The Other Side: Oregon

Oregon has proved to be a worthy foe for Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship given its 13-1 record and dominant victory over Florida State in a semifinal. We checked in with an Oregon expert to find out what to expect from the Ducks in this week's version of The Other Side.

Oregon has been on the precipice of a national championship a few times the past couple of seasons but hasn't been able to get over the hump, losing the 2010 title game to Auburn among other close calls.

Now the Ducks are back, and they boast the usual assortment of offensive weapons including Heisman winner Marcus Mariota. But what do Ohio State fans need to know about Oregon heading into Monday's national title game?

We reached out to Stephen Summers of our Oregon site, eDuck, to find out more in this week's version of The Other Side.

1. Can Marcus Mariota be rattled at all? What has it been like watching a quarterback who has thrown 40 touchdowns and just three interceptions?
We haven’t seen him rattled yet, at least not from the press box, so we don’t know if he can be. I think what you see in interviews and so on really is a good insight to the guy. He is one of the most genuine people that I’ve ever met. He patiently and politely waits for questions to be asked, and he always gives the person asking him a question his full attention.

Following Mariota’s redshirt freshman season, Mark Helfrich told me that what the Ducks had to work on with Mariota was him being more vocal with his teammates. Mariota had all the physical skills to be the starter but Helfrich thought the quarterback needed to talk more to his teammates, whether it be congratulating someone for a good catch or block to just being more of a vocal leader. Mariota is not flashy guy who does a lot of talking. His actions are way louder.

What has been like watching him play? There you go, 40 touchdowns, three interceptions. He’s the guy you’d expect the coach to toss the ball and say, “Here Marcus, go out and make a play.”

And then he does.

The only blemish on him is a speeding ticket, and that was when he was coming home from being Big Brother at a Boys and Girls Club camp.

The police officer who cited him for speeding said, Mariota was polite and appropriately cooperative.

What are hardened, cynical beat writers to do?

2. A team can't have the offensive success of Oregon without a strong offensive line. How good have the Ducks been in this regard?
The Ducks struggled in two games this season. One against Washington State and the other the sole loss for the season to Arizona; in both cases the Ducks were without a senior leader on the offensive line – Jake Fisher. Following the loss to Arizona, Oregon traveled to the Rose Bowl to play UCLA and it marked Fisher’s return to the lineup. What resulted was a 42-30 road win for the Ducks and from that point on Oregon has recorded eight straight wins by double digits and with 42 points scored against UCLA being the least amount scored.

The Ducks also lost senior center Hroniss Grasu for the last two games of the regular season against Colorado and the Civil War against Oregon State, plus the Pac-12 Championship Game against Arizona. Interestingly, the Ducks didn’t seem to miss a beat as senior Hamani Stevens switched from his guard position to be the center in Grasu’s absence. Grasu was back in action against Florida State.

The Oregon offensive line isn’t the biggest line you will see, and while there is plenty of height and length, there isn’t anyone over 310 pounds (if that) on that line. By the way, that isn’t by accident either. What the coaches have told me is that they want the svelte-types for linemen because of the quickness and agility, plus with the pace the Ducks want the tempo to be at, they have guys who can get back to the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible.

Statistically, Oregon averaged 552.1 yards per game, 241.9 rushing and 310.3 passing, and most importantly 47.2 points per game scoring.

Fisher, Grasu and Stevens are the leaders and glue to hold this line together but they get plenty of help from some very talented underclassmen. Senior Andre Yruretagoyena missed a fair amount of the year but was back for the conference championship game and the Rose Bowl, so the Ducks will be in pretty shape headed into the NC Game next week.

3. While Oregon's offense has received most of the press, the defense seems to be playing much better of late. What have the Ducks done well since giving up 41 points vs. Cal?
I think the maturation of the defense goes along with the maturation of the first-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum. Now, don’t get me wrong, Pellum has been a football coach for more than 20 years but he was the linebacker coach and some wondered what kind of coordinator he would be. I think all those questions have been answered as we see the Ducks get great play out of the defensive front particularly junior DEs Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. Both are very tall and rangy, able to cover two gaps and have excellent first steps to get around offensive linemen. Junior defensive tackle Alex Balducci is 6-5 but maybe 300 pounds, but he’s very strong and mobile and has really held his own. Typically a nose tackle would be somebody like former Oregon player Haloti Ngata – a monster – but again as with the offensive linemen, the coaches tell me that what they want are the longer, leaner players who are quick and can cover a lot of ground.

I think the biggest thing Pellum has done trusts his athletes to make plays. I remember interviewing a player following a loss years ago, and they guy had the most disgusted look on his face and said, “People talk about schemes, but what it really comes down to is somebody making a play.”

That’s what seems to have happened since the Cal game, the athletes making plays. The Ducks will show all kinds of schemes. They mix up zone coverage with man-to-man. They drop back the DEs into pass coverage, they’ll have the linebackers blitz; they’ll stack up the box to stop the running attack similarly to what happened in the Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl games.

Oregon lost its best defensive back, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and there was a lot of concern on the part of Duck fans (and perhaps some licking of the chops by FSU fans) when the news of his injury broke. However, Troy Hill became the captain of the defensive backfield and the Ducks did a pretty good job against a very good passer in Jameis Winston.

I’m still not quite sure if I want to say it was great Oregon defense, conditioning or some horrible luck for FSU that caused all those turnovers in the Rose Bowl. I’ll take the easy way out and say it was probably a combination of all the above, but there is no disputing that the Oregon defense gave up an average of 22.3 ppg, which was second in the Pac-12 Conference to Stanford.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention that luck sometimes plays a factor for the Oregon defense. Tony Washington picked up Winston’s fumble after the Heisman Trophy winner slipped, and Washington rumbled some 50 plus yards for a TD; but that wasn’t the most unusual play of the year.

The defensive play of the year had to be during the Utah game in Salt Lake City when the Utes Kaelin Clay had a breakaway touchdown that would have put Utah up over Oregon 13-0, but Clay, for some unknown reason, dropped the ball just before crossing the goal line before proceeding into the end zone to celebrate the score along with teammates. The home crowd was going crazy, the Utes were jumping and down and only one player in a Utah uniform noticed that the line judge hadn’t signaled a touchdown. Oregon’s Erik Dargan and Joe Walker however did notice. Dargin picked the ball up, looked at the ref and ref looked right back at him -- it was a fumble. Dargan started to run but ran into the only Ute who realized it was a live ball, and the little collision caused Dargan to fumble the ball. Walker picked the ball up and ran 100 yards the other way for an Oregon touchdown.

Maybe it was luck, maybe it was being aware, but for sure that play has gone viral on YouTube.

4. What maybe separates this Oregon team from some of the other ones who have come very close to getting to the top of the mountain but haven't been able to get over the top?
I think the overall talent is better and it sure helps to have the best player in college football handling ball on every snap. I don’t see any weak spots on this team, but then again I didn’t see too many on the team that played Auburn in the BCS Championship Game that was decided on the last play of the game with a field goal.

The team that lost to Ohio State in 2010 was pretty good and maybe the big difference was that was Chip Kelly’s first time on a really big stage.

Kelly just missed a national championship the year after and in 2012 against Wisconsin the Ducks might have gone further had there been a playoff.

However, I think the one difference is having Mariota on this squad. There was never anyone quite like him before.

5. Mark Helfrich is pretty anonymous nationally, but what has he done to get the team to this point, and how would you describe the second-year coach?
Mark Helfrich is a very smart man. He doesn’t ever seem rattled. I’ve never seen him yell at players and he has a very upbeat attitude. Chip Kelly’s influence is still very much present and it would help in answering this question if the Ducks let local media into practice – but they don’t. So I’ll have to guess.

When Helfrich first took over, most had some skepticism as to just how successful he would be. In his first year the Ducks went 11-2 but many felt had Kelly stayed the Ducks would have been competing for a BCS championship. The losses to Stanford and Arizona were big minus checkmarks, but the win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl in Mack Brown’s last season was a big plus. Recruiting went well last year and the Ducks overcame adversity in the loss to Arizona, but end up in the title game. Huge positive checkmarks!

The one thing I’ve noticed is when asked a question by local media, he goes off on all kinds directions in the answer, and sometimes not really answering the question he was asked.

He doesn’t really do that with national media though.

Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

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