Oregon Football: What we learned from opening weekend

Oregon FootballThe college football season has officially returned, and the Oregon football team is back to doing what they do – blowing out opponents.  Here is what we learned following the Ducks’ 62-13 win over FCS South Dakota.

Oregon is still fast.

Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota came into the game tied with Joey Harrington for combined touchdowns in a career, 94 seconds later the record was Mariota’s. The Oregon offense was rolling early as Mariota seemed to be on the same page with his receivers from the start. It took just 7 total plays for Oregon to score its first two touchdowns – both TD passes by Mariota. Through the first quarter, Marcus Mariota was 7-for-8 for 173 yards and two touchdowns, Oregon lead 21-3.

Throughout the first half (Mariota sat the second half), the entire Oregon offense looked like its usual fast and explosive self, a good sign for the Ducks moving forward. Mariota read the defense well and made good quick decisions, leading the Ducks to a 41-13 lead at halftime. Perhaps the best drive of the night was Mariota’s final drive of the half when he led the Duck offense on a 10-play, 76-yard drive that ended up in a Mariota 1-yard TD run. For the game the Oregon offense racked up 673 yards on just 70 plays, an average of 9.6 yards per play. Oregon has a reputation of being a fast and explosive offensive powerhouse, and after Saturday’s win that reputation was validated for another week.

Oregon still has weapons.

With Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas are both in the NFL, and Braylon Addison is recovering from a torn ACL in spring practice, some thought the Ducks might be lacking weapons in 2014. To quote Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”

This year might be the deepest set of running backs Oregon has seen in 10 years. Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman all looked good in Saturday’s victory. Thomas Tyner got the start and totaled 64 yards on 11 carries, averaging 5.9 yards per rush. Byron Marshall ran for 90 yards on just 8 carries, but stole the show in the receiving game by catching 8 passes for 138 yards and 2 TDs. Marshall played in the slot frequently and was seemingly unstoppable against the FCS opponent. Last, but not least, was Royce Freeman. The freshman lived up to his preseason hype by rushing for 75 yards on 10 carries and scoring twice. This is only the first game, and it was against an FCS team, but this group of running backs is diverse and talented. Look for Oregon to lean on them moving forward.

Question marks exist at wide receiver both entering and following Saturday’s game. The numbers don’t support the level of talent across the board for the Ducks offense. Aside from Marshall, the leading Oregon receiver was Darren Carrington (4 rec for 68 yards) and no other Oregon wide receiver caught more than one pass; Dwayne Stanford caught a 62 yard pass from Mariota to start the game. Tight ends Johnny Mundt and Pharaoh Brown both caught 2 passes with Brown catching a TD late in the game. Also, freshman Charles Nelson returned a punt 50 yards for a TD in the second half, adding to the list of explosive plays for the Ducks. It was clear that Byron Marshall was the weapon of choice in the passing game, and if he can continue to be dangerous catching passes that could be big for the Ducks moving forward. Oregon likes to spread the ball around and get multiple weapons involved, a trend that is sure to continue in 2014.

The Oregon defense is still suspect.

The Ducks defense doesn’t need to be great. With an elite offense all the Oregon defense has to do is make a few stops and get off the field on key situations, something they struggled with at times last year. Early in Saturday’s game the Ducks defense looked shaky, even against an FCS team, but they calmed down and were able to get off the field consistantly as the game went on. In South Dakota’s first possession they drove down the field and kicked a field goal, making the score 7-3. But there are two sides to this story… Yes the #3 ranked Oregon Ducks gave up an opening drive FG to an FCS team, which is something defensive coordinator Don Pellum is sure to address moving forward. However, that scoring drive for South Dakota took 9 plays and only resulted in 33 yards – bend but don’t break.

If Oregon can stop the run effectively this year and get off the field on 3rd and 4th down in short yardage situations, the sky is the limit for this year’s team. One drive that is a cause for concern came late in the first half: South Dakota put together a 6 play, 76 yard drive that lasted only 2:21, making the score 35-13 with 1:36 left in the first half. The Ducks went on to win 62-13 and didn’t need much defense against the FCS team; Helfrich said following the game that 8-9 freshmen played on defense and they were still finding who fits where. Overall the defense looked solid and made plays all over the field throughout the game, but moving forward there needs to be improvement tackling in the open field and up front in the front seven. Next week the Ducks take on #8 ranked Michigan State in their first real test of the year. If the defense plays well against the Spartans that could give a young defensive unit some needed confidence moving forward. Because the Ducks have the talent on defense, they just need to execute up to their abilities.

Overall we got what we expected from an Oregon game. The Ducks offense was explosive and fast led by Marcus Mariota (who only played the first half), running back is the deepest position for the Ducks offense, and the final score was indicative of a blowout. This wasn’t a test for the Ducks; it was a full speed walk-through. We learned a few things about the Ducks on Saturday, but next week is the real test for Oregon when they face Michigan State in Autzen Stadium.