If you paid any attention at all to the preseason hype machine, Oregon-UCLA is a game that needs no introduction. The Ducks and Bruins both opened the season in the top 10, ranked atop their respective divisions in the summer magazines, and were both touted as front-runners for the inaugural four-team playoff this winter.
Their quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, were known quantities who began (likely) final seasons on campus near the top of every Heisman short list and every mock draft for 2015.1 This weekend’s collision in the Rose Bowl was circled as the highlight of the Pac-12 schedule, a crucial litmus test in the national pecking order, and the marquee quarterback duel of the regular season. One way or another, the story of the 2014 season looked like it would run irrevocably through this game.
Mariota and Hundley are both redshirt juniors with another year of eligibility remaining, but, barring injury, there is no pretense that either plans to use it.
Now that the game has actually arrived … well, maybe not so much. Eight days ago, all of the above still held true, albeit tenuously, as both teams bore the scars of uncomfortably close calls against the likes of Memphis and Washington State. Then the dam broke in a big way. Oregon was ambushed by Arizona in Eugene, and UCLA fell to Utah in Pasadena. The keys to the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 were lost amid the carnage.
The Ducks and Bruins both dropped a full 10 spots in the AP poll, to no. 12 and no. 18, respectively, and forfeited any lingering sense of invincibility from the preseason love fest. Thanks to the sudden, improbable urgency of the Auburn–Mississippi State and TCU-Baylor tilts on Saturday afternoon — two games no one had circled in August, but which loom very large after last weekend — Oregon-UCLA, from a national perspective, looks like the third-most relevant game in its own time slot.
In terms of the Pac-12, the stakes in the Rose Bowl haven’t diminished, necessarily, but the anticipation has been replaced by a distinct whiff of desperation. With two defeats, the loser of the game will be effectively eliminated from any serious playoff discussion, and left with zero margin for error in a tightly packed, wholly unpredictable conference race. The winner will enjoy some semblance of renewed hope on both fronts, with its conference fate still in its own hands over the second half of the season, and a “Final Four” spot still very much in play for a potential one-loss Pac-12 champion. The question of who will win will be decided by the team that keeps its beleaguered quarterback upright long enough to live up to his dynamic reputation.
UCLA’s offensive line was singled out as an Achilles’ heel before the season and has more than justified the label. In the Bruins’ first three games, Hundley and backup Jerry Neuheisel were dropped a dozen times, in narrow wins over Virginia, Memphis, and Texas — a number that barely suggested the depth problems caused by the persistent defensive pressure.2 Against Arizona State, the front five kept Hundley relatively clean — ASU recorded only one sack — and he responded by racking up 427 total yards and five touchdowns in a 62-27 massacre. The victory renewed optimism in the Bruins’ earth-scorching potential, just in time for the bottom to fall out against Utah.
Virginia, the most generous defense in the ACC in 2013, in terms of points allowed, held UCLA to a single offensive touchdown, while forcing seven punts and a pair of lost fumbles.
The Utes sacked Hundley 10 times in the upset, the most by any defense this season against an FBS offense. The pass rush got to him with four rushers, with five rushers, on blitzes up the middle, and on blitzes from the corner. He went down on third-and-long, on third-and-short, on first-and-10, and on second-and-medium. At one point in the fourth quarter, Hundley was sacked on three consecutive plays, nearly resulting in a safety. (A subsequent punt from the end zone yielded good field position for a field goal.) Later, he was forced to eat eight yards on a coverage sack, just so the Utah defense could fill out its pass-rushing bingo card.
By the end of the night, Hundley’s sack rate for the season had risen to 14.4 percent, or once every seven pass attempts, the highest rate for any quarterback in a “Power Five” conference. His career sack total stands at an astounding 107 in 32 career games, the most among active FBS quarterbacks. After the game, he even suggested he might bear most of the blame himself:
“I take a lot on myself,” Hundley said. “Obviously being the quarterback, I can help my linemen in that and I have to get the ball out of my hands … Linemen, they played their hearts out and when we needed the plays, they made them and they gave me the time.”
Fair enough.3 But by my stopwatch, Utah pass-rushers arrived at Hundley within three seconds on five of their 10 sacks, and simply beat offensive tackles Caleb Benenoch and Malcolm Bunche in one-on-one battles on four of them; on three others, a blitzer arrived, either unblocked or barely touched by a running back.
Among the NFL gurus at Football Outsiders, the quarterback’s responsibility for most sacks is considered axiomatic.
When not being beaten to a pulp, Hundley has remained one of the most effective, efficient passers in the nation. For the season, he ranks first in the nation in completion percentage, fourth in yards per attempt, fifth in overall pass efficiency, and third in passes covering at least 40 yards. Since the opening-day debacle at Virginia, his last three games4 have yielded 1,020 passing yards and nine touchdowns, including bombs of 62 yards against Memphis, 80 yards against Arizona State, 80 yards (again) against Arizona State, and 93 yards against Utah.
Not including his abbreviated night against Texas, when he was forced out in the first quarter with an elbow injury.
If the Bruins can protect him — or if he can protect himself — every indication is that Hundley remains the quarterback he was hyped to be. Right now, though, that is a pretty big if.
Oregon, at least, has an obvious explanation for its borderline collapse: Both starting offensive tackles, Tyler Johnstone (26 career starts) and Jake Fisher (25 career starts), are out indefinitely with injuries, as is the top backup at tackle, senior Andre Yruretagoyena. In their place, the Ducks have been forced to throw a walk-on (junior Matt Pierson) and a true freshman (Tyrell Crosby) into the fire. The results have been grim. In two games with Pierson and Crosby in the lineup, Mariota has been sacked 12 times — seven in the near-disaster at Washington State, five in the loss to Arizona. By my count, the newcomers have been at least partly responsible on eight of them. Two of the sacks by the Wildcats were blindside hits that resulted in lost fumbles, including the game-clinching strip by Zona’s exceptionally named Scooby Wright.
On this play — a simple twist by Washington State defensive linemen Xavier Cooper (96) and Kache Palacio (40) — the elapsed time between snap and first contact with Mariota is 1.9 seconds — about what it would take if no offensive linemen were in the way at all, which is more or less the case:
For some context, in its other four games against FBS opponents, Washington State has three sacks combined. Despite its general competence through the first few weeks of the season, Oregon has plummeted to 116th in Adjusted Sack Rate, which is actually 10 spots worse than UCLA, at 106.
Like Hundley, if Mariota is given any shred of an opening, he is more than capable of being a one-man show. In Pullman, his stat line amid the pressure was a marvel — 21-of-25 passing, 329 yards, five touchdowns. And he accounted for Oregon’s two longest runs of the night, on scrambles.5 For the season, Mariota leads the nation in pass efficiency, ranks fourth in completion percentage and second in yards per pass, and hasn’t thrown an interception.
A 28-yard sprint on fourth-and-10, leading to a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter, was arguably the play of the game.
More important, he insisted this week that he’s not feeling any ill effects of the increased punishment, health-wise. That’s great news for Oregon, and for non-UCLA-affiliated viewers. When Mariota tried to play through a knee injury last November, the Ducks’ offense was a shell of its usual, explosive self for the remainder of the season. But as we saw earlier this season against Michigan State, Oregon at full speed remains one of the marvels of the sport. If the Ducks hope to make good on the promise they showed against Sparty, it will be because they found a way to keep one of the best quarterbacks in the country in one piece.