Oregon’s Rushing Attack 2021: A Return to Former Glory?

Alex Heining Editorials 32 Comments

The Oregon offense was stagnant all through the COVID-ridden 2020 season, and the ground attack wasn’t doing the team any favors. The Ducks did average 166.7 YPG (yards per game), a mere eight yards under the 2019 season average of 174.9 YPG, but both of these seasons are far and away from the success of 2017 and other similar seasons of dominance when the Ducks were able to average over 250 rushing YPG. 2020 marked the first season since 2016 that the Ducks were outgained on the ground by opponents on a season average, which is something that head coach Mario Cristobal must be harping on in this offseason. Stopping the run is the go-to first rule of being an enforcing defense and Our Beloved Ducks need to better in the defensive trenches in order to give the offensive trenches a chance to reach their full potential.

Unfortunately if there isn’t improvement from the young stars littered on this defense, the Ducks will be in trouble all through the 2021 season. Ohio State is no slouch in the trenches and will be an outstanding first test of both Cristobal’s merit and the Tim DeRuyter led defense. If they’re able to do more than just hold their own, the Oregon offense will be in great shape to impose their will with the outstanding offensive line production we’ve grown accustomed to seeing under coach Cristobal’s miracle-like recruiting seasons. Another schematic question that could arise from this conversation however is: will the Ducks be a run first offense in 2021?

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has to be able to make the passing attack work with even just a serviceable quarterback playing, whether it be Anthony BrownJay Butterfield, or any of the other enticing new recruits including superstar-of-the-future Ty Thompson. But if the run game can be leaned on this season and dynamic quarterback play can take a backseat to a dominant backfield rotation complemented by a “game-managing quarterback” that involves some sure-handed pass catching running backs, will there be enough respect for the potential the Ducks possess at the receiver position for some gashing runs from CJ Verdell, Sean Dollars, and Travis Dye?

Consider this an intro to an offseason long discussion, since all the moving parts we’ll learn more information in the coming weeks with Our Beloved Ducks prepping for a season where we as fans hope to return to Autzen and see for ourselves. I personally would love to see Dollars pop this year and make a major impact on the offense. But at this juncture, how well do you think the offense will prosper in the 2021 running game (and which back do you see leading the team in rushing/scrimmage yards)? Will it be leaned on heavily like years past, or will quarterback play prove to be the first priority in Moorhead’s offense?

Alex Heining
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo by University of Oregon Athletics

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Since MC become head coach, the rushing average has been ~170 yards per game. That is down from ~240 yards/game in the previous five seasons. To me, the question is whether or not the decline is due to a) coaching or b) personnel?

I suspect it is a bit of both. We have all suffered through innumerable, ineffective pistol plunges. In theory, better run play design could improve rushing totals. I also believe that our run scheme is too dependent on superior OL play. In college football, great running backs can more than offset inconsistent OL play. Go back and watch tape from 2010-2012…James and Barner consistently made good gains after avoiding unblocked defenders in the backfield.

That leads to the second point. The talent at RB in the past three seasons has been the weakest in well over a decade. Verdell is effective but cannot stay healthy and also lacks the patience and vision seen in top RBs. Dye is too small (and fumble prone) to be anything but a gadget back in the Pac-12.

I’d like to see improvement this year but I I’m not optimistic based on scheme and personnel.


Great thoughts Alex.
This season has such potential.
But I feel like everything is so new and unproven.
Basically our OC and his offense is new.
Our DC is new.
The TE group is mostly new.
Lot’s of new faces starting in the secondary.
The D line has lots to improve on.
The O line got some practice in last season but admittedly was not as overwhelming as we thought they might be.
We do have talent returning at receiver and running back.
But last and most importantly, the qb is gonna be new.

That’s a lot of newness for one season.

But we have so much talent everywhere but so much untested and unproven talent.
I think we can have a great season, but so much depends on how well the talent on the field plays up to ability and potential.
More than any other year, I feel this years success will be determined by our
coaching. I hope it shows improvement.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

You are completely right; the player talent has to develop, and we need the coaches to develop as well. That will be quite fun to watch…

CJ Verdell headed to the perimeter_Eugene Johnson.jpg

As long as we’re reliant on pistol plunges, I don’t predict a formidable ground game unless AB has a bit of Colin Kaepernick in him. We need a big time running threat at QB that scares the D.

I would really love to see more diversity in our ground game. If we could incorporate some stuff that Chip Kelly does at UCLA, I think that would help big time. Right now we’re too predictable.


Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I cannot open the link due to subscription issues, but we had articles on FishDuck right here and here about Constraint Plays and Sequential plays that I’d love to see again too!


You’ll need a 247 subscription to open, sorry about that

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

No sweat. We have quite a few plays such as those two linked above in our Analysis Library.


The old debate – a good running attack sets up the passing game or a good passing attack sets up the running game – is meaningless if whatever you do is predictable.

Good defenses thrive when the offense is predictable. The end result being 3 and out!

I hope to see more misdirection, counters, and doing the unpredictable from the offense. Last season Moorhead called some exciting plays we hadn’t seen before. But those were a tease.

I want more of his offense!

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Amen Duck-Brother, and I am especially missing the counter. Frankly I loved the way Taggart did it in 2017, but Cristobal dumped that play.

Santa Rosa Duck

I enjoy this forum but almost all here are clearly more qualified to respond to these questions. Having said that, I do think that our running backs will be very good but not necessarily outstanding. Would CJ and Travis replace LaMike and Kenjon? I don’t think so. Our big bruisers most recently like Royce Freeman seem to be not in the pipeline,

As to QB starter against the Ohio State University, I would go with Anthony Brown. His experience will be something we need. Let’s hope he does not get hurt but I would not be surprised to see him lose the starting job this season to either Butterfield or Ashford. Would not be surprised to see Ty Thompson transfer out.

77 days to kickoff at Autzen. Let’s not overlook Fresno State. GO DUCKS!

Jon Sousa

Something I have considered recently is the fact that Ty Thompson may be the most likely to transfer first if someone else beats him to the #2 spot. Patience and hard work is difficult to teach to a young guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ashford rise up to be a 3 year starter. The possibility of injury at QB necessitates starter quality backups in the QB room.


If this offense turns out to be a QB run heavy offense Butterfield and Thompson will both be gone….why would they not be? Both have NFL ambitions and from what can be seen on video they may get there….but not sitting behind Ashford…..and when your down the field throwers leave expect your top end receivers to follow….they want to catch passes not block all day…..there’s a reason Alabama and Clemson for example appear to be more pro-style offense oriented: it attracts potential NFL talent…..a heavy RPO offense will be a losing proposition…..for cry’n out loud you got two big time down the field throwers and a great receiving corp full of young talent and talent up front….they’ll heavily use it or loose it……talent plays or it leaves.


Ashford can throw the ball down the field. He’s got a very strong arm and can run. Mac Jones was a very efficient at rpos at Alabama so if Moorhead brings that to the table, I’m totally on board with it.

Jon Joseph

Mac had one great + many very good RBs behind him + the #1 receiving corps in CFB. An OC in Sark, who,like Kiffin, was in complete control of the O.

Charles take above is spot on. Has the coaching staff improved?


Couldn’t agree more RkyMtnGuy.

Butterfield, Ashford and Thompson….two of the three are likely to enter the portal at some point. If Thompson is truly a 5-star talent, it would be a shame for him to not see quality playing time this season.

I guess the same can be said for Butterfield and Ashford, but it seems like Thompson has the biggest upside. Let’s see what he can do. Regardless, at least one of these guys, and likely two, will be unhappy and transfer.


You and I may be on an island here as there seems to be a lot of support for the Moorhead offense but I’m skeptical….I much prefer a pro-style down the field throwing offense with a QB’s passing ability being a top priority but if Ashford is a quality thrower then so be it……but my gut says give me Butterfield and Thompson over Brown and Ashford…..we’ll soon see. And yes if Ashford is the guy Jay and Ty are history……and hoping the young backs beat out the vets…..just because :).

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

People are already speculating on who will transfer when none of the three have even entered fall camp yet. With all the twists and turns coming up–I am reserving my transfer pick for much later, like at season’s end.

But I do admit it is interesting

Jon Joseph

Thanks Alex.

Yesterday the CFP Management Committee approved a 12 team playoff field. Top 6 ranked conference champions and 6 at large teams. Top 4 receive a 1st round bye. Notre Dame cannot be seeded higher than 5. Play-in games will be played at the home of teams ranked 5 through 8. (I want to see Florida playing at Wisconsin in December.) There will be no re-seeding after the 1st round.

Final decision to be made on 6/22/21 when the Board of Mangers (10 conference commish and ND AD) meet in Dallas. The group that recommended expansion included Greg Sankey of the SEC, the ND AD, B 12’s Bob Bowlsby and the MW commish. Approval of expansion is more than likely.

The 13 person PO Committee will remain in place.

The next question is when will the field expand? Before or after the current deal expires in 2026? To start sooner than 2027, ESPN will have to agree to tear up the current deal. The incentive for ESPN? ESPN has exclusive bargaining rights during the period the initial agreement runs. Do a new deal with ESPN now or wait until FOX, CBS and others can bid for broadcast rights?

The general consensus is that the new PO format will triple at least, the $ now being paid to the P5, G5, ND and BYU.


FWIW. Ben Kercheval of CBS has broken the 2021 QBs, based on previous play, into 4 tiers.

No Pac-12 QB in Tier 1. Slovis and Daniels in Tier 2. Anthony Brown and Charlie Brewer in Tier 3.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

GREAT information Jon–thanks so much. On local Eugene Sports Radio James Crepea spoke of how some conferences such as the Pac-12 want automatic bids for the conference champions of the Power-5.

He also spoke of complications in the future, such as how divisions might get in the way for many conferences, etc. It will be a fun topic to discuss in the future, for sure.

How to handle 9 vs an 8 game schedule? And also avoid the possibility of 17 games being played in one year? Championship week.

3 OOC games. 8 conference games. 9th conference game is Championship Week. 1 vs 2 in Vegas; 4 at 3, etc., played at the home of the team that finished higher.

Get rid of divisions and make sure that the team ranked #1 in the polls plays the team ranked #2 in the polls.

How Pac-12 would it be to have a 8-4 south champ defeat an 11-1 north champ in the champ game with the conference PO shut out?

For conference scheduling purposes go to pods and pod scheduling; SC, UCLA. CAL, Stanford (that play one another every year now under the current scheduling format); Oregon, UW, OSU, WSU and AZ, ASU. CU, Utah make up the pods.

Under the soon to be 12 team PO format divisions make zero sense. Need to have the conference’s 2 best teams playing for the title.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

So many components and each one is an interesting discussion of its own and we will do as it all becomes decided upon.

With these kinds of decisions coming up–I am glad we have a new Pac-12 Commissioner!


I don’t know that the Ducks running game will compare to the Blur days, but I think it will do very well. We have a big, strong and deep offensive line. We have a stacked Tight End group that has had time to adapt to the offensive schemes. We have WR’s to stretch the field. The elements of a productive run offense are in place.

The running back room is one of the best in the country. Now there is depth and possibly a breakout star coming off the bench. The RB’s are multi-skilled and can catch the ball, posing threats to the opposing defenses. This year’s Ducks are inside and outside threats capable of chunk yardage and long yardage plays.

Alex, you seem to doubt our QB talent and depth. Brown is talented, has touch, and he is so much more experienced than Shough was last year. Brown is a warrior with the opportunity of his life ahead, and something to prove to doubters like you. Behind AB we have deep talent waiting to break out and produce. Yes, the backups are inexperienced at the the D1 level, but they are blue chip talent with enough time in the system and enough reps to be ready to lead the offense..

I am confident, with the improved defensive statistics that I fully expect, the offense will have opportunities and be in position to exploit field position and turnovers with scores. Then factor in an expected improvement in Special Teams play.

Let’s see what actually happens when the season begins, but I’m optimistic as heck until proven otherwise.


Your appraisal of Brown’s abilities are spot on. Poor guy seems to upset some fans, like Uncle Buck’s hat, “it makes people angry.”

On the few occasions the camera caught Shough’s eyes behind his face mask in the huddle (or whatever the pre-snap milling around is called) I saw a “deer in the headlights.” I’m pretty sure his teammates saw the same thing.

Brown on the other hand looked calm and collected. I noticed his teammates looking to him after getting their reads and sideline signals. I believe that’s part of what’s referred to as leadership.

In all the recent discussions the themes of talent, which we all agree Oregon has, and improved coaching, which we all hope we will have, the one aspect over looked is team leadership. Who is going to emerge as team leaders?

It may be Brown on offense, who knows? I have yet to see anyone on defense emerge. K T for all his talent appears more of the low key lead by example type. Noah S. does a lot of hoot’n and holler’n after he makes a play but that didn’t appear to be infectious last season.

All this is a lead up to my biggest uncertainty for the up coming season which is, who are these Ducks? What will this teams identity be? Will leaders step up? Or, are these Ducks destined to be a talented but heartless, as in they play well but without passion, sort of team?

Jon Joseph

Great comment by Sir Notalot and great response from you, Logger.

In this day and age of high flying Os, when did the last ‘game manager’ QB win a national championship? You have to look back to Saban’s Bama teams before he brought in Kiffin and opened things up. You cannot win the big games today with a pedestrian O and a great D.

Brown is a good, steady player but he has never started against and defeated a top 25 team. He has a good not great arm and his accuracy is questionable. He’s a good runner but he is running a re-built knee.

I’m torn. Brown has the experience but would it not be better to start one of the young guys in 2021 to get him ready for 2022?

Everyone now gets 1 ‘free transfer.’ Ashford has decided to concentrate on football. If Brown gets the starting nod, I do not expect Ashford, Butterfield and Thompson to stay with the Ducks.

Alex, in this excellent ponder point, did not mention Ashford. But IMO he was the most athletic QB in the spring game and the best dual threat out of the 4.

This O line may grow to be among CFB’s best. But you are not going to win today by simply pounding the rock. You will win a lot of games with a superior roster and a serviciable QB but you will not win a title without a stud at QB.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

You have to average 45 points a game to win the NC, and that is proven. How we score that amount–I am not as particular as I once was, but dumping an offense that was already doing that is one of the worst coaching decisions I’ve seen.

AMEN! You will not win a title today trying to run the clock on O and playing great D.


I love your positive look Notalot!

I agree all those things can happen, but our RB room has at least 2 guys injured and not expected back till after the season starts.

Ashford decided to concentrate on football after he he got beat out for a starting spot at cf.
I expect he will try again next year unless
he plays at qb this year.

I believe we have the most talented qb group we’ve ever had, at least recently.
But only one guy can play.
No way are all 3 of those guys (JB, RA, TT) still here for next season. If AB starts, we lose one for sure.
That said, I think the coaches have led AB to believe the job is his to lose. That’s why Shough left. Unless one of the others plays lights out in fall camp, I believe AB starts.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

I’m not sure I agree with all your position-group projections, but I am agreement on Anthony Brown, and look forward to your take on him in the comments to tomorrow’s article I have written about him.

TEs are deep, but highly inexperienced for the majority of them–but I love the upside.


Joe Moorhead’s Penn State offence gave The Buckeyes fits during his years there. I hope he can do the same come September.

The newly installed D has some improved talent to work with on the front 7, but a loss of talent to the NFL in secondary is concerning. Yet, there is hope. I have more hope for a seasoned vet in Tim D who can coach up a Cal squad and simplify an instalment than I do in the last guy.

2016 Penn St 24, Buckeyes 21
2017 Buckeyes 39, Penn St 38

This years Ducks arguably more talented recruiting wise than those Penn St teams from those years. So we’ll see.

2014 – 247 rating, Oregon 21st, Penn St 24th
2015 – 247 rating, Penn St 14th, Oregon 16th

We all know Mario’s rating from the last few years were all top 10.

Buckeyes will have a newly fresh QB and they tend to lose early in the season, if they lose at all (see Oklahoma, Virginia Tech).


Jon Joseph

Great take. I note that the year OSU lost to Va Tech, the Buckeyes won the national championship.

I imagine the guy who starts at QB for Ohio State will be legit? Would Brown start at Ohio State? I doubt it.

The OSU starting QB will be playing behind an experienced O line and throwing to perhaps the best group of WRs in the country. Both Olave and Wilson are 1st round draft picks. Olave probably would have gone in the 2nd round of last year’s draft.

Great call on Moorhead and PSU battling the Buckeyes. But one of the games you reference was in Happy Valley in front of a 100,000+ White Out crowd. Joe also had a very, very good CFB QB in McSorley. and a 1st round draft pick at RB. And Moorhead was The Guy in charge of the O.

How many Ducks fans will be in Columbus? When will the team arrive in Columbus to hopefully, get ready for a 9 AM Pacific kick off?

Ohio State’s roster – 79% 4 and 5* recruits. The Ducks roster – 56% 4 and 5* recruits.

Does Oregon have a chance? Of course. But it will likely take a perfect game on O, D and Special teams and winning the turnover margin by 2 or more to win this game?

IMO, if Brown isn’t significantly better than 1 of the young QBs, one of the young guys needs to start this game to get ready to open ‘at’ Georgia in 2022.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Good stuff Jon, and as it turns out–I have an article out tomorrow about “Benching Brown” that blends a couple of subjects you enjoy…

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Great info my Canadian friend–thanks!