At a certain point, writing about how good Oregon is on offense becomes about as useful and interesting as writing about gridlock in Congress. It’s a long-standing fact of American life. Even amid the distorted reality of the early season, the Ducks insist on setting the pace.
Yet again, the Ducks are well on their way to eclipsing 500 yards per game in total offense, as they have in every season since 2010, and leading the Pac-12 in scoring, as they have in every season since 2007. Yet again, quarterback Marcus Mariota ranks among the most efficient passers in the nation, and is the de facto face of the Heisman chase. Yet again, the backfield is loaded with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of home run–hitting tailbacks; already, touted freshman Royce Freeman looks every inch the prolific burner that Kenjon Barner was before him, and LaMichael James before him, and Jeremiah Johnson before him, and Jonathan Stewart before him.
So when the floodgates opened Saturday against no. 7 Michigan State, generating four unanswered touchdowns for no. 3 Oregon in the final 20 minutes of a come-from-behind, 46-27 win, it felt like par for the course. Like Oregon being Oregon. In 2013, the Ducks scored 40 or more points nine times. In four years under Chip Kelly, from 2009 to 2012, they surpassed the 40-point barrier 39 times. Hell, in each of Kelly’s last three seasons, they averaged more than 46 points. (The 2013 team, under Kelly’s successor, Mark Helfrich, came up just shy, averaging a mere 45.5.) For this bunch, 46 points is the status quo, a day at the Nike-funded, biometrically restricted office.
It’s so, so easy to take for granted Oregon’s ability to engage the afterburners in those final 20 minutes, because we’ve seen the Ducks hit the gas in precisely the same fashion so many times before. (The demoralizing reliability of the “Oregon Ambush” in seemingly competitive games has been a well-documented phenomenon for years.) I assure you, though, that Oregon doesn’t take it for granted, because it has so rarely found the accelerator against teams like Michigan State, an opponent that arrived in Eugene looking like an Omnidroid, a machine designed specifically to exploit Oregon’s weaknesses.
One weakness, in particular: As any meathead who has ever called the spread offense “soft” or “gimmicky” will happily affirm, in certain corners of the country Oregon still carries a reputation for wilting in the face of blue-chip defenses, and the stigma is not entirely without substance. A few weeks back, in my catalogue of skepticism on the leading preseason contenders, I pointed out that, since 2009, Oregon has gone just 2-7 against top-10 opponents,1 due almost exclusively to its inability to establish the run in those games. The trend began in Kelly’s first game as head coach, a 19-8 flop at Boise State in which the Ducks managed just 31 yards rushing on 1.8 per carry, and was exacerbated by their failure to make a dent in Auburn’s defensive front in the 2011 BCS title game. (The Tigers stuffed 11 runs in the Oregon backfield in that game, while allowing just five to go for first downs.) The past two years, the Ducks never looked more un-Duck-like than in consecutive losses to Stanford, which clamped down defensively in a 17-14 upset in 2012 and again in a 26-20 manhandling last year in Stanford, a mugging that wasn’t competitive until the fourth quarter.2 In both seasons, those losses ultimately kept Oregon out of the Pac-12 championship game and likely from getting a shot at the national crown.
Defined as opponents that went on to finish in the top 10 in the season-ending AP poll.
The Cardinal led 26-0 in the fourth quarter before conceding a late, futile rally; even counting garbage time, Oregon limped out with its worst output for both rushing yards and total offense since the 2009 opener in Boise, in part because the offense was on the field for less than 18 minutes.
If there’s any outfit in college football capable of out-Stanfording Stanford, it’s Michigan State, which fields quite possibly the most intimidating, in-your-face defense in the nation. In fact, if you’d dropped in Saturday midway through the third quarter, you would have seen the Spartans relishing a very familiar role as the neighborhood bully. At that point, Michigan State had countered Oregon’s initial first-half punch by ripping off 20 consecutive points of its own, putting MSU ahead by two scores, 27-18. Meanwhile, the Ducks’ up-tempo assault had ground to a halt: On four consecutive possessions to end the first half and open the second, Mariota was sacked twice, the offense as a whole earned one first down, and Oregon was forced to launch four consecutive punts as the Spartans offense picked up steam. Through three quarters, the Ducks amassed a grand total of 56 yards rushing (including negative yards on sacks) on 2.3 yards per carry.
By the end of the third, though, they seemed to have cracked the code — attack the Spartans’ ultra-aggressive alignment vertically, straight up the hashes — and by the fourth they were looking like their usual, unstoppable selves. On Oregon’s final five possessions, Mariota completed six of eight passes for 126 yards, including consecutive touchdowns to close the third quarter covering 24 yards (to a streaking, wide-open Devon Allen) and 37 yards (to a streaking, wide-open Keanon Lowe). On the second play of the fourth, Freeman followed another first-down pass from Mariota with a 38-yard touchdown run, and the rout was on. With Freeman’s second score, a 14-yard gallop that capped a six-minute, 96-yard knockout march, the Ducks managed 117 yards rushing on 8.4 per carry in the fourth quarter alone — about 35 percent more than Michigan State allowed on the ground per game in 2013.
It was an inversion of the usual template for an Oregon rout, which prescribes a heavy dose of up-tempo running to set up the pass; against the Spartans, the game clearly turned on Mariota’s arm and elusiveness in the face of an overbearing pass rush. (The Ducks began the day without one of their starting offensive tackles, Tyler Johnstone, and lost another, Andre Yruretagoyena.) But the fact that it turned at all validates the sky-high expectations that greeted the 2014 Ducks, as well as their viability to clear the obstacles that kept them from fulfilling the hype the last two years. Under Kelly, Oregon never had a passer it could rely on to keep the wheels spinning on the rare occasions when the ground game stalled, and it hasn’t always been clear that Mariota could be that guy, either. On Saturday, though, he was. And as long as he remains healthy — a legitimate concern following the knee injury that visibly limited his mobility last year — there’s every reason to believe he can continue to be.
Given the rest of the schedule, though, individual heroics may not even be necessary: Ostensible threats UCLA and Washington have looked shaky so far against inferior competition, while Stanford has to come to Autzen in November with an ugly loss already under its belt after falling to USC this weekend. Regardless of who’s on the other side, though, we now have proof that the Ducks are eminently capable of looking like themselves.
• B1G trouble: I’ve never been a soldier in the conference wars, and whenever possible I aim to steer clear of those battle lines entirely. But there’s no avoiding the stink bomb the Big Ten set off Saturday, creating a stench that’s going to linger for the rest of the season. Michigan was shut out for the first time in 30 years in a 31-0 flop at Notre Dame. No. 8 Ohio State’s offensive line looked like a public safety hazard against Virginia Tech, allowing seven sacks and 11 total tackles for loss in a 35-21 defeat at home — OSU’s first loss to an unranked nonconference opponent in Columbus since 1982. (For more on Michigan’s offense, or lack thereof, see below; for more on the ignominious night of the Buckeyes’ redshirt freshman quarterback, J.T. Barrett, check back for Tuesday’s installment of QB Curve.) Northwestern punted its way to a 23-15 defeat against Northern Illinois, the Wildcats’ ninth loss in their last 10 games dating back to last October. Purdue, in an exhibition of peak Purdue, committed three turnovers in a 38-17 loss to a MAC also-ran, Central Michigan. By comparison, Michigan State actually acquitted itself well, having at least given a top-shelf opponent a run for its money well into the fourth quarter. A moral victory on the road was the highlight of the day.
Even the winners left a distinct whiff of desperation. No. 19 Nebraska narrowly escaped eternal humiliation at the hands of an FCS tomato can, McNeese State, thanks only to a spectacular individual effort by tailback Ameer Abdullah in the final minute. Iowa failed to reach the end zone in the first 57 minutes of its game against Ball State, only to march for two touchdowns in the final three minutes to win, 17-13. Penn State failed to score on seven of its first eight possessions against yet another MAC punching bag, Akron, eventually limping to a 21-3 victory that featured as many Nittany Lion turnovers (three) as touchdowns. Illinois trailed in the fourth quarter before rallying to a 42-34 win over Western Kentucky. Arguably the most impressive performance by any B1G team came courtesy of Minnesota, a 35-24 winner over Middle Tennessee, and the Gophers were outgained by nearly 100 yards of total offense.
So, is it too early to rule the Big Ten out of the eventual four-team playoff field? Probably, but not by much: The usual suspects at the top of the conference (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin) have all taken hard falls in nonconference games, and unless Nebraska or Iowa manages to shore up some glaring deficiencies in time to run the table in conference play, it’ll be all but impossible for the league to produce an undefeated champion or a notable nonconference win to bolster the résumé of a one-loss champion. If one of the heavier hitters rebounds to go on an 11-game win streak through the conference championship game, and enough of the other major conferences oblige by cutting their best teams down to size in the meantime, a door to the playoff might still be open. On its own merit, though, the Big Ten’s on-field stock is as low as it’s ever been.
• No. 14 USC 13, no. Stanford 10: Before kickoff, I doubt I could have envisioned a scenario in which the Trojans would spring an upset over the defending Pac-12 champs, on the road, and yet somehow fail to inspire much confidence in their own championship potential. Watching this game, though, it was impossible not to feel that Stanford had handed the victory over with a neatly tied bow: Nine times the Stanford offense crossed the USC 35-yard line — nine times in nine possessions — and all the Cardinal had to show for it at the end of the day was one touchdown and one field goal. The other seven trips into scoring territory resulted in two missed field goals, two lost fumbles, two punts,3 and a turnover on downs. Trigger warning: If you’re some kind of efficiency expert, don’t click on this drive chart.
Yes, Stanford punted twice with the ball inside the USC 35-yard line.
Otherwise, Stanford looked like the better team, outgaining the Trojans by 122 yards and controlling both the clock and the tempo for the vast majority of the game, as Stanford is wont to do. In its first game, USC ran 105 plays against Fresno State for 701 total yards; on Saturday, it got off just 59 snaps, posed no threat in the passing game, and ran successfully only in fits and starts. On the other hand, given the degree of difficulty against USC’s defense, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan delivered one of the most efficient stat lines of his career, completing 22 of 30 passes for 285 yards and no interceptions — though with the notable exception of a touchdown. Even when he did find the end zone, Stanford couldn’t score: In the fourth quarter, Hogan had a critical touchdown pass negated by a penalty, forcing the Cardinal’s second punt with seven minutes to play; USC subsequently took over on its own 7-yard line and drove 58 yards for a go-ahead field goal, which turned out to be the game winner when Stanford fumbled the ball back in the final minute. Championships have been decided on such razor-thin margins, but until we see which offense is going to show up on a week-to-week basis, the Trojans remain dark horses at best.
• BYU 41, Texas 7: Before we set to barbecuing Texas for its second consecutive no-show against the Cougars, keep in mind that the Longhorns hit the field Saturday with a new starting quarterback and three new starters on the offensive line, and most certainly were not favored to win by kickoff. UT fans had seen just enough of sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to know they shouldn’t expect much in his first career start, and sure enough, they didn’t get much: Swoopes finished with 20-of-31 passing for 176 yards, much of that coming long after the outcome had been decided. Texas finally cracked the end zone for the first and only time at the end of the third quarter, but not before its first 10 offensive possessions had yielded six punts (including four three-and-outs), three lost fumbles, and a missed field goal.
Again, though, we knew coming in that the Texas offense was a lost cause. The defense was a different story: Coming off a de facto shutout of North Texas in the opener,4 the Longhorns had every reason to believe in a great leap forward by the same group that was memorably torched by BYU last year for 40 points on 679 yards of offense in Provo. Instead, the Horns were torched again in identical fashion, this time for 41 points on 429 yards. (If there’s any solace, it’s that unlike in 2013, the dam at least held for a half: Through two quarters, the Cougars managed just six points on two field goals. In the third quarter, though, they scored four touchdowns in quick succession, aided by two consecutive three-and-outs and a fumbled kickoff by Texas.) Last year, the enduring image of BYU quarterback Taysom Hill loping through the UT secondary marked the beginning of the end for Mack Brown, who never regained the trust of the fan base despite rebounding to beat Oklahoma en route to a 6-0 start in Big 12 play. This year, it was a sobering reminder that Texas’s checklist runs much deeper than the head coach.
UNT’s only points against Texas came on a defensive fumble recovery.
• No. 11 UCLA 42, Memphis 35; Washington 59, Eastern Washington 52: Last week, UCLA and Washington both struggled offensively in too-close-for-comfort wins at Virginia and Hawaii, respectively, which raised a few eyebrows but didn’t quite set off the alarm bells. Both teams were on the road, after all, and it was only the first game; in Washington’s case, the Huskies were playing without their starting quarterback. OK, fine, let’s call it a mulligan. Except this week, UCLA and Washington both struggled defensively, with both playing at home and neither suffering from any major absences. (Washington quarterback Cyler Miles returned from suspension to run for three touchdowns and throw for a fourth, only to watch his defense allow seven touchdown passes by Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams Jr. in a bona fide shootout.) I don’t know quite what to make of that, except to say that neither of these teams is doing its part to justify all those paeans to the Pac-12’s depth.
It’s time to rethink: Michigan’s offensive overhaul. As is the case following most coaching changes, the preseason sanguinity over Michigan’s new offense had less to do with the arrival of the coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, than with the departure of the old one, Al Borges, who was run out of town last winter after the Wolverines dropped five of their last six to close 2013. After all, it’s not like the offense could get any worse, right? Beleaguered Wolverines partisans spent the offseason poring over Nussmeier’s success at previous stops, his promise to simplify the play calling, and the as-yet untapped potential of senior quarterback Devin Gardner, and came away cautiously optimistic about the unit’s chances of a breakthrough. That was only reinforced last week by a 52-14 romp over Appalachian State, against whom Gardner was 13-of-14 passing with three touchdowns.
Then came Saturday night in South Bend, where the offense averaged 2.9 yards per carry, Gardner was picked off three times, and Michigan failed to score in a 31-0 debacle.5 Incredibly, given the final score, the Wolverines actually outgained no. 16 Notre Dame, 289 yards to 280, but seemed to do everything in their power to avoid scoring: On top of the interceptions and the all-purpose futility on the ground, Michigan also missed two field goals on its first two possessions and committed two more turnovers (via fumble and turnover on downs, respectively) in Irish territory. Notre Dame, on the other hand, scored a touchdown every time it crossed midfield. With his offensive line collapsing around him, Gardner looked as far away as ever from the guy who carved up the Irish last year in a 41-30 win in Ann Arbor, and as unlikely as ever to rediscover his old form before his eligibility expires.
Quote of the Week
Adding insult to injury, Notre Dame actually returned Gardner’s third interception for an apparent touchdown on the final play of the game, only to have the score negated by a penalty for roughing the passer on the return. Michigan players and personnel, having understandably fled the field for the locker room, were dutifully summoned back to watch the Irish take a knee on the saddest snap ever recorded.
“Don’t kick a field goal on this next drive; it’s embarrassing.” —Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, to quarterback Jacob Coker, in the second quarter of the no. 2 Crimson Tide’s 41-0 win over Florida Atlantic. We’re pretty sure the subsequent drive resulted in a touchdown.
The best of the week …
• Virginia Tech DE Dadi Nicolas and CB Kendall Fuller: On the front end, Nicolas was credited with three tackles for loss (including two sacks) for a defense that held Ohio State to 108 yards rushing on 2.7 yards per carry. On the back end, Fuller was a blanket in man-to-man coverage, finishing with two pass breakups and a sack of his own. Subbing for the injured Braxton Miller, OSU quarterback Barrett finished a dismal 9-of-29 passing day with three interceptions, and the Buckeyes finished with fewer yards (327) and points (21) than in any game in 2013.
• Pittsburgh RB James Conner: At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Conner was billed as a part-time defensive end this summer, and opponents can only hope Pitt follows through on that promise — maybe then, at least, he would have to spend more time catching his breath when the Panthers have the ball, and the defense wouldn’t have to wear itself out attempting to tackle him. No such luck for Boston College on Friday night, against whom Conner racked up 214 yards on 36 carries in a 30-20 win for Pitt, the vast majority of those yards coming after contact. As BC found out the hard way, and the rest of the ACC will learn soon enough, anyone in the unfortunate position of taking on this kid solo in the open field might as well not even bother.
• The Stanford Tree: Stanford’s mascot is re-created each year by the student who occupies the costume, and don’t even try to pretend that the 2014 edition isn’t the most magnificent specimen you’ve ever seen:
Phallic tongue forever.
• Iowa State WR/PR Jarvis West: West accounted for 207 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns Saturday against Kansas State — one as a receiver, one as a punt returner, one as a passer — helping ISU jump to a 28-13 lead in the second quarter. Alas, he couldn’t play defense, and thus couldn’t stop the Wildcats from rallying to win late, 32-28.
• Catch of the Year of the Week — Ohio State WR Dontre Wilson: Ohio State had a rough night offensively, a prelude to what looks like a rough season ahead without Miller. But it did get this one-handed gem from Wilson in the second quarter, exactly the kind of play the Buckeyes will need on occasion to bail out their young quarterback:
Wilson didn’t catch another pass, but he did lead OSU in all-purpose yards with 149 in a losing effort.
•Fat Guy of the Week — Mississippi State DE Preston Smith: Admittedly, the video quality is not ideal. But damn it, this is the only evidence we have of a 6-foot-6, 270-pound human being dropping 15 yards into coverage and going airborne to bring down a graceful, one-handed interception, and we are going to show it in all of its grainy glory:
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Not shown: Smith sticking the landing and taking the pick to the house, which he did, supplying Mississippi State’s second touchdown in a 47-34 victory over UAB.
• Honorable Mention: Rhode Island DT Mike Rinaldi, who lost his helmet against Marshall, kept playing, and subsequently reminded everyone why wearing a helmet in football is very, very important.
… and the worst.
• Terry Bowden’s Dye Job: Back in the day, Bowden had dark brown hair. A lot of people who were alive in the ’90s are still alive to remember this. By the time he resurfaced at Akron, in 2012, he’d gone gray. It happens. But what exactly did he think the reaction was going to be when he popped up on national television Saturday sporting a copper top?
A dye job can make you look younger only if you’re on a planet where hair actually grows in that color.
• North Texas 43, SMU 6: Last week, North Texas got crushed by Texas. This week, the Mean Green got their crush on by obliterating SMU, which finally scored its first touchdown of the season on the final play of the game. (The Mustangs were shut out in their opener at Baylor, 45-0.) Since it didn’t bother with the extra point, SMU currently stands alone as the lowest-scoring team in the FBS, and also ranks dead last in total offense.
• Tulsa QB Dane Evans: Yes, this fumble may be as hilariously awful as it gets, but Evans’s reaction almost redeems it. Almost.
Evans finished 23-of-43 passing for 204 yards and two interceptions in a 52-7 loss to no. 4 Oklahoma.
• That One Commercial Starring Big 12 Coaches: Just because you have access to facial morphing software circa the “Black or White” video doesn’t mean you should use it.
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Sweet dreams, everybody.
This article has been updated to remove a footnote discussing Penn State’s postseason eligibility in light of today’s news that the NCAA has dropped the school’s postseason ban.