Players to watch
QB Marcus Mariota, RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas, RB Byron Marshall, WR Josh Huff, WR Bralon Addison
RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas (Ankle - questionable), TE Colt Lyerla (Disciplinary - voluntarily left team)
What can be said about the Oregon offense that hasn't already been uttered? For nearly a decade, the very notion of a modern college football offense has been tied intrinsically to that of the Oregon Ducks, who pioneered the hurry-up no-huddle offense in an age when USC's pro-style sets reigned supreme.
After Chip Kelly departed the college ranks in favor of the NFL (an impending NCAA investigation that resulted in a two-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA may have had something to do with it, too), many fans and media prognosticators assumed that the good times were inevitably coming to an end for the Ducks. After all, Kelly was a special coach, the likes of whom come less frequently than once in a generation. Surely first-time head coach Mark Helfrich would stumble along the way, right?
The early returns of the 2013 season have done nothing less than elate fans of the Ducks: Oregon has not just won every game it has played; it has done so convincingly. They are the first team since the 1885(!) Princeton Tigers to score 50 or more points in each of their first five contests, and appear to have skipped nary a beat during their head coaching transition. Of course, Oregon's schedule was laughably light on the front end, and they face three ranked teams in their next four contests in No. 16 Washington, No. 11 UCLA and No. 5 Stanford. The world thinks that this year's Oregon team is among the best in the nation; starting this week, they have a chance to prove it.
In previous years, Oregon's offensive success was based on its scheme and a talented crop of running backs. For the last two years, they've continued to hold that advantage, in addition to employing a bona fide superstar in redshirt sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota. There's a reason that the Duck's signal-caller currently ranks atop ESPN's Heisman Watch poll: His 96.8 QBR is the nation's second best, and he has accounted for 21 touchdowns this year (14 passing, seven rushing) without throwing a single pick since last year's game against Stanford. He's the kind of player that a defense can play perfect pass coverage against, and still give up 20 yards to on a scramble. Don't expect to see Washington's defensive line put up gaudy pass rush numbers on him, as their No. 1 task concerning Mariota will be containing his designed and improvised runs. (Amazingly, Oregon has so blown out each of its opponents that Mariota has yet to play in the fourth quarter this year. That streak is practically assured of coming to an end on Saturday.)
Of course, if Mariota doesn't keep the ball, he always has the option of handing it to one of his dangerous running backs, and I do mean "dangerous": Byron Marshall (71 carries/448 yards/4 touchdowns), De'Anthony Thomas (42/338/6) and five-star true freshman Thomas Tyner (35/204/5) are legitimate home-run threats every time that they touch the ball, and saying that there are three elite-level running backs on this team is just another way of pointing out that Washington's defense will face a fresh elite-level running back on just about every play of the game. Thomas sat out last week's game against Colorado, as well as the entire game sans the opening kickoff of the Cal game (when he suffered his ankle injury), so his health will be something to monitor on game day.
Oregon's offensive prowess has for years used the pass to set up the run, and this year is no different. The Ducks are unquestionably a run-first team, but they do have legitimate playmakers at the receiver position, particularly in the forms of Josh Huff (21 receptions/445 yards/4 touchdowns) and Bralon Addison (19/345/4). Mariota has thrown touchdown passes to five different receivers this year, though, making it difficult for the defense to key on one player. As always, Oregon's greatest strength may lie in the sheer depth of its playmakers on the roster. One thing to take note of: Former five-star recruit and projected first-round pick Colt Lyerla, the Ducks' physically gifted tight end, announced this weekend that he was leaving the team after reported numerous spats with the coaching staff. His absence will be felt by the Ducks, particularly in the red zone, as the prospect hauled in 11 touchdown catches on just 32 receptions in his career.
Up front, Oregon employs a massively underrated offensive line, including preseason first-team all-conference selections in LT Tyler Johnstone and C Hroniss Grasu. In five games, the Ducks have allowed just 20 tackles for loss (tied for ninth in the nation) and four sacks (tied for eighth in the nation). Oregon also employs LG Mana Greig, RG Hamani Stevens and RT Jake Fisher (a second-team preseason all-conference pick) in its starting five.
As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.
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