Well, there we have it. Another Ducks win by double digits, Oregon beats Cal for the sixth straight time, and the collegiate history at Levi’s Stadium gets kicked off with a Ducks win.
As of right now, if the season ended today, Oregon would make the first ever College Football Playoff (loud cheers heard throughout Eugene). Experts predict it would be the Ducks, Ole Miss [EIC note: article was submitted priot to the Rebels’ 10-7 loss to LSU Saturday night.], Mississippi State, and Florida State. FSU looks like a shadow of their former selves, Ole Miss’s offense is questionable, and Mississippi State could just be overperforming. The teams that really scare us, teams like Alabama, Baylor, and Oklahoma, are all sitting on the outside looking in. So, for now, life is pretty good as a Duck fan.
But, as always, there’s a catch. The Ducks are not — and I repeat, are not — a championship team. Yes, we have Marcus Mariota. Yes, we have the fifth-best offense in all of College Football. Yes, we’ve only lost one flukish game. But, do you know what we don’t have? A championship caliber defense. If you’ve watched any of the Duck games so far I’m sure you’re already aware of this, but our defense is just nowhere near where it needs to be if we’re going to win it all. They make bad pass interference penalties, they leave wide sections of the field open, and they miss a lot of tackles.
With that in mind, I watched Friday night’s game closely, taking down notes of everything I felt that was worth mentioning. By the end of the night, I had four pages of notes. Since if I decided to write it all out I’d have a short novellette, here is a compacted version of the Top 10 things I noticed from the Cal game:
- Mariota is still pretty good at football.
- Our defense settled down nicely in the second half.
- Byron Marshall should no longer be listed as a “RB”, but instead just as “offensive sparkplug.”
- Charles Nelson won the Punt Return of the Year award.
On to the notes …
1: Mariota is still the best player in college football, despite (gasp) throwing his first interception.
Can you name all the quarterbacks in college football coming into this Saturday with at least 24 touchdowns and fewer than five interceptions? I can! Marcus Mariota and Jared Goff, the two quarterbacks from Friday night. Granted, not all the games from this week are finished, but still I don’t expect that list to grow by much. Marcus has an outstanding 24-1 TD-to-INT ratio and throwing one pick does not coincide with the end of Oregon football as we know it. Before that pick, in his last 608 attempts, he’d thrown only two interceptions. To put that in perspective, every time Mariota throws the ball there is a .3% chance he will throw an interception. That is stellar. All I can say is I feel so lucky to be able to see this guy before he hits the pros, because boy does he have a bright future.
2: The Duck run defense is just atrocious, and we need to fix it ASAP.
No offense to any of the teams we’ve played so far, but none of them have had a truly good running back. The closest was Paul Perkins of UCLA, and he and the Bruins gashed us for 328 yards while averaging more than six yards per carry. Against Cal, the Duck D wasn’t much of a different story. The Bears’ RB Daniel Lasco averaged 5.7 yards per carry, and the defense gave up just under 200 total yards on the ground.
The Ducks know this, but I’ll say it anyway: These numbers won’t cut it come playoff time when the big boys come out to play. Against Cal I was hoping to see the defense step up and prove that they’re ready to play against CFB’s elite, but as of right now they aren’t close to being ready for that level of competition.
3: The Ducks best form of offense might just be our special teams.
The defense didn’t get Cal off the field a whole lot, but when we did our special teams returners made them pay. Devon Allen returned three kickoffs, averaging 33 yard per return including one 45-yarder he almost broke for the TD. Also, as I mentioned above Nelson had maybe the best punt return I’ve ever seen aside from DeSean Jackson’s marvel vs. the Giants.
4: On the contrary, every time the Ducks have to kick my heart stops.
Field goals, punts, kick offs, even extra points, all of these are a gamble if you’re the Oregon Ducks. Friday night our punter averaged under 30 yards per kick, and that included a 17-yard dink that luckily we got back thanks to a nice play on defense to force a Goff fumble. Every kick looks like it’s hard work, and often times the kicker — be that Matt Wogan or Aidan Schneider –– barely even sneaks in the extra point. I mean, we’ve already missed three XP’s on the season and we haven’t hit a field goal of more than 34 yards. Thank God we’re so good at converting on fourth down (71.4%), or we might be in serious trouble.
5: Thomas Tyner’s health might not matter if Royce Freeman continues to perform at superhuman levels.
In Week 3 of the Ducks’ season, the running splits based on carries looked like this: Freeman (5), Marshall (6), Mariota (5), Tyner (11), and Other (9). Skip ahead five games to the Cal game and the splits are Freeman (22), Marshall (7), Mariota (6), and Other (11).
Although Freeman’s major upgrade in workload is credited to Tyner’s shoulder injury, Royce is proving he deserves Oregon’s lead back label. Over the past two games, Freeman has rushed a total of 51 times for 281 yards and six touchdowns. Against Cal, he averaged more than five yards per carry while also manhandling any and every defender that game his way.
6: Byron Marshall is great for the big play.
Even though I think Marshall shouldn’t be considered a running back, that does not mean he shouldn’t be used out of the backfield. Whether it’s screen passes, wheel routes or fly sweeps, Marshall just seems to make plays happen. He touched the ball a total of 11 times, totalling 190 yards (an average of 17.25 yards per touch) including a 54-yard touchdown catch. Moving forward, I expect Marshall to become an even bigger part of the Duck offense and for Offensive Coordinator Scott Frost to look for new ways to incorporate him into the offense. He’s like the Duck version of Percy Harvin.
7: Talented offenses give our defense nightmares.
What do Washington State, UCLA, and now Cal all have in common? They’re all in the Top 20 of college football’s best offenses, and they’ve also all been able to score 30 or more points against the Ducks. WSU got 31, UCLA got 30, and now Cal put up 41 against us. Come playoff time, when we have to play an SEC defense that will actually challenge our offense, this could become a very serious problem.
Right now, because the Ducks have Mariota, we will win in a shootout. But you never know. If Alabama sneaks into the playoffs, they have a Top 20 offense, as well as a very solid defense. That could be our demise. Baylor could put up a serious fight too, since there is a good chance that they might be one team we just couldn’t outscore. We need a defense that can get a good opposing offense off the field, and right now we just simply aren’t there. If Cal could put up 41, just imagine what Baylor or TCU could do …
8: The big guys need love too!
Wide receiver Dwayne Stanford and tight end Pharaoh Brown have combined for 16 catches, 287 yards, and five touchdowns over the past two games. Stanford is 6’5″, and Brown is listed as 6’6″. Together, the two are an absolute matchup nightmare on seam routes, and Mariota has recently had little trouble finding the big guys. If these two continue this level of production, it will open the field up for other athletes such as Allen and Marshall, who are both great in space.
9: One thing we can do on defense is get to the quarterback and force turnovers.
Through eight games Oregon has 23 sacks on the season, as well as 16 forced turnovers. Friday night both of these talents were on display as our defense was credited with three sacks and two forced fumbles. Our defensive line is doing a great job putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and players such as Tony Washington and DeForest Buckner have been taking advantage of it.
Against Cal, this particular ability came in mighty handy when the Bears benefited from punter Ian Wheeler’s 17-yard shank of a kick. They had the ball inside the Duck 40-yard line, but thanks to a great pass rush, Goff coughed the ball up and the Ducks regained the momentum.
10: Did we just repeat jerseys?!?
Forget how good Mariota is, forget how bad the defense is. UO football has and will forever be about fashion, ladies and gents, and I will not stand for wearing the same jersey on the road in back-to-back games. I get that the helmets are a little different, but Nike, you’re cutting it close.
Seriously Phil, one more slip up like this and I’m transferring to OSU.
Top photo by John Guistina