Since current Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene to become the Oregon offensive coordinator in 2007, the Ducks’ offense has been one of college football’s most dynamic juggernauts.
Kelly and his successor, current Ducks’ head coach Mark Helfrich, transformed the Oregon program with a spread offense predicated on gashing opposing defenses with a vaunted rushing attack.
While the spread first gained widespread attention in the football world thanks to Air Raid passing offenses, Kelly and Helfrich’s run-oriented approach unleashed a new challenge that has given defensive coordinators headaches for the better part of a decade.
Though the offensive revolution hasn’t paved the way to a coveted national title, the Ducks have twice finished as runners-up in the National Championship game including in last year’s inaugural College Football Playoff.
This season, the Ducks haven’t quite lived up to the lofty preseason expectations the program annually generates, but Oregon still possesses one of the nation’s best rushing offenses.
Led by the country’s seventh leading rusher, sophomore running back Royce Freeman, the Ducks’ 297.4 yards per game average ranks sixth nationally, and third among teams that don’t run the triple option offense.
Even with outstanding rushing numbers and an All-Conference-caliber back leading the way, the Ducks are still just 4-3, needing a victory to remain in the conversation for a Pac-12 Championship.
Though many of the Ducks’ issues this season can be attributed to instability at the quarterback position and a lack of assignment soundness defensively, ASU’s coaches and players still offered high praise for Oregon’s playmakers.
While Oregon has struggled to a 4-3 record out of the gate, Helfrich has continued to stockpile electric athletes at skill positions on offense. ASU redshirt junior Spur linebacker @Laiu Moeakiola said the combination of the Ducks’ athletes and scheme makes Oregon a dangerous opponent.
“They (Oregon) got a great team, they’ve got a lot of athletes,” Moeakiola said. “They do a lot of good things with the players they got, but coming off a great win and they do a lot of great things with their layers off the perimeter. They give the playmakers the ball.”
ASU’s run defense ranks among the best in the Pac-12, and the Sun Devils have made a habit out of wreaking havoc in opposing backfields, notching an FBS-best 9.9 tackles for loss per game.
The Sun Devils have thrived against the run thanks to the execution of their defensive front, which has helped limit notable running backs like Utah’s Devontae Booker and UCLA’s Paul Perkins. However, ASU has the benefit of being more familiar against South Division foes like the Bruins and the Utes.
When the Sun Devils square off against the Ducks on Thursday, it will mark the first meeting between the two programs since 2012, but sophomore defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood said ASU is excited about the opportunity of playing against a run-based powerhouse.
“They (Oregon) run the ball very well,” Smallwood said. “They are a fast-paced offense. Oregon, they’re putting up points every year. They’re a powerhouse offensively and it’s going to be exciting. I’ve never played against an offense like that and we play good teams like that, Arizona kind of runs the same offense, but it will be exciting just to play Oregon. They play the ball very well, they’re good up front so it’s exciting.”
After holding backs like Booker and Perkins under the 100-yard plateau, ASU knows it might have a tougher time achieving the same feat against Freeman. At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, Freeman is a physical, downhill runner whose style makes him an even more imposing runner considering the Ducks’ scheme.
When Oregon spreads the field with four wide receivers and allows Freeman to run between the tackles, running lanes often get wider and opposing defenders have a tougher time making one-on-one stops because of Freeman’s pad level.
“The thing about him (Freeman) is he’s big and he runs behind his pads,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “He gives you nothing but hard surfaces when he’s running, so he rolls those pads over toward the defense and he makes you make a decision, are you going to come tackle me or not. If you try to stay up high you’re going to bounce off of him a lot of times, so we have to be really good at being explosive, stopping the engine and running through the hip.”
With a 6.6 yards per carry average, Freeman leads all Pac-12 rushers among backs with at least 75 carries this season. In a conference where four or five players could lay claim to the title of “Best Pac-12 running back,” ASU defensive line coach Jackie Shipp said Freeman might be at the top of the class.
“You have to stop 21 (Freeman), he’s a heck of a back, might be the best back in the Pac-12,” Shipp said. “He might be the best, so you’ve got to tackle, you’ve got to wrap him up, you’ve got to put your face on him, you’ve got to stop the run first. Then you’ve got to try to make them throw the ball.”
Freeman was forced to shoulder the load for the Ducks for the majority of the season’s first half, as an injury to redshirt senior quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., and a suspension for redshirt sophomore wide receiver Darren Carrington took away another weapon from Oregon’s receiving corps.
Now that both players are back in the lineup, the Ducks’ offensive attack becomes more versatile, and Patterson said Freeman will also benefit from a scheme that eases the pressure on running backs by pulling defenders out of the box.
“I do because when you have that kind of speed at wide receiver where you can stretch the field horizontally and vertically, that opens up run lanes up inside because you can’t just cram everybody inside the box and focus on stopping the run,” Patterson said. “They’re a challenge, no doubt, but I think we’ve got a good plan, and it does start with stopping the run.”
Perhaps no factor is more important in the Ducks’ overall offensive output than the health of Adams. After a finger injury caused him to miss three of the Ducks’ previous four games, the Eastern Washington transfer returned to lead Oregon to a 26-20 victory over Washington last Saturday.
Adams provides much-needed stability for the Ducks, but Moeakiola also highlighted the fact he brings a play-making component to Oregon’s attack that Adams’s backups simply can’t compete with.
“He’s (Adams) a great quarterback,” Moeakiola said. “He leads that offense. He does a great job keeping him in control of that offense. He does a great job of extending plays and getting out of the pocket and making plays happen when they’re not there. He’s a great quarterback.”
Dating back to his time at Eastern Washington, Adams’s rushing totals have never been prolific, but his ability to scramble and make plays on the run impacts the way a defense has to approach each play.
Smallwood said facing Adams requires ASU’s defensive front to remain even more disciplined in its rush lanes and to be cognizant of his ability to escape the pocket.
“It affects the rush lanes,” Smallwood said. “Quarterbacks that sit in the backfield, not very mobile, sometimes as a front we get in the rush lanes and even they have a chance to get out. This is a very mobile quarterback. He’s good on his feet, he extends plays with his feet, we have to make sure we keep our rush lanes when rushing them, rushing the passer.”
Adams’ rushing capabilities don’t only alter the responsibilities of the down linemen, but they also force ASU’s defensive backs and linebackers to stay in coverage longer. One of the byproducts of Adams’ speed and evasiveness is an ability to keep his eyes downfield and locked in on receivers, which is a perfect match for a team like Oregon that loves the home run play.
“It makes you play assignment football,” Moeakiola said. “It keeps you sound and making sure every one is accountable for their guy and that’s how they hit home run touchdowns like that, it’s just finding the lull in that defense and taking advantage of it.”
Offensively, Oregon’s opponents have had no problem hitting on home run plays this season. The Ducks rank last in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 36.0 points per game, and Oregon’s issues in the secondary are a primary contributor to that total.
Redshirt senior wide receiver Devin Lucien likened the Ducks’ struggles in the secondary to what ASU is going through offensively. Lucien said he’s accustomed to Oregon having an opportunistic defensive backfield, and he thinks the bye week could help the Ducks get out of a rut.
“I just feel like maybe they’re just having the same struggles that we’re having with executing,” Lucien said. “We have struggled as an offense to make the same plays that ASU was capable of making last year and probably Oregon is going through the same thing. So I’m sure they’re taking their bye week as seriously as we are.”
The Ducks allow a conference-worst 306.6 yards per game through the air, but even with the missed assignments and downfield plays Oregon has surrendered, redshirt senior wide receiver Gary Chambers still sees the same type of dynamic athletes the Ducks are accustomed to having in their secondary.
After not playing against the Ducks since 2012, Chambers said not much has changed schematically for an Oregon team that has commanded attention from ASU even in the years the teams don’t face each other.
“Looking at the film, it’s definitely a different Oregon team than we’ve seen in the past,” Chambers said. “But they do a lot of the same things. They’re an athletic team and we know that going into the game. You tend to watch, they were just in the National Championship, so it’s a fun thing to be able to play somebody like that that was where we want to be, so watching them play throughout the week was definitely good.”
While Oregon hasn’t fared well against the pass this season, the Ducks have produced better results against the run thanks to the play of an elite defensive lineman, senior DeForest Buckner
Buckner plays all over the defensive front for the Ducks, and his 9.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks are far and away the best totals for any Oregon defender.
The Hawaii native is a matchup nightmare thanks to his rare blend of size (6-foot-7, 300 pounds) and speed, and senior center Nick Kelly acknowledged Buckner is also technically sound.
“He’s a great athlete, 6-foot-7, 290, big guy, he uses his technique well and he’s a good player,” Kelly said.
Buckner’s capabilities are such an important factor for Oregon’s defense that Chambers said even ASU’s wide receivers have been made aware of the threat he poses.
Chambers said ASU’s offense will be keeping tabs on how quickly Buckner and the rest of the defensive front gets to the quarterback, and adjust accordingly.
“As a wide receiver, as an offensive player, you tend to watch the whole entire defense,” Chambers said. “Everything is affected by everything. If Berco (ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici) is getting a lot of pressure, that will affect us and the rest just kind of goes down the line. You see different guys shine and different guys do a lot of things, but we’ve been preparing as much as possible.”
Buckner is just another example of the type of athlete Oregon has had at its disposal over the past few seasons. With lengthy, rangy playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Ducks have used their speed to wear down opponents over the course of a game, and in turn, a season.
Though Oregon didn’t sprint off the blocks at the beginning of this season, the Ducks are adding pieces to the fold as they return to full health off a bye week, which makes ASU’s task even tougher on Thursday night.