Spread-conscious Boilers brace for Ducks' speed

September, 10, 2008
9/10/08
3:51
PM ET
 
 AP Photo/David J. Phillip
 Oregon quarterback Justin Roper has plenty of options at his disposal.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Purdue knows all about big numbers and the spread offense.

The Boilermakers broke the school scoring record in each of Joe Tiller's first two seasons as head coach. Purdue ranked seventh nationally in passing offense in 1998, fourth in 1999 and sixth in 2000.

Superlative statistics became a Purdue trademark, and Tiller's offense earned the nickname basketball on grass. But even Tiller and his coaches haven't seen a beast quite like the Oregon offense, which takes the field Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

The 17th-ranked Ducks are more like pinball on grass.

"This is probably the fastest team we've ever seen here in the 12 years," Boilermakers defensive coordinator Brock Spack said Wednesday. "Most teams have one or two guys that can get it done. They have one at every spot."

Oregon's eye-popping production so far this season brings back memories of Tiller's early Purdue teams. The Ducks lead the nation in total offense, averaging 592 yards a game, and rank fifth nationally in scoring (55 ppg).

No Ducks player ranks in the top 50 nationally in any major statistical category, a testament to the team's skill-position depth. Led by Jeremiah Johnson, who expects to play Saturday despite a right shoulder injury, five players with at least 10 carries average more than 35 rushing yards a game. Top wideout Terence Scott averages 16.1 yards per reception, and the next two options, Jeff Maehl and Jaison Williams, aren't far behind (13.4 ypg).

"When we first came to Purdue, we had some gaudy numbers," said Tiller, who can become the winningest coach in team history if he beats the Ducks. "We did it because the defenses weren't equipped to defend the spread, what we were throwing at them. Defenses are better equipped today to do that, but Oregon just has superior talent.

"From an offensive productivity point of view, their foot speed gives them an edge over many of the people that are trying to defend them."

It's up to Spack to craft a scheme to defend the Ducks and contain their speed as much as possible. The Boilers' defense is faster this season, but they likely will be without their quickest linebacker, junior Jason Werner, whose back problems have resurfaced.

Werner's absence puts increased pressure on outside linebacker Anthony Heygood and other players prowling the perimeter. Spack said Oregon's run game isn't overly complex, but the Ducks are proficient at what head coach Mike Bellotti and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly ask them to do.

"It stresses defenses," Spack said. "They do what we call the read scheme with the offset fullback, create a pitch guy to run the option off of it, double option, triple option off of it. They'll run what we call a key play off that look, where they'll fake to the guys and then bring the quarterback to the perimeter and throw the bubble off of it. They run great misdirection passes. They've just got so much stuff they can attack you with."

Purdue packs a punch on offense as well, and Curtis Painter is one of the nation's most experienced quarterbacks. Painter and wideouts Greg Orton, Keith Smith and Desmond Tardy will test a heralded Ducks secondary.

But from a big-play standpoint, Oregon gets the edge.

"The Oregon offense is a big-strike offense," Tiller said. "We're more inclined to try to nickel and dime the ball down the field. Oregon is going to take it in big chunks. You can attribute that to the fact they have superior foot speed with their skill players."

Could Boilermakers defenders benefit from facing a spread offense every day in practice?

"Common sense would say yes, but I'll tell you no, not really," Spack said. "Because of their speed and the style in which they play the running game, it's different."

Purdue seems to have the advantage at quarterback with Painter, who Saturday could pass Kyle Orton for second place on the school's all-time list for completions, total offense and passing offense. Oregon lost projected starter Nate Costa to a season-ending knee injury, and Justin Roper will make just his fourth career start.

But Roper was brilliant against South Florida in the Sun Bowl last year (4 TD passes), and so far he looks to be the latest of Bellotti's success stories.

"He's really utilized his talent to the optimum," Tiller said of Bellotti. "When he had [Dennis] Dixon, that was one type of a quarterback. With Joey Harrington, they threw the football extremely well and then they ran the ball with the quarterback. Now they've got a guy [Roper] who can run it and throw it. It presents even more problems for you."

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