Speed Kills: The Oregon Offense Starts Its Engine
Last Saturday night, I lay half-asleep in a hotel room and watched Oregon play the Arkansas State Red Wolves in a football game that felt more like a hypnagogic fantasia. The Ducks were dressed up, as always, in Nike’s Alternate Elfin no. 6 color scheme, and they moved as if they were literally being chased by a pack of scarlet canids. They scored a touchdown, converted a two-point conversion, scored again, and then kept piling it on. They did not slow down until I glanced at my screen midway through the second quarter and it was 50-3 and the second-teamers were in, at which point I felt as if someone had slipped an Eli Roth film into my evening tea.
Football, as we know by now, is a brutal sport; close-up, man-to-man physicality, we like to think, is both the central element of the game and its most frightening aspect. This is what traditionally affords vicious block-and-tackle SEC squads like Alabama the edge over schools like Oregon, with its go-go West Coast, Gavin Rossdale–inspired offense. But I watched Alabama dismantle an inferior Michigan team on Saturday evening, and I watched Oregon vivisect Arkansas State afterward, and while I realize there is no true equivalence between the teams’ Week 1 opponents, here is what I can say: For the first time ever, Oregon scared me more.
The difference is simple: Oregon has always been fast, but this year, Oregon is absurdly fast. Their quarterback, a Hawaiian kid named Marcus Mariota who was marooned at the bottom of the depth chart last season, is speedy and elusive and the best passer the Ducks have unearthed in quite some time; their tailback, Kenjon Barner, is electric; and their scatback, 5-foot-9 sophomore De’Anthony Thomas, is such a blur that every time he breaks loose in the open field, I worry someone is actually going to die. I think Thomas might win the Heisman Trophy, if Rich Rodriguez doesn’t find a way to lower an Acme-brand anvil onto his skull.
The other day, Arkansas State defensive coordinator John Thompson — who has coached at five SEC schools — told CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman the same thing. “That is, by far, the fastest team I have ever, ever, EV-ER seen,” Thompson told Feldman. “It is unbelievable.”
You may have guessed by the third “ever” that Thompson thinks Oregon will win the national championship, which is a premature notion, given that the Ducks still have to beat USC, and then (perhaps) beat an Alabama squad that is already being dubbed by opposing coaches as “the 33rd team in the NFL.” But I do think this is the year they can finally do it, because I think this might be the year that speed becomes the fiercest killer of them all.