edsbs) September 7, 2014
That's the best pick we will see all year. Incredible effort by Ekpre-Olomu.— Ivan Maisel (@Ivan_Maisel) September 7, 2014
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.
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.
Zoology class. Expectation: playing with puppies. Reality: Algae. Lots of algae. Dammit Mike.— Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3) August 27, 2014
I just asked my waitress what sport she thought I played. Her answer? Disk golf. Time to reevaluate my life.— Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3) July 8, 2014
Do cows drink milk? Seriously.— Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3) July 25, 2014
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.
Programs Most Desperate for a Quarterback
TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Portland State Washington State TBD Grambling State California TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Virginia UCLA TBD Arkansas State USC TBD Colorado Hawaii TBD Eastern Washington Oregon