The Ducks spent the early part of the season relying heavily on Devon Allen and Keanon Lowe, though of late we've seen players like Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford have the opportunity to make big plays. Having that kind of a receiver arsenal is only going to improve Oregon's chances for the playoff, and the more chemistry Marcus Mariota can build with those receivers now -- in games in which the passing defense isn't quite as strong -- the more it will pay off down the road when the passing defenses are a bit more intense.
2. How does the Duck secondary hold up?
Cal has the No. 3 pass offense in the nation, averaging 372 yards per game, and Oregon's secondary has been less than stellar this season. Opposing quarterbacks average a 63.4 percent completion rate against the Ducks' defense (103rd nationally). And on third down passing plays, opponents have converted 44.9 percent of the time. So, Oregon's defense hasn't been stout and it really hasn't been stout in crucial situations. Jared Goff is a much improved quarterback. If given the opportunity, he's going to air it out against Oregon and the Ducks are going to need to respond.
3. What kind of numbers does Royce Freeman put up?
The freshman is on quite the kick. He came in with a lot of hype and he has more than backed that up. In the past two games he has tallied six rushing touchdowns and 290 yards at 6.2 yards per carry. Those aren't freshman statistics. And those numbers were put up against two pretty good rushing defenses in Washington and UCLA. Now, enter: Cal. The Bears have a good rushing defense, giving up just 133.4 rushing yards per game at 3.8 yards per rush. But those numbers are a bit skewed considering how much more teams pass against the Bears than run (teams are averaging 53 pass attempts per game as opposed to just 35 rushing attempts per game). Could Freeman have a third-consecutive 100-yard game? It seems silly to bet against him at this point.
4. How long can Cal keep pace?
When things are clicking, Cal's offense can be nearly as dangerous a unit as any in the country. They Bears rank No. 10 in the country in scoring (41.6 points per game) and are built to play in shootouts, but with minimal depth on defense, those types of games also are tougher on Cal than other teams the later they go. For Cal to make a game of it, its rotational guys on defense have to give them a chance.
5. How will Levi's Stadium fare as a college venue?
Fans at Cal had mixed reactions to moving a home game to the South Bay, to the new home of the San Francisco 49ers. On one hand, it's an impressive stadium that has all the amenities a fan could want. On the other, it's not Memorial Stadium and playing a game off campus changes both during and leading up to the game. There's also those pesky San Francisco Giants, who are playing in the World Series on Friday night, which will undoubtedly hurt the game's attendance.
Friday, 7 p.m.
Oregon at California, Fox Sports 1
Saturday, 11 a.m.
UCLA at Colorado, Pac-12 Network
It's turned into another long season for the Buffs, and the journey certainly doesn't become any easier with UCLA's explosive bunch coming to town. Turnovers, though, have been a major issue for the Bruins this season. Cal scored 21 points off UCLA miscues to keep the game close last week, and that might well be Colorado's formula to have a puncher's chance at Folsom Field. For Brett Hundley's squad, this should be a chance for a tuneup before a challenging finishing stretch: vs. Arizona, at Washington, vs. USC, vs. Stanford.
Oregon State at Stanford, ESPN2
The Beavers will certainly be sniffing upset in Palo Alto. Stanford is a very vulnerable team right now: The offense is faltering, and that supersonic defense has taken two gut punches with injuries to linemen David Parry and Aziz Shittu. That being said, the Cardinal have been excellent when faced with adversity in the David Shaw era. The fourth-year coach has yet to lose consecutive games in his tenure, and Stanford is desperate to right the ship at home.
Arizona at Washington State, Pac-12 Network
The Cougars won 24-17 in Tucson last season, but we will likely see more points this Saturday in Pullman when Rich Rodriguez and Mike Leach resume battle. Arizona and Washington State are the Pac-12's two top teams when it comes to total offense. They are averaging a combined 1,091 yards per game. Since both defenses are ranked in the conference's bottom half, expect fireworks and an intriguing duel between senior Connor Halliday (who is on an NCAA record-smashing pace) and freshman Anu Solomon.
USC at Utah, Fox Sports 1
This Utah squad reminds our Kevin Gemmell of the 2012 Stanford squad that won the Pac-12 championship, and I agree with him: The Utes don't ask for much out of their quarterback (62 pass yards last week), they run the ball with vigor (229 yards from Devontae Booker last week) and they set up frequent shop in opposing backfields (nation-leading 5.5 sacks per game). Both teams have also established a hashtag for their pass rush: 2012 Stanford had #PartyInTheBackfield, and 2014 Utah has coined #SackLakeCity. So USC is tasked with beating this rugged Ute team in a raucous road environment. This game is a significant step in figuring out the convoluted Pac-12 South puzzle.
Arizona State at Washington, ESPN
There is a 70 percent chance of rain in Seattle. They call that "Dawg Weather" in the Pacific Northwest, and Washington hopes that will aid in its quest to win the turnover battle -- the Huskies are ranked second nationally in turnover margin even after last week's substandard performance at Oregon. Taylor Kelly returns to the quarterback role for Arizona State, but Todd Graham expects Mike Bercovici will also get snaps. Washington's offense has sputtered this season (league-worst 5.0 yards per play), and it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand in its matchup with the Sun Devils' unremarkable defense.
We've got football tonight! And in true Pac-12 fashion, it features the top two scoring offenses in the conference and the league's most efficient passers. Oregon ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12, scoring an average of 43.6 points per game. Cal is No. 2, averaging 41.6 points per game. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota ranks first in the league in quarterback efficiency, and Cal's Jared Goff is No. 2. The weather in Santa Clara tonight calls for 75 degrees and partly cloudy, so don't expect an monsoons like last season in Eugene.
Here's what some folks are saying about tonight's showdown:
- Marcus Mariota has set himself apart from some of the previous Heisman winners.
- The Bears are leaving last year's water-logged loss in the past.
- Sonny Dykes said the trip to Levi's Stadium feels like a road game.
- The Ducks' defense is starting to find success in the opponent's backfield.
As noted, the quarterbacks will take center stage in the showdown. Here's a statistical breakdown of Mariota and Goff.
As always, the Pac-12 blog presents its picks on Thursday morning. And each Friday we bring some picks from national writers and folks who cover the conference. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that all the Pac-12 blog writers picked Utah to beat USC. And we all know what happens when the Pac-12 blog agrees (gulp).
But we're not the only ones. Stewart Mandel from Fox Sports is also a Utah believer:
The Trojans are the more talented team, but this is not the most favorable matchup for them. RB Buck Allen has sprung for at least 115 yards in all but one game but the Utes boast the nation’s sixth-best rushing defense. And Utah star Devontae Booker is fully capable of exploiting an average USC rushing defense. The Trojans admittedly have a huge edge at quarterback with Cody Kessler, but if Utah prevents too many long throws downfield, it should survive.
- Jacob Thorpe of the Spokesman Review likes the Trojans.
- Mostly consensus for the Athlon folks, though there are a couple of dissenting opinions on Utah-USC and ASU-Washington.
- Ryan Thorburn of the Register-Guard likes the Cougs in an upset over Arizona.
- Rich Rodriguez is re-writing Arizona records.
- Todd Graham sees big things for safety Damarious Randall.
- Colorado disputes claims its offensive line plays dirty (see UCLA story below).
- Texas A&M has pulled out of its future nonconference game with Oregon and replaced it with Clemson.
- An Oregon State practice report (including some injury updates).
- David Shaw says he's going to change things up on offense.
- Shots fired; UCLA defensive lineman calls Colorado's O-line "dirty."
- Some video with USC offensive guard Viane Talamaivao.
- The Utes are no longer a Pac-12 novelty.
- Notes and quotes from Chris Petersen's meeting with the media.
- A profile of Eric Mele, who is running WSU's special teams.
What does Super Mariota really look like?
This doesn't qualify as "fun," but more of a tip of the cap to Colorado, UCLA, Navy and San Jose State, who will honor Houston offensive lineman David Quessenberry, who is battling cancer.
Yesterday was media day for Pac-12 basketball. Here's an interesting comparison between Pac-12 hoops and football. Unlike football, basketball has a little bit of DISparity.
Good to see this guy up and moving.
Cal WR Trevor Davis on giving the crowd a thumbs up after his injury last week https://t.co/Y4PDis6uVE— Mike Vernon (@M_Vernon) October 23, 2014
The Aggies will host the Tigers on Sept. 8, 2018, before traveling to Death Valley on Sept. 7, 2019.
"We are excited to play the Clemson Tigers, who have been on Texas A&M's non-conference schedule previously," Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said in a statement. "As a fellow land-grant institution, Clemson is very similar to Texas A&M with a great football tradition and passionate fans. This will be a great non-conference series for both schools."
The Aggies hold the all-time series lead 3-1, with the Tigers winning the most recent meeting 25-24 in 2005.
"We are looking forward to playing Texas A&M as the two schools share a rich military heritage and of course passionate fan bases," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said in a statement. "We know our fans make Clemson a great game day experience and the Aggie fans make Kyle Field also one of the great venues in all of college football."
Clemson had already announced earlier this year that it would face Auburn in 2016 and 2017. Clemson also faces in-state rival South Carolina annually, and the ACC announced this week that the Tigers would face Notre Dame in 2020, 2022 and 2023. (The two already had been scheduled to meet in 2015 as well.)
Fox Sports reported earlier Thursday that Texas A&M had opted out of a home-and-home with Oregon that was scheduled for 2018 and 2019, with Hyman exercising a clause from the series' 2009 contract that said the Aggies could get out of the deal if they changed conferences. Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012.
- Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I say yes. Utah’s defense is going to be stout and Nate Orchard is going to have a monster game, getting after Cody Kessler. The Utes have the highest sack percentage (12.1 percent) of any team in the nation, and if we’re doing over/under for 3.5 sacks from the Utes in this game, I’m going with the over. And with Kessler struggling, the Trojans will try to lean more on Buck Allen, but bad news for Buck. The Utes have the best run defense in the conference, allowing just 2.85 yards per rush (Stanford is in second with 2.89). They’ve given up just three rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth in the country). On top of that, Utah’s special teams are going to ball out. USC has given up 13.3 yards per punt return (112th nationally) and have allowed almost one-fifth of kickoffs to be returned at least 30 yards. Kaelin Clay? Go for it … just leave out the Heisman pose this time. As long as Utah’s offense is good enough (and with Devontae Booker coming off that Oregon State performance, I’m not super worried), the Utes take care of business.
- Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: This will be a very close game, and although this whole Travis Wilson/Kendal Thompson quarterback shuffle isn't ideal (Wilson will start this week), Utah can succeed even with an anemic passing attack. That's because a strong rushing attack and a powerful defense form a potent combination. Booker has eclipsed the 150-yard mark in three consecutive weeks (he hit 229 yards his last time out), and that forms an intriguing matchup with a USC defense that has actually been good against the run since its debacle at Boston College. No discussion of Utah's chances is complete without an acknowledgement of #SackLackCity, the location of Saturday's game. Chantel mentioned Orchard; his 10.5-sack effort this season trails only Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha nationally. On a team-wide level, no one in the nation is even close to matching Utah's sack production, which stands at 5.5 per game. Second place is 4.0 sacks per game, and the Utes are on pace to post a staggering 71.5 sacks this season. The Trojans do have the athleticism to potentially burn Utah's ferocious pass rush, but it's really tough to bet against Kyle Whittingham's unit in its raucous home environment.
- Jennings/@ChantelJennings: I don’t think it’ll be quite as crazy as Cal-Wazzu, but, I think we’ll see at least 49 points combined.
- Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: Well, Cal-Wazzu is an insane standard to live up to (119 combined points), but I think we're going to see some offensive madness in the Palouse. Both the Arizona defense (allowing 5.9 yards per play) and the Washington State defense (allowing 6.0 yards per play) rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in that statistic, so that'll leave Leach and Rodriguez room to score. I have a feeling both teams will hit the 40s in this one.
- Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Twenty-eight or fewer. I bet we’ll see three touchdowns and maybe a field goal.
- Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: Stanford is favored by 13 points here, and some jokesters on Twitter have asked if the number 13 is the spread or the over/under for this one. I think we'll see more points than people expect: The Cardinal will have receiver Devon Cajuste back, and they'll be missing key defensive linemen David Parry and Aziz Shittu. That should count for at least a few Oregon State points.
- Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Oregon running back Royce Freeman. He’s an absolute man-child. I saw him wearing a backpack one day and I thought it was a mini backpack because it looked so small on him. But then when I looked more closely I realized it was a normal backpack, it just looked mini-sized on him. But it’s not just his physical size that makes him great. He’s elusive. He’s fast. His vision is improving. And if you look at the progress he has made from Game 1 to Game 7 of the Ducks’ season, imagine what he’ll do in the next two or three years.
- Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: I like Chantel's pick. I also think that Arizona running back Nick Wilson is doing a heck of job carrying the freshman torch. His 6.4 yards per carry leads the the top Pac-12 running backs. And even though he's not as big as Freeman, Wilson still packs a physical punch -- just ask Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
- Jennings/@ChantelJennings: Initially I considered Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha, because any team would be better with him in its front seven. But I’ve decided to go with Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. He doesn’t lead the conference in tackles (that’s Scooby Wright III), but he makes things happen on defense. And what I think Cal needs more than a stout pass rusher is a straight playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. The Bears have forced just nine fumbles and of those nine they’ve only recovered three. Thompson has forced and recovered three fumbles alone. I think he could make things happen for the Bears.
- Lombardi/@LombardiESPN: The most valuable asset for a defense is a dangerous body that can attract and swallow multiple blocks, and no Pac-12 player provides more value in this regard than an athletic fire hydrant Danny Shelton: 339 pounds, 7.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss. I'll let David Shaw's father Willie defend my position: "If you give me a choice between a great cornerback and a great defensive lineman, I'll take the great defensive lineman. Because a great defensive lineman can make an average corner look great."
a. Pac-12 South: Ultimate chaos
b. December 6: Anyone’s guess
c. Wazzu: So close yet so far
d. Andy Phillips: Money
e. Hau'oli Kikaha: I’m glad I don’t play quarterback in the Pac-12
f. Buck Allen: Tank
a. Pac-12 South: Minefield
b. December 6: Talking scoreboard (Bay Area radio listeners understand)
c. Wazzu: Poor Connor Halliday
d. Andy Phillips: Automatic
e. Hau'oli Kikaha: A name fit for a sack master
f. Buck Allen: So why didn't Lane Kiffin play him?
He heard people around town describe Freeman as a man-child or a physical specimen. He heard the stories about the shortstop who would get to a baseball in right field before any other players and still get the out at first. He heard about the eighth-grader who could dunk a basketball.
But in Imperial, a city of about 15,000 residents, it always seemed as though people were looking for something to talk about. Maybe this kid was just getting his 15 minutes of fame a little early.
Then came the day when Legarra was sitting in the stands at a high school girls’ basketball tournament and a player began shooting baskets at halftime.
That was Freeman, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound 13-year-old.
“He was that mature at that age,” Legarra said. “Just looking at him, his physical features, I couldn’t believe that was him. I honest to God thought it was one of the players for our junior college that we have here in Imperial Valley.”
But it wasn’t just in eighth grade that Freeman -- now the starting running back at Oregon -- looked like an athlete beyond his years.
“He was just born that way,” his mom, Sheila, said.
He was 8 pounds, 1 ounce, at birth, but he grew quickly.
His parents never really put him in zero- to 3-month-old baby clothes. They nicknamed him “Tank” even before he could walk -- which was, of course, earlier than most other babies. He required a bottle every hour and a half for the first months and that didn’t stop until they began crushing up cereal to put in with the milk. (Their doctor said this might upset Royce’s stomach. Of course, it didn’t.)
He kept growing and naturally leaned toward sports. T-ball was his first, but Pop Warner football wasn’t far behind.
By elementary school, he struggled to make the weight restrictions for his teams -- he was too heavy to play with the kids his own age -- so he had to play up an age group or two.
By fifth grade, Freeman’s parents decided they didn’t want to restrict Royce’s eating habits, nor did they want to put him with kids so much older in football, so he stopped playing.
“We just made a decision that he would wait,” Sheila said. “And then he could continue playing if he wished to continue playing.”
He focused on baseball for the next few years, but Sheila saw how the sport didn’t really hold his attention. When high school football tryouts rolled around, Royce decided he would go out for the team, despite his five-year hiatus from the sport.
He made the junior varsity team. But Legarra and Imperial had to get permission from the state to allow Royce, who wouldn’t turn 15 until February, to play on the varsity team (the California Interscholastic Federation did not allow 14-year-olds to play varsity football).
Freeman had been moved up by the time league play rolled around. And though Legarra doesn’t remember Freeman’s first varsity carry, his second -- a 63-yard touchdown run -- sticks out.
“And then the story was written,” Legarra said.
It also was then that Legarra realized that maybe the hype was actually not big enough for a kid who would end up putting Imperial on the map.
Freeman rushed for 111 touchdowns and 7,601 yards in high school. He had a strategy with coaches and his parents to sneak out of the football stadium after games.
By his junior year, people would park their cars outside of the stadium at 6 a.m. on a Friday to make sure they could have the best tailgating spots for Royce’s games at 7 p.m.
“It was unbelievable,” Legarra said. “It was like he was a movie star or something.”
When Freeman left for Eugene this summer, Legarra told his son: “Within four games he’ll be the starting running back there.”
He’s only 18 years old, 6-1 and 229 pounds, but leads the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns (tied for fifth nationally) and is sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (90.9).
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Freeman is making his mark as a true freshman. He never really played against boys his own age, so stepping into the starting role at Oregon isn’t that much of a departure.
“The way my body turned out,” Freeman said, “I learned how to use it.”
Now opposing coaches in the Pac-12 are trying to figure out how to defend against that body. No one has had much success. Against conference opponents, Freeman has rushed for 450 yards and six touchdowns, and more than 40 percent of his yards (188) have come after contact.
“He’s a big, powerful running back,” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, whose Bears will face Freeman on Friday. “He’s a load to tackle and he moves around pretty good for a guy that’s got his size.”
“He’s big and he’s fast,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, the previous coach to scheme against Freeman. “He certainly doesn’t play like a freshman.”
No, he doesn’t.
But he didn’t eat like a baby when he was a baby, he didn’t grow like an infant when he was an infant, and he didn’t carry the ball in high school like a high schooler.
So why at Oregon would he play like a freshman when he’s a freshman?
He's used to exceeding his hype.
Why Arizona will win: Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez know how to engineer an efficient offense, so I think this game will be a close shootout. That’s why Arizona has the edge here. Aside from one missed field goal attempt to end their game against USC, the Wildcats have been absolute nails in the fourth quarter, while the Cougars have been the exact opposite. Since Washington State is desperate, this game will come down to its final few possessions, but Solomon is developing a reputation as a quarterback who comes through in those spots. -- David Lombardi
Why Washington will win: After losing their eleventh straight to the Ducks, the Huskies are certainly thrilled to be playing anyone but Oregon this weekend. Chris Petersen’s squad preys on turnovers; they can get back to forcing them in the electricity of their home environment. And although Washington’s offense ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12, I’m not yet sold on ASU’s defense. We need to see more than one solid performance against a struggling Stanford offense to believe the Sun Devils have turned the corner. Washington will move the ball enough to win. -- David Lombardi
Why Arizona State will win: Arizona State is going to go with the Oregon blueprint to beat the Huskies. Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici is going to be accurate and efficient in the air, and D.J. Foster is going to get work done on the ground. Defensively, the Sun Devils will frustrate Cyler Miles and force him into a turnover or two. Another road win is coming for ASU, and with it, look for the Sun Devils to sneak into the top 15 come Sunday. -- Chantel Jennings
Unanimous Pac-12 picks
Why Oregon wins: While I think Cal has the offense and receivers to tax the Oregon secondary a bit, the defense isn’t there (especially sans Brennan Scarlett) to slow the Ducks down. Oregon is getting healthier, while Cal is starting to lose some key players. Really like the improvement we’ve seen from the Bears. But I don’t see them at Oregon’s level yet. -- Kevin Gemmell
Why Utah wins: At some point, home field has to count for something, right? Rice-Eccles is a hostile environment and the MUSS will be out in force. If the Utes can get even marginal quarterback play -- enough to give Devontae Booker more six-man boxes than seven -- then they’ll have the offense and defense to control the tempo and dictate the game. -- Kevin Gemmell
Why Stanford wins: This is going to be a low-scoring affair, but expect Oregon State's score to be lower than Stanford's, because the Cardinal defense is going to be swarming. With three losses already, the Cardinal are going to want to show the conference what's up and that even though they might not be perfect, they're still competitive and know how to win games. They'll get the job done at home. -- Chantel Jennings
Why UCLA wins: UCLA turnovers are the only way this game stays remotely close. The Bruins just have too much explosive firepower on both sides of the ball, so this will be a struggle for the Buffs. Of course, UCLA kept Cal in the game with three costly turnovers last week. But they still won because of Brett Hundley’s explosiveness, and that’ll again be a nice safety cushion in Boulder. -- David Lombardi
If you believe what Todd Graham has been saying all along -- that Taylor Kelly is his starting quarterback once he's back to 100 percent -- then you can expect to see Kelly at the helm for the No. 14 Sun Devils when they travel to Washington this weekend.
Speaking with the media on Wednesday after practice, Kelly said he feels 100 percent and is ready to go.
Here's an excerpt from Zach Buchanan's piece in The Arizona Republic:
Kelly insists he's capable of making all the movements required of playing quarterback, which in ASU's system also means a lot of running the ball on read options. If he's worried about anything, it's a bit of mental rust.
Kelly has been throwing in some capacity for a few weeks, but nothing prepares you for game action.
"The main thing I was worried about was my eyes, trusting my eyes and the game speed and stuff," Kelly said. "It's been a really great experience this week, and things are going to work great."
During Kelly's absence, Mike Bercovici led the Sun Devils to a 2-1 record with wins over USC and Stanford.
The flip side
ASU's opponent, may or may not have its starter back for Saturday's matchup. Cyler Miles is still day-to-day after suffering a concussion in the loss last week to Oregon. Redshirt freshman Troy Williams has been taking first-team reps. Here's what Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith told reporters after practice Wednesday:
I think he’s understanding and throwing the ball really accurately. That was the slight edge we thought Jeff (Lindquist)brought in the first game. And then we were really pleased at how Troy created some offense with his arm (against Oregon). He really has some arm talent, and that showed in the last month.
Williams was 5-of 10-for 37 yards against the Ducks. He rushed five times for 28 yards and a touchdown.
- Rich Rodriguez is winning. And that makes him a popular name for other coaching jobs.
- Even if Kelly does start, Todd Graham says there is room for both quarterbacks.
- Five things to know about Cal.
- Colorado has to find a way to pressure Brett Hundley.
- An Oregon practice report from Wednesday.
- John Garrettt has been calling the plays for Oregon State.
- Mike Bloomgren talks about Stanford's offense and its offensive line.
- Some video with the UCLA coordinators talking Colorado.
- Adoree' Jackson is on pace to play against Utah.
- Devontae Booker is quickly earning the nickname "The Beast."
- Washington is looking for a way to bolster the running game.
- The Cougars are preparing for a high-powered Arizona attack.
Andre Yruretagoyena talks about getting his ears pierced, running without pants and his kitten. Seriously.
You just knew it was going to make an appearance ...
But oh, how quickly the tide changes. Because in just two weeks, Marcus Mariota has led the Oregon Ducks from pandemonium to the Promised Land (with some help from a few other top teams being upset) and back into the good graces of the football gods. Not bad, Marcus, not bad -- just 16 days to go from a hopeless team to a heroic one.
At this point, the Ducks just need to insulate and take care of business because they’re likely in control of their own destiny. According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Oregon has a 21 percent shot to win out. That's third-best among one-loss teams, behind Ohio State and TCU, which both have a 26 percent chance.
And with one game to go until the College Football Playoff committee releases its first set of rankings, Oregon solidified itself as the Pac-12’s banner holder.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t major issues that could still be exploited, and coach Mark Helfrich is the first to admit that.
“There’s a ton we can improve upon, for sure,” he said on Sunday night after watching his team’s game film from its dominant win over Washington.
Such as ... tackling. That has looked better these past two weeks, but the Ducks are still giving up far too many big plays. Oregon has given up 119 plays of 10 or more yards so far this season. You want to know who else has given up that many plays of 10 or more yards?
Purdue and Toledo. In very few cases in college football -- when it comes to statistics -- do you want to be on the same list as those two teams.
As the weeks progress, the Ducks are doing a better job communicating and getting helmets to the ball. But still, of the 1,182 rushing yards the Ducks have allowed, 610 have come after contact.
So, you can decide whether it’s more worrisome that more than half of opponents’ rushing yardage has come after Oregon (tries to) tackle or the fact that through seven games, 572 rushing yards have come before an Oregon defensive player has even gotten to the ball. Or, everyone can just agree that it’s bad news when the Oregon defense allows other teams a 4.3-yards-per-rush average and a 65 percent conversion rate on third-down rushing attempts.
But, it can get better (well, at 120th in the country in third-down rushing defense, it can’t get much worse).
Defensive coordinator Don Pellum has been on this staff a long time, and he knows that this group can play much better than it has. Defenses always take longer to jell and with so many new faces on that side of the ball and D-lineman Arik Armstead hopefully healthy for good, maybe the learning curve will kick up a notch.
But the offense finally seems to be clicking. And though Helfrich wants to downplay the return of offensive tackle Jake Fisher, the skies have looked dramatically clearer for the Ducks since Fisher got back to bookending the left side of the line and protecting Mariota’s blindside.
In Oregon's games against Arizona and Washington State, with Fisher out, the Ducks' average rushing yardage was just about even with what those two teams had given up coming into those games. Meaning, it was average. An average team will not reach the playoff.
But when Fisher returned, the Ducks averaged 1½ times the rushing averages that UCLA and Washington had given up coming into those games. That’s the kind of performance the committee wants to see. It’s not all about statistics, but when Royce Freeman is rushing for 100 yards and Mariota is completing 70 percent of his passes, they’re a hard team to ignore.
And that’s exactly what the Ducks need to be: Hard to ignore -- and not just because their uniforms are flashy.
So, why not Oregon? That’s the question the committee will ask itself as it sits down to look at the résumés of the top 20 or so teams.
It’s a team that knows how to be nationally relevant, but it’s also a team that knows what it feels like to slip out of that conversation.
Two weeks ago, it seemed like that might happen. But the loss to Arizona doesn’t carry as much weight now, as there’s a certainty that at least two one-loss teams will be in the playoff.
Oregon is in the conversation. The Ducks are the ones who are going to decide whether they keep themselves there or not.