Over the last five years, Oregon’s offense has been the stuff of legend, with playmakers galore and a scheme designed to push defenses to their limits with up-tempo play and an explosive rushing attack. It’s been remarkably successful, with Chip Kelly putting together some excellent offensive attacks, especially through his last three years, before handing over the reins to his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich.
Helfrich has continued the success, but has added some of his own wrinkles. Where Kelly was predominantly focused on the rush, to the tune of a 1.61 rush-to-pass ratio in his time at Oregon as both a coordinator and head coach (culminating in his final year with an astounding 1.83 rush-to-pass ratio), Helfrich has leaned a bit more heavily on the pass, with a 1.38 rush-to-pass ratio. Much of that may be due to the arm talent of redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota (which we’ll get to), but there was talk immediately after Helfrich took over that he would blend a few more of the passing elements of the spread into Oregon’s successful scheme. So far, the results have been good, with Oregon still averaging over 6.0 yards per rush through the 18 games of the Helfrich era and a robust 9.76 yards per pass attempt.
There have been some changes, however, that may have had some mixed results. The heavier reliance on passing has slowed the tempo a bit, with Oregon averaging 2.68 plays per minute this year after averaging over 2.9 through the last three years of the Kelly era. For comparison, UCLA’s decently up-tempo scheme is averaging 2.64 plays per minute, making the two offenses pretty similar in terms of tempo. Even with the slight changes in approach, though, it’s clear that Helfrich is more than capable of continuing the offensive success of Kelly — as long as he has reasonable health at key positions.
It isn’t a good offensive line, not by a long stretch, and the ramifications have been felt across the offense, especially in the running game. Oregon has made a name for itself over the last 5 years by averaging 6+ yards per rush, but this year the Ducks are hovering around 5.3 yards per rush, and the numbers are dropping every week. Against Arizona last week, Oregon averaged just 3.5 yards per rush; against Washington State the week before, the Ducks averaged just 4.1. It’s a disconcerting trend for an offense that has spent much of these last six years building a reputation as one of the most devastating rushing attacks in the country.
Of course, Oregon does have an incredibly talented safety net in Mariota (6'4, 219). The quarterback has been one of the best players in college football since he started as a redshirt freshman in 2012, and this year, he has taken his game to new heights to compensate for the inability to run the ball effectively. Against Washington State two weeks ago, despite the many issues Oregon was having up front, Mariota completed 21 of 25 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns — while being sacked seven times. And then last week against Arizona, despite being sacked an additional five times, Mariota completed 20 of 34 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns (in addition to catching a touchdown), and several of those incompletions were absolute drops by wide open receivers. Before, when Oregon was racking up incredible numbers with the likes of Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback, it would have been fair to say that it was the system, and not necessarily the players in the system, that was elite. Now, there’s a very easy argument to make that, for the first time, the success of Oregon’s offense has hinged very much so on one player. Without Mariota, the Ducks would be having a great deal of trouble moving the ball right now. He’s the great equalizer, and with Oregon’s continued success recruiting skill-position players, he makes the offense dangerous whenever he’s given a bit of a window to throw.
It does appear, though, that Mariota was a bit banged up last week (as you might imagine after he’s been sacked 12 times in two games). He only ran the ball four times (discounting sacks) against Arizona, and didn’t look explosive. When Mariota can’t or won’t run, it takes away one of the most dangerous elements of the Oregon offense, as we saw through the latter half of last season. With the continued issues Oregon is having running the ball from scrimmage, not having Mariota as a real weapon with his legs makes the Ducks offense truly one-dimensional.
At receiver, redshirt freshman Devon Allen (6'0, 185) has emerged as truly explosive threat. He’s averaging almost 20 yards per catch as the second-leading receiver on the team, and his speed makes him a very difficult cover in man-to-man. He’s already scored six touchdowns this year, with many of those coming on long receptions. Redshirt senior Keanon Lowe (5'9, 186) is the other main threat to watch out for in the passing game. He’s not quite the speedster that Allen is, but does have very good speed. He is quick and can make plays in the open field after the catch. Pharaoh Brown (6'6, 250), the junior tight end, provides a big body over the middle and has been an effective red zone target for Mariota this year. Perhaps more important, given Oregon’s issues, he’s been an effective blocker on the edge when called upon, and if pass protection becomes an issue this week, we could see him lining up tight and providing assistance to the tackles. Redshirt sophomore Dwayne Stanford (6'5, 201), the big target, and redshirt freshman Darren Carrington (6'2, 191), another speedy receiver, fill out Mariota’s talented receiver rotation.
UCLA’s defense has been much-maligned for its performance against Utah on Saturday, and for good reason. The Utes rushed for 242 yards against UCLA, but it was the fashion in which Utah was able to gain those yards that was most disconcerting. Utah clearly made an effort to exploit a personnel mismatch in the defensive line, running at 215-pound Deon Hollins at every critical moment, and the Bruins didn’t adjust quickly enough. Hollins, who has shown some ability as a pass rusher this year, wasn’t disciplined enough against the Utes and isn’t big enough to hold up against an offense geared toward running downhill at him.
That said, we were encouraged by the game plan that UCLA had for Travis Wilson. For the first time this year, in fact, UCLA seemed completely and totally prepared for the scheme they were facing. The Bruins opted for plenty of nickel with some new pressure packages that seemed to rattle Wilson early. In fact, the scheme was almost too successful through the first three series, because it made it clear to Kyle Whittingham that he needed to make a drastic change to win the game, inserting Kendal Thompson. That UCLA didn’t adjust quickly (or successfully) is a continuing substantial worry, but the game plan would have been a successful one against Wilson and the attack the Bruins had every reason to believe they’d face, which is a step in the right direction.
UCLA’s defensive line, aside from the issues in containment that Hollins had on the edge, was mostly very good against Utah. Kenneth Clark has been stout all year in the middle, but Eddie Vanderdoes has come on in the last two games and had probably his two best games of the year. He finally looks recovered and in-shape after offseason surgery. Owamagbe Odighizuwa had probably his best day getting into the backfield since returning to the field after sitting out last year. UCLA has had a dropoff, though, when going to the second unit, with Ellis McCarthy, in particular, struggling to play with a low enough pad level to be very effective in stopping the run. Eli Ankou has been serviceable, and the freshmen, Matt Dickerson and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, have shown some flashes, but there hasn’t been a great deal of consistency. The hope is that junior college transfer Takkarist McKinley can continue to progress and become one of the main cogs in the rotation going forward. He seemed to be getting many of the reps directly behind Odighizuwa during the Utah game.
The secondary had some issues last week against Utah, which has been the common theme throughout the year. Fabian Moreau had a couple of odd plays against the Utes, inexplicably slowing up on Dres Anderson’s touchdown catch down the sideline when he was running stride-for-stride with him and then interfering with a receiver during the 4th quarter when he probably could have played the ball successfully. He hasn’t been as bad as some have made him out to be (he’s actually been pretty close to batting away several of the balls caught on him, and has had to recover for some mistakes made by the safeties), but compared to how he was playing throughout spring and through San Bernardino, it’s clear something isn’t translating from practice to games.
Ishmael Adams and Anthony Jefferson switched positions over the past two weeks, with Adams going to safety and Jefferson going to corner. Jefferson did a nice job against Utah, but Adams seemed to struggle a little at safety, not providing much in run support and then also playing the Anderson touchdown pass poorly. We wouldn’t be shocked if he goes back to playing more nickel/corner going forward. At the other safety spot, Jaleel Wadood has been mostly good, especially for a freshman. He’s shown ability to play in the box, despite giving up some size, and he’s been a sure tackler. His pass defense leaves a bit to be desired, but to play as well as he’s played as a freshman is impressive.
Oregon gets the advantage here, clearly, but it’s not as big of an edge as you might think. The Ducks have shown some real flaws in the last two weeks against Arizona and Washington State, and neither of those two teams has a very good defense. Oregon’s issues on the offensive line are very real, and very similar to the somewhat catastrophic issues UCLA experience on the line last season.
The issue for UCLA is Mariota. He’s an elite passer, and despite the twelve sacks in the last two weeks, he doesn’t get rattled easily. He’s still yet to throw an interception this year, and he’s been excellent fitting the ball into narrow windows all year. If his receivers had shown slightly better hands against the Wildcats last week, Oregon might have won that game, and the entire credit would have fallen on Mariota’s shoulders.
UCLA has yet to show the capability to really pressure a quarterback consistently. To do it effectively against Oregon, you really need to be able to generate pressure with four, or, at most, five, especially with the way the Ducks can throw the ball these days. While there’s some reason to think that Odighizuwa and Hollins can generate some pressure off the edge against Oregon’s under-talented tackles, the question is whether it can be consistent enough to rattle Mariota and force him into uncomfortable situations.
It’s not a good team to blitz, unless those blitzes can arrive very quickly. Mariota has the poise of a professional quarterback, with the ability to complete passes under significant pressure. We’d imagine the Bruins will recognize this and play mostly to contain the running game, with more base defense than they’ve shown this year. This is a game where it would be very good for Myles Jack to come out of his funk a little bit and play great on the edge, because UCLA will need his speed to keep Mariota in the pocket.
The hope for UCLA is that Mariota is hobbled enough that he won’t be able to run the zone read effectively. Against Arizona last week, most of the time Mariota handed off on the zone read, likely because he is a bit dinged up. If he’s gotten substantially healthier in the last week, that could spell real trouble for a UCLA defense that showed an inability to play the zone read (or edge containment) effectively last week against Utah.
As we said, though, we were encouraged last week by the game plan UCLA had ready for Wilson, and it makes us a bit more confident that the Bruins will develop an effective game plan for the Ducks this week.