This weekend exposed two of the top three consensus teams in the Pac-12 this season as USC and Washington were both in fights for their undefeated survival, while Oregon cruised past Stanford. What has become apparent between these three teams is that USC and Washington are built in very similar ways. They both have great quarterbacks and rely heavily on their passing game. Both Michael Penix and Caleb Williams have some of the most hype around them for Heisman because of their systems, which benefit their quarterback and receiver play.
What is also apparent between these two teams is their line play on both sides of the ball. Both teams have offensive lines that are good enough to protect their quarterbacks against the level of play they have encountered so far, but neither team has faced a Top 20 scoring defense to date, nor has Oregon for that matter. Mr. FishDuck pulled himself from studying FanDuel NFL Lines, and NFL Fanduel Research to ponder the Pac-12’s best with me.
There is a trend where these offensive lines cave under pressure but give their quarterbacks just enough time for their talented receivers to get open and allow for clean throws. Additionally, because of their lackluster line play, neither team really has much of a run game. The vast majority of the offense functions through the arms of their quarterbacks.
On the other side of the ball, both USC and Washington were exposed defensively as both gave up 30+ points to opponents, and they should have overwhelmed. In USC’s case they gave up 41 points to Colorado who only managed to score six against Oregon the previous week, and those six came against Oregon’s back-ups late in the fourth quarter. Colorado and Arizona both also found success in their run games against USC and Washington.
The only bright spots on their defenses were that they were able to get some pressure on their opposing quarterbacks. In USC’s case they could rush Colorado’s weak offensive line and get some heat on Shedeur Sanders, though Sanders is a good quarterback and also has a good stable of receivers who were able to burn the USC defense in the second half. And Washington was able to get some pressure on Arizona’s back-up quarterback Noah Fifita. Both still managed to gut two Top-10 ranked teams’ defenses.
What is interesting is that Colorado, USC and Washington are all really built the same way. When each team got a new head coach they immediately prioritized bringing in a new quarterback and a group of receivers to support that QB. Their strategy to win games was to outscore the opponent, and for USC and Washington that has worked out well so far. For Colorado, that approach has allowed them to go 3-2 where they lost to USC by only seven points.
This style of pass-heavy football has been successful recently and can attribute for the National Championship wins of Alabama, Clemson, and LSU. Georgia is the outlier in terms of the recent formula that wins a National Championship.
Oregon is Built Differently
While most top teams seem to be skewing more toward the pass game to get fast wins, Oregon under Dan Lanning has taken a different approach. Lanning has focused on building a team around line-play and a run game. Both of which are difficult to build quickly in the era of the transfer portal due to the overall lack of quality linemen in the portal. Lanning has made it a point to go after quality linemen in the portal and managed to land a couple big guys in Ajani Cornelius on the offensive line and Jordan Burch on the defensive side.
In terms of Pac-12 passing offenses’ national rankings Washington, Washington State, USC and Colorado all rank within the Top 5, while Oregon ranks at No. 9. When it comes to rushing offense, Oregon is the only Pac-12 team in the Top 10, coming in at No. 6. This is what will give Oregon an advantage in conference play as they are a balanced offense. This is a team that is offensively built on line play and can attack opponents everywhere and anywhere on the field.
As it stands right now for scoring offenses, the top Pac-12 teams come in at No. 1 USC, No. 2 Oregon, and No. 4 Washington — which means that all these offenses are effectively the same in terms of point output. But it is the way Oregon can do it that gives them an edge, as they will force every team they play to focus on both the pass and the run whereas the priority when playing Washington and USC is all on their passing game (as their run games are ineffective).
Defensively, Oregon is also built differently; while USC and Washington will have to rely on outscoring their better opponents to secure wins, Oregon defense is an asset rather than a liability. There is a reason the Kirby Smart and Lanning defense at Georgia focused on only rushing four defenders while dropping as many into coverage, it allows their defense to slow down these heavy passing attacks, and when it is done correctly, it works.
Of the four FBS teams Oregon has played this season, three of them have a pass-heavy offenses — Stanford being perhaps more balanced or even a run-first offense. Oregon’s scoring defense currently ranks No. 16 while Washington sits at No. 27 and USC at No. 44.
So when Oregon and Washington meet up in two weeks’ time, look for Oregon’s run game and defense to be the big difference-makers. Lanning has built an Oregon program designed to strain opposing teams in every phase of the game. Will Washington or USC be able to keep up with the Ducks, or will they become their next victims?
Top Photo By Nancy Paiva
Natalie Liebhaber, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in technology in SLC, Utah.
David Marsh is a high school social studies teacher in Portland, Oregon. As a teacher he is known for telling puns to his students who sometimes laugh out of sympathy, and being both eccentric about history and the Ducks.
David graduated from the University of Oregon in 2012 with Majors in: Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, and Geography. David began following Ducks Football after being in a car accident in 2012; finding football something new and exciting to learn about during this difficult time in his life. Now, he cannot see life without Oregon football.
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