NCF Nation: DeAnthony Thomas
It’s offense vs. defense, Marcus Mariota vs. Shilique Calhoun, unstoppable force vs. immovable object. There’s a lot to be excited about, even on a national scale. Since 2005, only nine games have featured two top-10 teams duking it out this early. There’s a reason "College GameDay" has decided to descend upon Eugene, Oregon, after all.
Can the underdog Spartans pull it off? Will Oregon’s offense run rampant? Those answers won’t come for another few days, so we decided to take a closer look at those other nine games. Historically, how have games of this magnitude gone down, how often does the underdog win -- and how often do these teams move on to success?
Take a look:
No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson -- Aug. 31, 2013
The favorite: Georgia by 2.5 points
The outcome: Clemson 38-35. This lived up to its hype of being a closely fought shootout. Clemson QB Tajh Boyd proved to be the difference-maker. He threw for three TDs, rushed for two more and totaled 312 yards.
End of season ranking (Clemson): No. 8 (11-2, 7-1 ACC). Beat Ohio State in Orange Bowl, 40-35.
End of season ranking (Georgia): unranked (8-5, 5-3 SEC). Lost to Nebraska in Gator Bowl, 24-19.
No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 8 Michigan (Arlington, Texas) -- Sept. 1, 2012
The favorite: Alabama by 11
The outcome: Alabama 41-14. The Crimson Tide opened the game on a 31-0 run, and Michigan never really stood a chance. The Wolverines’ first six possessions ended with four punts and two interceptions. They moved the ball 24 yards on those drives.
End of season ranking (Alabama): No. 1 (13-1, 7-1 SEC). Won the SEC championship and beat Notre Dame for the national championship, 42-14.
End of season ranking (Michigan): No. 24 (8-5, 6-2 Big Ten). Lost to South Carolina in Outback Bowl, 33-28.
No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU (Arlington, Texas) -- Sept. 3, 2011
The favorite: Oregon by 3.5
The outcome: LSU 40-27. This was billed as a top defense (LSU was No. 12 in total D the year before) vs. a top offense. But the game came apart for the Ducks when De'Anthony Thomas fumbled on consecutive drives deep in his own territory. LSU scored touchdowns on both possessions.
End of season ranking (LSU): No. 2 (13-1, 8-0 SEC). Won the SEC championship but lost to Alabama in the national championship, 21-0.
End of season ranking (Oregon): No. 4 (12-2, 8-1 Pac-12). Won the Pac-12 championship and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, 45-38.
No. 3 Boise State vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech (Landover, Maryland) -- Sept. 3, 2010
The favorite: Boise State by 1.5
The outcome: Boise State 33-30. This one could’ve gone either way. With 1:47 left, Boise State QB Kellen Moore engineered a five-play, 56-yard touchdown drive to give the Broncos the advantage. Virginia Tech turned the ball over on downs on its next possession.
End of season ranking (Boise State): No. 9 (12-1, 7-1 WAC). Lone blemish was a 34-31 overtime loss to Nevada. Beat Utah in Maaco Bowl, 26-3.
End of season ranking (Virginia Tech): No. 16 (11-3, 8-0 ACC). Won ACC championship but lost to Stanford in Orange Bowl, 40-12.
No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 7 Virginia Tech (Atlanta) -- Sept. 5, 2009
The favorite: Alabama by 6.5
The outcome: Alabama 34-24. The Hokies led 17-16 after three quarters, but the fourth quarter was all Alabama. The Tide outscored Virginia Tech 18-7 in the final 15 minutes. A fumble on a kick return didn’t help matters for Tech.
End of season ranking (Alabama): No. 1 (14-0, 8-0 SEC). Won the SEC championship and beat Texas in the national championship, 37-21.
End of season ranking (Virginia Tech): No. 10 (10-3, 6-2 ACC). Beat Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, 37-14.
No. 3 USC at No. 8 Ohio State -- Sept. 12, 2009
The favorite: USC by 6.5
The outcome: USC 18-15. With 7:29 left in the game, Matt Barkley drove the Trojans downfield for a touchdown and two-point conversion. They ate up 6:10 on the drive, and Ohio State responded with a turnover on downs.
End of season ranking (USC): No. 22 (9-4, 5-4 Pac-10). Beat Boston College in the Emerald Bowl, 24-13.
End of season ranking (Ohio State): No. 5 (11-2, 7-1 Big Ten). Won the Big Ten and defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl, 26-17.
No. 9 Virginia Tech at No. 2 LSU -- Sept. 8, 2007
The favorite: LSU by 11
The outcome: LSU 48-7. LSU racked up 598 yards of offense, and this was a snoozer from the beginning. LSU found itself up 14-0 just 10 minutes into the game, and the Hokies converted just two third downs the entire game.
End of season ranking (LSU): No. 1 (12-2, 6-2 SEC). Won SEC championship and beat Ohio State in national championship, 38-24.
End of season ranking (Virginia Tech): No. 9 (11-3, 7-1 ACC). Won ACC championship but lost to Kansas in Orange Bowl, 24-21.
No. 1 Ohio State at No. 2 Texas -- Sept. 9, 2006
The favorite: Texas by 3
The outcome: Ohio State 24-7. It was the first regular-season No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in a decade, and the Buckeyes never trailed in this game. Troy Smith threw for 269 yards and two TDs, while the defense held Texas to less than 20 points for the first time in 21 games.
End of season ranking (Ohio State): No. 2 (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten). Won the Big Ten championship but lost to Florida in the national championship, 41-14.
End of season ranking (Texas): No. 13 (10-3, 6-2 Big 12). Beat Iowa in Alamo Bowl, 26-24.
No. 2 Texas at No. 4 Ohio State -- Sept. 10, 2005
The favorite: Texas by 1.5
The outcome: Texas 25-22. With 2:37 left in the game, Longhorns QB Vince Young found Limas Sweed for the go-ahead 24-yard TD. It was a back-and-forth affair; Texas jumped out to a 10-0 lead but the Buckeyes led at halftime 16-13.
End of season ranking (Texas): No. 1 (13-0, 8-0 Big 12). Won the Big 12 championship and beat USC in the national championship, 41-38.
End of season ranking (Ohio State): No. 4 (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten). Won part of the Big Ten championship and beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, 34-20.
Between 2006, when ESPN began assembling recruit rankings, and 2013, individual programs managed to sign at least two of the top three players at a position 16 times. In many cases, one -- and sometimes both -- of those players became instant stars as true freshmen. Think Taylor Mays and Joe McKnight at USC, De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, Laremy Tunsil at Ole Miss and Sean Spence at Miami.
This was a relatively unique occurrence up until 2014, when it happened five times -- with four of the five instances occurring in the SEC: twice at Alabama, which signed the top two players at both center (No. 1 Josh Casher and No. 2 J.C. Hassenauer) and outside linebacker (No. 1 Christian Miller and No. 2 Rashaan Evans), plus at LSU (with No. 1 and 3 wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) and Florida (with No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles Gerald Willis and Thomas Holley).
Clemson was the other school to accomplish the feat in 2014, signing No. 2 and 3 receiving tight ends Milan Richard and Cannon Smith.
In some of these cases -- particularly at LSU, which lost the vast majority of its receiving production from 2013 -- expectations are high that the star signees can immediately become valuable contributors as true freshmen. The Tigers have multiple alternatives at receiver, including Travin Dural and John Diarse, but Dupre and Quinn might rank among the leading contenders for playing time.
Judging by the long list of Freshman All-America and freshman all-conference honors won by those who previously signed as part of such a dynamic duo, perhaps it's not such a long shot that at least one of the newcomers will make a similar instant impact.
Safety | USC
No. 2 Taylor Mays, No. 3 Antwine Perez
Mays appeared in all 13 games -- starting the last 12 at free safety after Josh Pinkard suffered a season-ending injury in the opener -- in 2006 and led the Trojans with three interceptions. Mays was fifth on the team with 62 tackles and tied for second with six passes defended, ending the season as Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and as a member of multiple Freshman All-America teams. Perez played in seven games and recorded three tackles.
Center | Auburn
No. 1 Ryan Pugh, No. 3 Chaz Ramsey
Pugh started six of Auburn's final nine games at left tackle and appeared in eight games overall. He also backed up Jason Bosley at center and earned Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team honors after the season. Like Pugh, Ramsey appeared for the first time in Week 4 and went on to start nine of the Tigers' last 10 games at right guard. He also made the Coaches' All-SEC Freshman team.
Running back | USC
No. 1 Joe McKnight, No. 2 Marc Tyler
McKnight played in all 13 games in 2007, ranked third on the team with 540 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. He also caught 23 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown and served as the Trojans' primary punt returner, with his 8.4 yards per return helping him earn a All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod. Tyler redshirted in 2007 while recuperating from a high school leg injury.
Inside linebacker | Ohio State
No. 1 Etienne Sabino, No. 2 Andrew Sweat
Sabino played in all 13 games and notched six tackles. He notched the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win against Purdue by returning a blocked punt 20 yards for a score. Sweat appeared in the last nine games and recorded five tackles, also contributing mostly on special teams.
Outside linebacker | Miami
No. 1 Arthur Brown, No. 2 Sean Spence, No. 3 Ramon Buchanan
Not only did Miami sign ESPN's top three outside linebacker prospects in 2008, it also signed No. 5 Jordan Futch. That's an outstanding haul for one year. At any rate, Spence emerged as the key member of this group from the get-go, ranking third on the team with 65 tackles and leading the Hurricanes with 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2008. He was ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and made multiple Freshman All-America teams. Brown (who later transferred to Kansas State) played in 11 games as a freshman, notching four tackles and shifting from outside to inside linebacker. Buchanan had six tackles in nine games, playing mostly on special teams and also contributing at safety and linebacker.
Offensive tackle | Ohio State
No. 2 Michael Brewster, No. 3 J.B. Shugarts
Brewster played in 12 of the Buckeyes' 13 games in 2008 and started the last 10 at center, earning Freshman All-America honors in the process. Shugarts appeared in seven games at offensive tackle and missed six other games with a shoulder surgery that required offseason surgery.
Safety | Florida
No. 1 Will Hill, No. 2 Dee Finley
Hill played in 13 games and ranked sixth on the team with 48 tackles. He also picked off two passes and notched 1.5 sacks. He made the SEC All-Freshman team and led the Gators with 22 tackles on special teams. Finley did not qualify academically and spent the 2008 season at Milford Academy prep school. He eventually enrolled at Florida and shifted from safety to linebacker, but transferred away from Gainesville in 2011.
Safety | South Carolina
No. 2 Stephon Gilmore, No. 3 DeVonte Holloman
Early enrollee Gilmore started all 13 games at cornerback, ranking fifth on the team with 56 tackles. He tied for the team lead with nine passes defended and ranked second with eight pass breakups, adding six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and an interception. The Freshman All-SEC and Freshman All-America honoree also averaged 10.1 yards per return as a punt return man. Another early enrollee, Hollomon also played in every game, notching 30 tackles, an interception (which he returned 54 yards against rival Clemson) and a tackle for a loss.
Athlete | Florida
No. 1 Ronald Powell, No. 2 Matt Elam
Powell played in 13 games at strongside linebacker and recorded 25 tackles, three tackles for a loss and a sack en route to winning Freshman All-SEC honors. Elam also played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams and at defensive back, and notched 22 tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.
Defensive tackle | Florida
No. 1 Dominique Easley, No. 3 Sharrif Floyd
Easley recorded four tackles in six games. Floyd played in all 13 games, earning Coaches' Freshman All-SEC honors by making 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.
Wide receiver | Texas
No. 2 Mike Davis, No. 3 Darius White
Davis ranked second on the team with 478 receiving yards and 47 receptions (a record for a Texas freshman). He became one of only three receivers in Longhorns history to post multiple 100-yard games as a freshman. White appeared in 10 games in 2010, but caught just one pass for 5 yards and eventually transferred to Missouri after two seasons, citing a need for a fresh start.
Athlete | Oregon
No. 1 De'Anthony Thomas, No. 2 Devon Blackmon
The speedy Thomas earned Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year honors and was named an All-Pac-12 kick returner and a Freshman All-American. He was the only player in the nation to post at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning in 2011, ranking as the Ducks' second-leading receiver (595 yards on 46 catches) and third-leading rusher (608 yards and seven touchdowns). His 983 kickoff return yards ranked second in school history. Blackmon redshirted in 2011 and appeared in two games in 2012 before announcing his plan to transfer. He played at Riverside City College before signing with BYU as a juco transfer in 2014.
Defensive end | Florida State
No. 1 Mario Edwards, No. 3 Chris Casher
Edwards became the only freshman to start all season for a loaded FSU defense when he replaced the injured Tank Carradine in the ACC Championship Game. He also started in the Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois. In all, Edwards finished the season with 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Casher played in two early games before suffering a season-ending injury and taking a redshirt in 2012.
Offensive guard | Michigan
No. 2 David Dawson, No. 3 Patrick Kugler
Dawson and Kugler both redshirted in 2013. Dawson practiced during the spring at left guard and left tackle, while Kugler is among the candidates to start at center this fall.
Offensive tackle | Ole Miss
No. 1 Laremy Tunsil, No. 3 Austin Golson
Tunsil immediately became one of the better offensive tackles in the SEC, earning second-team All-SEC and Freshman All-America honors in 2013. He played in 12 games and started nine at left tackle, making him one of only two true full-time freshman starters at the position in the FBS. Tunsil allowed just one sack all season. Golson played in 12 games, mostly at guard, before missing the Rebels' bowl game because of shoulder surgery. He transferred to Auburn this summer, citing a family illness as the reason he wanted to move closer to his Alabama home.
Safety | USC
No. 1 Su'a Cravens, No. 3 Leon McQuay III
A 2013 early enrollee, Cravens started 13 games at strong safety, ranked eighth on the team with 52 tackles and tied for second with four interceptions. He made multiple Freshman All-America teams and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod after the season. McQuay played in all 14 games, picked off one pass and recorded 19 tackles.
Earlier this morning, we took a look at who might replace the guys who jumped to the NFL in the South Division. Here’s a look at the North.
Leaving: Brendan Bigelow, RB, Cal
The replacement: Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco are both coming back, so there is at least some experience at the position. Jeffrey Coprich and Darren Ervin could also see some time. Incoming freshman Devante Downs is built more like a fullback but could also see some carries in the running game.
Leaving: Richard Rodgers, WR, Cal
The replacement: Stephen Anderson is a possibility to emerge at inside receiver. Darius Powe is going to see action regardless of whether it’s inside or outside and Raymond Hudson, Jacob Wark, and Drake Whitehurst are all possibilities.
Leaving: Khairi Fortt, LB, Cal
The replacement: Nathan Broussard is coming off an injury and Raymond Davison and Jason Gibson are moving back to linebacker from safety. Juco transfers Sam Atoe and Jonathon Johnson could help. Also, Downs (see the Bigelow section) comes in as an athlete, and putting him on the defensive side of the ball is a possibility.
Leaving: Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal
The replacement: Darius Allensworth and Trey Cheek will get the most looks. Cedric Dozier saw some starting time last season. He’s not a lock but has some experience. Isaac Lapite, Adrian Lee and Joel Willis are also possibilities. Stefan McClure should also be back from his 2013 injury, and Cameron Walker, who was playing out of position at safety, might move back to corner.
Leaving: Viliami Moala, DT, Cal
The replacement: Jacobi Hunter should be the main guy, but transfers Trevor Kelly and Marcus Manley should help out across the line. Austin Clark is still waiting to hear about his sixth year of eligibility, but if he gets it, he and Mustafa Jalil could shuffle up and down the line as they look to replace the graduated Deandre Coleman as well.
Leaving: Chris McCain, DE, Cal (Previously dismissed from team)
The replacement: Kyle Kragen and Puka Lopa were the top two guys to replace McCain after he left. Brennan Scarlett is also expected back and Johnson could be in the mix. The coaching staff seems to be really high on him.
The replacement: Unless Oregon is hiding another multitalented back who can run like DAT, there is no "real" replacement. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner should continue to get the work as the primary 1-2 punch, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks use either in a more dynamic way like they did Thomas.
Leaving: Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (Left the team earlier in the season).
The replacement: Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis and John Mundt will all continue to get work, probably in that order. They all pitched in in some capacity after Lyerla left the team, so the Ducks should be in good shape at the position.
Leaving: Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
The replacement: That Ifo Ekpre-Olomu opted to return bodes well for the Ducks. Troy Hill would have been the obvious selection, but he remains suspended indefinitely, and his future with the program is in question. Dior Mathis has experience and the coaching staff is high on redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. Juco transfer Dominique Harrison enrolled early and will participate in spring ball, so there are options.
Leaving: Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
The replacement: Much like USC’s dilemma with Marqise Lee, The Beavers' task of replacing a Biletnikoff winner is no easy one. Victor Bolden is the logical choice. He returned kicks, ran a few fly sweeps and was Cooks’ immediate backup. But a big wide receiver class last year that included Bolden, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones could make things more interesting in the spring.
Leaving: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
The replacement: Lavonte Barnett was the backup all season but didn’t have much production. Jaswha James has bounced around a bit -- mostly at linebacker -- but has finally settled at DE and had a nice bowl performance. Titus Failauga is also a possibility as Mike Riley went out of his way to specifically mention him during a recent teleconference. There are also rumblings that Obum Gwacham -- a talented athlete who hasn’t worked out at wide receiver -- could move to defensive end.
Leaving: David Yankey, OL, Stanford
Leaving: Cameron Fleming, OL, Stanford
The replacement: Like Garnett, Kyle Murphy was part of the ’12 class and has also seen his share of action on the offensive line. The Cardinal are replacing four offensive linemen, but most of those replacements -- such as Garnett and Murphy -- already have some playing experience.
Leaving: Ed Reynolds, FS, Stanford
The replacement: Good question. All of Stanford’s free safeties are gone, while returning strong safeties include Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir. Someone could make a switch, or it’s possible that former quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who is now making the transition to safety, could play here.
Leaving: Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
The replacement: Jesse Callier started the 2012 season, but a season-ending injury gave rise to Sankey. Dwayne Washington seems like he could be an every down-type back, while Callier excels in third-down situations or as a changeup back. Deontae Cooper will also see carries.
Leaving: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
The replacement: Joshua Perkins was the No. 2 all season, so there’s little reason to think he won’t graduate to No. 1. He’s more receiver than blocker, but he’s got talent and shouldn’t have a problem assuming the role of the outgoing Mackey winner.
While the return of UCLA QB Brett Hundley for his redshirt junior season was the weekend's big news, an early-entry to the NFL draft talent drain is hitting the Pac-12 hard.
While a number of big-name players have not yet formally announced their intensions -- such as Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford OG David Yankey, Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Arizona State LB Carl Bradford and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion -- already 17 players have announced they will give up their remaining eligibility to turn professional.
The deadline to declare is Jan. 15.
There has been good news at quarterback. Hundley joins Oregon's Marcus Mariota as pretty significant surprises that they opted to return to school, and that means the 2014 class of Pac-12 quarterbacks will be without peer in the nation by a wide margin.
Here's the early-entry list so far:
Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon*
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE California
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah
*Lyerla was kicked off the team at Oregon in October.
How do you think Mack Brown's resignation affects this game?
Max Olson: Throughout the past few weeks, Brown has stuck to the same message publicly: Texas players should win this game for themselves, not for their coach. They’ve had a brutal season, overcome plenty and have a chance to cap it with a ninth win and a few good memories. Brown keeps saying he wants this to be about the kids, not him.
What we’ll get out of kids, though, I just don’t know. They’ve been big underdogs before. They came out firing against Oklahoma and built real momentum. They held Baylor to 3 points in the first half but ran out of gas. Which Texas team shows up Monday? They’ll need plenty of motivation and good fortune.
Kevin Gemmell: My first thought was that this was going to be a huge motivation advantage for Texas -- and I’m a big believer that the bowl season is all about which team is motivated to be there. But I think the recent news that Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is also retiring balances things out in the Oregon locker room. While he’s not as big of a name nationally as Brown, he’s as much an Oregon institution as Brown is to Texas.
Both pregame speeches will be rousing. Heartstrings will be tugged. But ultimately it comes down to what happens on the field. If Oregon is able to set aside its disappointment of not being in a BCS game, then who is coaching on which sideline shouldn't matter because on paper Oregon is the stronger team.
What should be expected of a 100-percent healthy Marcus Mariota?
Gemmell: For starters, an extra element to the Oregon offense that makes them that much tougher to stop. Consider Mariota in the first seven games of the season before his knee injury. He averaged 70.4 rushing yards per game and scored nine touchdowns -- including at least one rushing touchdown in all seven games. Since hurting the knee against UCLA, he’s averaged just 17.8 rushing yards with zero rushing touchdowns.
He also threw four interceptions in the final two games after going pick-free for the first 10, so aside from his rushing abilities -- which are substantial -- his throwing mechanics should be much stronger. I’m of the belief that when he’s 100 percent healthy, Mariota is the best football player in the country. And if Texas gets a 100 percent Mariota, he’s going to be very, very difficult to stop.
Olson: Mariota is one of the many reasons why this is just not a good matchup for Texas, especially considering its defense has had legitimate issues defending the option against mobile quarterbacks. Of quarterbacks who started the last two seasons, nobody in the country has a better Total QBR than Mariota at 89.0. He’s the real deal. I fully expect him to put up big numbers in the Alamodome, and it’ll be interesting to see how Texas defends him, probably with Jackson Jeffcoat reprising his freestyle “spinner” role.
Who will be the key player in this game?
Olson: If you’ve been following this Texas team, you know the key isn’t getting a huge performance from Case McCoy. Yes, he needs to play relatively mistake-free and hit on the big passes when they’re there. But Texas doesn’t stand a chance in this one without a big night from Malcolm Brown.
The San Antonio native had rushed for 421 yards in the four games since Texas lost Johnathan Gray, including 118 in the first half against Baylor. He did a terrific job of hitting cutback lanes against the Bears, and run defense hasn’t been a strength for Oregon. Brown needs to get rolling or Texas could fall behind quickly.
Gemmell: Take your pick from any number of superstars on both sides of the ball for Oregon. Be it Mariota, Josh Huff or Byron Marshall. Defensively, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is as lockdown as they come. But the guy who always seems to show up in the postseason is De’Anthony Thomas.
Last season against Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, he returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, caught four balls for 60 yards and a score and rushed twice for 15 yards. In the 2011 Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, he carried twice for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Wisconsin. He also caught four balls for 34 yards and returned five kicks for 125 yards. Thomas is a big-game player with blazing speed and scary elusiveness. When he’s hitting on all cylinders, he’s a difference maker.
After a trying second half of the season, Christmas came early for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich when quarterback Marcus Mariota announced Tuesday that he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, in which he almost certainly would have been an early first-round selection.
As a stocking stuffer, two-time first-team All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu also announced he will return. Goducks.com, the school’s athletics website, announced the news for both.
Mariota, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for a second consecutive year, will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as he captains an offense that looks like it will welcome back eight starters, a calculation that doesn't include DAT or RB Byron Marshall, the Ducks leading rusher.
While the Ducks' defense will take a few hits, Helfrich's second team appears stacked and ready for a potential bounce-back season. North Division rival Stanford will be replacing a number of key stars on both sides of the ball, including eight players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Mariota completed 227 of 360 attempts for 3,412 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He set a Pac-12 record from the end of last season into this year by attempting 353 passes without an interception. He ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com Stats & Information's Total QBR.
Of course, a knee injury suffered against UCLA on Oct. 26 hampered him over the second half of the season, most notably in the Ducks' first loss at Stanford. Still, the Ducks "down" year produced a 10-2 record, a sixth consecutive 10-win season with a bowl game left to play.
Mariota's return means that as many as 10 conference teams could welcome back their 2013 starting quarterback. We still await word from UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion on whether they will enter the NFL draft. The return of Utah's Travis Wilson is up in the air due to health issues.
Only Arizona and Washington started seniors at QB this year.
The dual return of Mariota and Grasu means the brains of the Ducks' offense will be back in 2014. Grasu, perhaps the nation's top center, should have a mastery of the Ducks' offensive line calls, while Mariota figures to own an Andrew Luck-like knowledge of the nuances of the Ducks' offense as a third-year starter.
That's a huge advantage heading into 2014.
Further, their return is a vote of confidence in Helfrich. If one or the other didn't believe in the Ducks' first-year coach, they almost certainly would have moved on.
The only Ducks who might be unhappy with Mariota's decision are backup QBs Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who will be redshirt sophomores next season. They probably expected to be in a hotly contested competition for the starting job this spring. That said, they might benefit from another year of seasoning playing behind a future high NFL draft choice.
Of course, sometimes the celebrated return of a QB doesn't always work out (see: USC's Matt Barkley in 2012). Fans and NFL scouts will expect Mariota to be even better next fall. Comparable numbers might be viewed as a sign of his plateauing.
But that's a potentiality that isn't worth fretting over today.
Oregon fans were frustrated when the program lost two of its final four games and fell out of the national title race. Here's a guess that those frowns just turned upside down.
TUCSON, Ariz. -- If you wanted to floridly imagine a cosmic wrath exacted on Oregon on Saturday by the slighted Rose Bowl in Arizona's 42-16 whipping of the Ducks, you would note that the Wildcats were clad head-to-toe in rosy red while they posted their first win over a top-five team since 2007.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to further belabor De'Anthony Thomas' and Josh Huff's controversial musings last week about not being excited about the possibility of playing in the Rose Bowl because they had their sights set on the national title game, but the karmic symmetry is impossible to ignore.
Turn your nose up at the Granddaddy? Fine, how do you feel about the Alamo Bowl? Or maybe even something a little lower on the Pac-12 bowl pecking order?
Completely true. What did matter was the Wildcats playing an outstanding game in all three phases and the Ducks looking sloppy and uninterested while getting thrashed.
"Very sluggish in every phase. That's 100 percent my fault," Helfrich said. "I have to figure out exactly which levers to pull and buttons to push."
There were a lot of notable negative landmarks for Oregon. This was the Ducks' first loss to an unranked team since 2009. The 26-point margin of defeat was their biggest since losing 44-10 to USC in 2008. After four consecutive BCS bowl berths, the Ducks will be playing before the New Year this postseason. Stanford wins the North Division for the second consecutive year.
Further, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota threw his first two interceptions of the season. The first came on the Ducks' opening offensive play, and it set the tone for the game. It was a catchable ball that bounced off sure-handed Bralon Addison along the sideline and was then redirected in bounds by Arizona cornerback Shaquille Richardson into the waiting hands of freshman linebacker Scooby Wright.
It was a fortuitous bit of playmaking, something the Wildcats had a surfeit of, while the normally fancypants Ducks seemed to be all thumbs.
"Everything went right today," Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker said.
Denker, who began the season looking like the worst quarterback in the Pac-12, is now perhaps the most improved player in the Pac-12. He was nothing short of brilliant Saturday, completing 19 of 22 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions and rushing for 102 yards on 14 carries. But top billing for Arizona goes to running back Ka'Deem Carey, who might need a second look from Heisman Trophy voters.
Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns. It was his 14th consecutive 100-yard-plus rushing game, an active streak that now is tied for longest by an FBS player over the past 10 seasons (Jerome Harrison, 2004-05)
His 48 carries is a new school record and the most so far this season by any FBS running back. All those carries, by the way, produced just two lost yards. Further, Carey, a junior, became Arizona's career rushing leader with 3,913 yards, eclipsing Trung Canidate (1996-99). He also set a new school record for career touchdowns with 49, surpassing Art Luppino (1953-56).
"I think he's the best back in the country," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said.
The Wildcats defense was at its best at important moments. Oregon had a first-and-goal on the Arizona 9-yard line in the first quarter but netted only a field goal. The Wildcats held the Ducks on a fourth-and-2 play on their 41 with one minute before halftime, which ended up producing a quick Arizona touchdown drive for a 28-9 lead at the break. They stopped Oregon on a fourth-and-2 play from their 6-yard line in the third quarter. They intercepted Mariota on a second-and-1 play from their 13 in the fourth.
"We were really dialed in the whole game," a perky Rodriguez told reporters.
The opposite could be said for Oregon.
"No energy," Huff said. "Arizona played with a lot of emotion."
The Ducks were plagued by four dropped passes and drive-killing penalties. Despite seeing his Pac-12 record streak of 353 consecutive pass attempts without an interception end, Mariota played well. He completed 27 of 41 passes with two touchdowns, and his sprained knee seemed much better as he rushed for 52 yards and wasn't sacked.
Still, the loss surely will end his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
"It hurts," Mariota said about the loss, not the Heisman slippage. "I have never been blown out like this before in my life."
None of the current Oregon players have, at least while wearing a Ducks uniform. That's why the loss seems stunning and represents a bigger crisis for Helfrich in his first season than the lackluster showing at Stanford. He admitted there needs to be some "inward looking" throughout the program.
"We have a bunch of guys who are very hurt in that locker room right now," Helfrich said.
The question now no longer centers on the Rose Bowl or any BCS bowl. That possibility is done for. It's only about a Civil War matchup on Friday with Oregon State. It's about showing pride.
That Stanford won isn’t/shouldn’t be considered shocking. That Oregon was scoreless through three quarters might be. That the Ducks stormed back for 20 points in the fourth quarter in only an eight-minute span makes perfect sense.
Heading into Thursday night’s showdown, the No. 3 Ducks represented the Pac-12’s best chance for a national championship. A victory over No. 5 Stanford would have almost guaranteed they’d jump Florida State in the BCS standings and put them back in the No. 2 spot. From there, it was as simple case of winning out and advancing to the title game.
But for the second year in a row, the Ducks' BCS title hopes were severely wounded at the hands of a Stanford defense that was dominant on the line of scrimmage and an offense that jack-hammered its way up and down the field.
“Any loss is disappointing,” said Oregon first-year coach Mark Helfrich. “Where we’ve put ourselves and where our players have put ourselves, it’s obviously magnified. … We don’t hold the cards anymore, but we never hold the cards. We have to come back, prepare and get ready for whoever is next.”
And next is Utah -- the team that could ultimately go down as the fly in the Pac-12’s title ointment after it knocked off Stanford in Salt Lake City last month.
The Cardinal seized control of the Pac-12 North. With victories over USC and California, the Cardinals would again represent the North Division in the Pac-12 championship game. Their regular-season finale against Notre Dame also takes on a greater importance when considering the BCS landscape.
The Cardinal still need some help if they hope to get into one of the top two spots in the BCS rankings. Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State are all undefeated. And the chances of a one-loss team -- even one with a résumé as impressive as Stanford’s -- making that kind of jump seems improbable. There is obviously much football to be played. But for now, 2013 projects to play out much like 2012. If the Cardinal win out, they’ll likely go to another Rose Bowl and a one-loss Oregon team should find its way into a BCS game as an at-large team.
But that’s a lot of ifs.
“You know, it’s November. It’s November,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “We talked as a team about [how] it’s time to play our best football. No one has seen our best football, and that’s including us. Tonight was about three and three quarters of it, and that’s what we talk about. We can’t be satisfied. We can’t be satisfied with how we finished the game. I’m not happy about it one bit. We can’t be satisfied with one win. We’ve got to win in November. We’ve got a tough game next week against an outstanding USC team that’s playing great and we’ve got to be ready to roll.”
For the Ducks, there is plenty to lament in a game accented by turnovers and missed opportunities. Twice Oregon advanced inside the Stanford 5-yard line and twice they were turned away. Both failures led to 96-yard scoring drives by the Cardinal.
And then there was the issue of Marcus Mariota’s injured knee. Reports started to circulate just before kickoff that he had a sprained MCL, and the coach and quarterback tip-toed around the issue during the postgame non-festivities.
“It is what it is,” Mariota said. “It’s a little banged up, but it’s nothing too extraordinary. We’re just going to take it and get healthy and I’ll be ready next week.”
Asked if he thought Mariota’s knee was bothering him, Helfrich said: “I don’t know. Everybody’s banged up this time of the year.”
Still, the Cardinal defense kept Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas bottled up. The Ducks managed just 62 rushing yards and were 3 of 10 on third-down conversions.
“We don’t concede points,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, who made 10 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles. “People can write what they want to and say what they want. But what counts is the guys that take that field. Eleven guys on offense take the field and 11 guys on defense. What happens between the lines is dictated by us. That’s the only thing we can control and that’s how we play.”
In the national picture, Oregon’s loss feels more significant than Stanford’s win because it takes another undefeated team off the board. But in the Stanford locker room, where things were far more festive, this victory sends a message that Stanford’s sustained success is not by coincidence.
“It’s huge,” said running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 45 carries. “I think the whole nation knows, and us especially, that this is a play-in game for the Pac-12 North. To be able to win the Pac-12 championship, you have to go through Oregon or you have to go through us. That is the mentality.”
- The big one: No. 5 Stanford will host No. 3 Oregon on Thursday night in a game that is sure to send shock waves throughout the Pac-12 and BCS Standings. A win for the Ducks likely re-catapults them back over Florida State and into the No. 2 spot of the BCS rankings -- the outcome of Alabama-LSU pending. A victory for the Cardinal keeps their national championship hopes alive, but they’d still need some help along the way to pass Ohio State and Florida State. This is just the second time that two Pac-12 teams have met while ranked in the top five of the BCS standings. The last time was No. 4 Arizona State and No. 5 Oregon in 2007.
- Edges matter: Per the brilliant number crunchers at ESPN Stats & Info, the Cardinal will have to contain the Ducks when they try to run outside. Oregon averages 8.7 yards per rush outside the tackles, second among all AQ teams behind Wisconsin. Last season, Stanford forced Oregon to run 63 percent of the time between the tackles. And when the Ducks did get outside, the Cardinal were able to contain them to the tune of just 29 yards, 1.9 yards per rush and 1.3 yards before contact. In Oregon’s other games last season, they averaged 108.1 yards per game outside the tackles.[+] EnlargeScott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsByron Marshall leads the Oregon rushing attack at Stanford on Thursday night.
- The other side of the ball: We know about Oregon’s offense. We know about Stanford’s defense. How about when roles are reversed? The Cardinal offense hasn’t been all that productive of late, averaging just 21.6 points over its past three games. Oregon’s defense yields just 16.9 points per game -- seventh-best in the country. Turnovers will obviously be a premium for both defenses. Stanford has a zero turnover margin with 11 takeaways and 11 giveaways. Oregon, however, is plus-13 with 23 turnovers gained to 10 turnovers lost.
- Quotable: Always good for a one-liner, Stanford coach David Shaw was asked earlier in the week about De’Anthony Thomas’ comments that he expects the Ducks to score at least 40 points. “I don’t have an issue with that,” Shaw said. “He’s a confident young man, and they put it on film. They’ve done it. So I have no problem with that if that’s his mentality. I’m just glad he only said 40.” Seeing as Shaw has a penchant for the us-against-the-world approach for his team, here’s betting he had a different message for his defense behind closed doors.
- South showdown (1): UCLA heads to Tucson, where it hasn’t won since 2003 -- the first year of the Karl Dorrell era. Both teams have already achieved bowl eligibility. Both teams sit at 3-2 in conference play. Now it becomes a question of pecking order. Ka’Deem Carey has rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 straight games, which is tops in the FBS. The Bruins snapped their two-game losing streak with a win over Colorado last week. Brett Hundley posted the third game of his career with two rushing and two passing touchdowns and he accounted for 345 yards of total offense. Keep an eye on how things play out in the first 30 minutes, because the Bruins are 13-0 under coach Jim Mora when they lead at the half.
- South showdown (2): The Sun Devils look to strengthen their foothold on the South with a trip to Utah -- a team they blasted in Tempe last season. In fact, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he has “horrible memories” of last season's loss and called it one of Utah’s poorest performances since joining the Pac-12. The obvious sidebar here is it’s the first time Utah offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson is facing the team he used to coach. But Whittingham said Erickson is a pretty even-keeled guy and he doesn’t expect sentiment or emotions to play a role. Whittingham also said that quarterback Travis Wilson is healed from his hand injury and won’t wear a glove. Across the field, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly is coming off of a seven-touchdown game on the road at Washington State.
- Silas Redd rushing for 140 yards and Buck Allen collecting 133 yards (8.3 yards per catch) and 3 TDs. Allen was USC’s fourth different back to rush for 100 yards this season. Marqise Lee is also coming off an outstanding performance, grabbing five passes for a season-high 105 yards and one touchdown in the win over the Beavers. Cal is still looking for a conference win, but should have some more confidence after an improved showing last week against Arizona. Trojans rolling: Since making the coaching switch from Lane Kiffin to interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans have gone 3-1, including a convincing 31-14 win last week on the road at Oregon State. For the second time this season USC had a pair of running backs post 100-yard games with senior
- Bowl eligible: So far there are six teams already bowl eligible (Oregon, Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA) with two more on the verge of becoming eligible this week. USC, because of the 13-game regular season schedule sits at 6-3 overall and needs to pick up a win at California to get a spot in the postseason. Washington is at 5-3 with a visit from Colorado. Both teams are favorites, which would give the league eight teams headed to the postseason with the legitimate potential for two more (Utah and Washington State). Both have four wins and Colorado still has an outside shot. Cal is the only Pac-12 team eliminated from bowl eligibility.
- Star power: Two of the nation’s elite offensive playmakers square off in Seattle when Colorado visits Washington. Buffs wide receiver Paul Richardson has 57 catches for 984 yards with eight touchdowns and continues to close in on several of Colorado’s single-season receiving marks. Washington counters with running back Bishop Sankey, who enters the week as the nation’s No. 3 rusher, averaging 145.3 yards per game. He’s coming off a career-best 241-yard performance against Cal and ranks fourth nationally with 12 rushing touchdowns.
- Taking a breather: There are two teams on bye this week with Oregon State looking to refocus after dropping back-to-back games against Stanford and USC and Washington State taking its second bye week in the past three. The Beavers, who are already bowl eligible, close the season with two of their final three on the road; at ASU, home to Washington and at Oregon for the Civil War. With four wins, the Cougars need to win two more to teach the postseason. They are also on the road for two of their past three with dates at Arizona next week and home to Utah before closing out the Apple Cup in Seattle.
Kenjon Barner was Oregon's bona fide star in the backfield last season, and speedy sophomore De'Anthony Thomas was one of the country's most explosive players. Barner ran for 1,767 yards with 21 touchdowns in 2012, while Thomas ran for 701 yards with 11 scores.
Marshall, from Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Calif., had a solid freshman season, running 87 times for 447 yards with four touchdowns. When Barner departed after the 2012 season, Marshall was still supposed to take a back seat to Thomas this season.
But after Thomas sprained his ankle against California on Sept. 28, Marshall emerged as No. 3 Oregon's top running threat. Going into Thursday night's game at No. 5 Stanford, Marshall has gained more than 100 rushing yards in each of the past five games. Thomas started against then-No. 12 UCLA on Oct. 26, but reinjured his ankle in the second quarter. Marshall ran for 133 yards with three touchdowns in Oregon's 42-14 victory.
"I knew there would be competition coming in, especially with how many great backs that have come out of here year after year after year," Marshall said. "I never want to shy away from competition. I wouldn't go to a school just because I have a guaranteed spot if I can go to a better school and fight for a job. At a top-five program, there's always going to be competition for a position. You always have to be ready to play."
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1. Oregon in the spotlight: Separated by just 45 miles, Oregon and Oregon State will host a pair of California teams in games that will surely have major Pac-12 implications. Heisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA square off as the undefeated No. 3 Ducks look to crack the top two of the BCS standings. Oregon State, winners of six in a row, host a reinvigorated Stanford squad that topped UCLA last week to get back into the top 10.
2. Get up for GameDay: ESPN’s College Football GameDay will be in Oregon for the Bruins-Ducks showdown. While the Ducks' offense gets plenty of attention -- and rightfully so -- it’s that defense, allowing fewer than 18 points per game -- that has been equally spectacular, if not underappreciated. They’ll go against a UCLA offensive line that is young and a bit banged up. The Bruins scored a season-low 10 points in the loss last week to Stanford. Part of the decline has been the loss of running back Jordon James, who is questionable this week. In their last two weeks, per ESPN Stats & Information, UCLA backs have been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 60 percent of their designed runs. In the first four games they had nine rushes of 20 yards or more. In the past two games, zero. On the flip side, Oregon has had no trouble running the ball (332.4 yards per game), and should be bolstered by the expected return of De’Anthony Thomas.
4. Bounce back? The Huskies -- once ranked as high as 15th in the country -- look to snap a three-game skid when California comes to town. The Bears are still looking for their first conference win and have dropped nine straight Pac-12 games dating back to last season. Complicating the matter for the Huskies is quarterback Keith Price and the injured thumb on his throwing hand. He has played through the injury for three weeks, but there is a question of whether he’ll be effective enough to play this week.
5. Honoring Coach James: Washington is also planning several tributes to legendary coach Don James, who died Sunday at age 80 of pancreatic cancer. In 18 seasons at Washington, James led the Huskies to six Pac-10 titles, a share of the 1991 national championship and a 153-58-2 record. Players and coaches will wear decals with the initials "DJ" and members of his family will serve as the honorary captains for the pregame coin toss. The band will perform a tribute to James at halftime, along with a memorial video. A public memorial service will be held Sunday afternoon at Alaska Airlines Arena.
6. Bounce back? Take 2: Utah and USC will both look to rebound from flat road performances last week. Utah is back on the road, headed down to L.A., where the Utes haven’t won since 1916. Aside from the bowl implications (see below) this is also a big recruiting trip for Utah, since 33 players on the roster hail from California. Utah’s front has been nasty, averaging 3.14 sacks per game, tops in the Pac-12. The Trojans got a boost with the return of Silas Redd (112 yards vs. Notre Dame) but marquee players from both teams, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, are battling injuries.
7. Off and running: In case anyone needs reminding, Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards and five touchdowns in last year’s win over Colorado. The teams will meet again in Boulder, and Carey has picked up where he left off last year. He has nine straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the country with an average of 161 yards per game. The Buffs are coming of a win over Charleston Southern where Michael Adkins II rushed for 137 yards and four touchdowns. Also, from the Department of Funky Stats, Colorado is 0-6 in the pregame coin toss this year.
8. Bowl bound: Three Pac-12 teams are already bowl eligible: Oregon (7-0), Oregon State (6-1) and Stanford (6-1). For those three, it’s all about pecking order and jockeying for position to get to the best possible bowl game, which could include Roses, or maybe something bigger. All three of those teams still have to play each other starting with Stanford’s trip to Oregon State this weekend, Oregon’s trip to Stanford on Nov. 7 and OSU’s trip to Autzen on Nov. 29 for the Civil War.
9. Bowl bound? Lots of teams are on the bubble, but only one team could become bowl eligible this week. That’s UCLA (5-1). Of course, to do it, they’ll have to upset Oregon on the road. With GameDay in town, this one takes center stage across the country. Arizona State is the league’s only other five-win team, for now, and is off this weekend. Five other teams have four wins: Washington State (4-4, 2-3), Washington (4-3, 1-3), Arizona (4-2, 1-2), USC (4-3, 1-2) and Utah (4-3, 1-2).
10. Taking a breather: Two byes this week with Arizona State and Washington State resting up. The Cougars started the year with eight straight games, and head coach Mike Leach said that it’s possible some fatigue may have set in over the past couple of games -- both losses to the Oregon teams. WSU and ASU will meet next Thursday night in Pullman.
We point that out because that's about the only thing Oregon isn't doing well right now.
Others are deceptive. Oregon ranks sixth in total defense but is No. 1 in the far more revealing stat of average yards surrendered per play, where they rank eighth in the nation at 4.46 yards. The Ducks are 10th in red-zone offense, but their touchdown percentage in the red zone -- 72.1 percent -- ranks second.
This seems like a team with few, if any, holes. So what are the Ducks' weaknesses?
"I haven't seen any," said California coach Sonny Dyke, whose Bears lost 55-16 at Oregon on Sept. 28. "They are incredibly fast. I think the difference this year is they are throwing the ball so much better. Their receivers are faster, bigger, stronger, more physical, making more plays than in the past."
In the preseason, there were three questions about Oregon: 1. How would Mark Helfrich do stepping in for Chip Kelly? 2. What would be the pecking order at running back and how would De'Anthony Thomas be used? 3. How would the Ducks replace the dynamic linebacking troika of Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay?
Check, check and check.
The 7-0 record, No. 2 ranking in the national polls -- No. 3 in the BCS standings -- and 40-point average margin of victory suggest that Helfrich is doing fairly well. He might be a softer touch than Kelly -- though he's not afraid to tweak a reporter or two -- but he's not taking any mercy on the field.
Running back? The bottom line is the Ducks are No. 2 in the nation in rushing with 332.4 yards per game, 17 yards better than last year's average, and they've done that with DAT missing the last four games with an injury. Backups Byron Marshall and true freshman Thomas Tyner are both averaging 6.7 yards per carry and have combined for 16 touchdowns. Marshall, a sophomore, ranks 19th in the nation with 106.6 yards rushing per game.
Linebacker? Tony Washington, who replaced Jordan, has nine tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Jordan had 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2012. Derrick Malone leads the Ducks in tackles with 59. And, really, the bottom line is the defensive numbers, including a run defense that ranks 22nd in the nation.
"I think [the Ducks defense is] certainly the best they've been," Dykes said. "The secondary is really, really good. They are good at linebacker and they are pretty active up front."
Of course, Dykes is a first-year Pac-12 coach who hasn't been dealing with Oregon during its rise to consistent top-five team, though he was Arizona's offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2009. If we're going to ask whether this version of Oregon might be the best yet, we need to ask someone who's seen them all.
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, whose Huskies have lost 10 in a row to Oregon, including five defeats during his tenure, let out a big breath when asked if this was the Ducks' best team.
"Hooof," he said. "We've played some pretty good ones. I think the balance they have on offense is probably the best that they've been."
The general consensus is Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' best quarterback during its recent run. He might, in fact, as former Ducks All-American QB Joey Harrington recently volunteered, be the best in program history. Mariota brings a dangerous downfield passing game to a longstanding dominance running the ball. As for the defense, it's very good, though it remains to be seen whether it's as good as the 2010 unit or even the talented crew of 2012 that battled numerous injuries.
Still, every coach who has played the Ducks probably feels there's something he wishes he might have attacked more or tried to exploit.
"I think there is a lot of places," Washington State coach Mike Leach said. "There's always a lot of places."
Washington State lost 62-38 at Oregon last weekend, with Leach's Cougars adding two late touchdowns to make the gap less dramatic. Quarterback Connor Halliday set a number of Pac-12 and NCAA passing records in the game -- he completed 58 of 89 passes for 557 yards -- but also threw four interceptions, one of which Terrance Mitchell returned 51 yards for a touchdown.
"Oregon is really fast," Leach said, echoing a common theme. "As you play Oregon, everything they do -- they can reel plays in quicker. They react to everything quicker. Very explosive... Oregon hits you in the mouth when you throw one up."
Of course, speculating on Oregon's seeming lack of weaknesses and its standing among other accomplished Ducks teams is a mostly a meaningless academic exercise when five regular season games remain ahead, including a visit Saturday from No. 12 UCLA. In fact, the next five Pac-12 games (combined opponent record of 26-7) are far tougher than the first four (combined record of 12-16).
Helfrich isn't really biting, either. When asked about areas of concern, he pointed back to the preseason questions and implied the jury is still out at linebacker.
Yet his overriding conclusion sounded very Chip Kelly-ish, while also offering plenty of room to read between the lines.
"I think everything," he said. "In every phase we can get better, starting with me, everything we do."
That's either coachspeak -- we need to get better every day -- or carries a more ominous implication: No weaknesses? Best Oregon team? You haven't seen anything yet.
How might the Ducks react to a tight fourth quarter, which they haven't faced this year? Is statistically impressive quarterback Marcus Mariota a clutch performer? And, really, does first-year head coach Mark Helfrich have the cucumber-cool of the guy he replaced, Chip Kelly?
The No. 2 Ducks sharpened their No. 2 pencils and then ...
"In a hostile environment, under some duress, when you can make some adjustments and execute those adjustments in all three phases, that's a big deal," Helfrich said. "It's a sign of a mature team."
True. The Ducks improved to 6-0 overall, and Mariota produced a Heisman Trophy worthy performance on a big stage. He completed 24 of 31 passes for 366 yards with three touchdowns and he rushed for 88 yards and another score. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns this season, 17 passing, eight rushing.
"I don't have a Heisman vote, but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said of Mariota. "That guy is special. I don't know when he is planning on going to the NFL, but when he does, I think he'll be a top-five draft pick."
It was a brilliant performance from bell to bell, the Ducks 18th consecutive road victory, the longest active streak in FBS football.
As a side bar, one noted by the Oregon fans in attendance with chants of, "Ten more years," late in the fourth quarter, the Ducks recorded their 10th consecutive victory in the bitter rivalry series, and each of those wins came by at least 17 points.
At this point, that dominance seems secondary, almost academic. The average high school senior can't remember Washington beating Oregon. But it's not secondary and academic to folks who can remember when the Huskies dominated the rivalry. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti has been at Oregon for 21 years in three different stints starting in 1978. He paused when asked if beating the hated Huskies 10 consecutive times seemed possible during his early years at Oregon.
"This was a wild dream way back when," Aliotti said.
But Oregon is not a dream. It's 100 percent for real in all three phases. The Ducks outgained the Huskies 631 yards to 376, averaging 7.8 yards per play. They won the turnover battle 2-0. While the defense yielded 167 tough yards to Sankey, who also had a 60-yard TD run, it blanketed the Huskies' talented corps of receivers, holding Keith Price to 182 yards passing while sacking him four times.
But the star was Mariota, who didn't have his best weapon, running back De'Anthony Thomas, available due to a lingering ankle injury. Of course, it's not easy to get Mariota to talk about himself. When asked about his performance, he noted that it was "a team sport." When asked about feeling pressure in the fourth quarter, he shrugged off the question.
“"We have this deal that if we're prepared, we don't feel pressure," he said.
He threw the ball extremely well and when we covered him, he ran. We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."” -- Washington coach Steve Sarkisian
Others are better spokespersons for his Heisman campaign.
"He threw the ball extremely well, and when we covered him, he ran," Sarkisian said. "We tried to spot him. We tried to blitz him. We tried to contain him. But he played a tremendous game. He's a hell of a player, and you have to give them a lot of credit. They're a really good team."
Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost calls the Ducks' plays. He said Mariota's best qualities are his maturity and composure.
"It's really easy to be a play-caller when the ball is in Marcus' hands," he said.
It's not only Mariota, as he repeatedly pointed out. When receiver Josh Huff went down with what looked like a worrisome leg injury, sophomore Bralon Addison stepped up with eight catches for 157 yards and two scores. When Huff came back in the second half, looking none the worse for wear, he caught six passes for 107 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown strike from Mariota.
And the Ducks defense held the Huskies to 16 points and 178 yards below their season averages.
The big question entering the game was whether the Ducks would finally get tested. They were. That the final score suggests that they weren't only means that they earned an A-plus for this midterm exam.
Team of the week: Arizona State’s home victory over USC was an announcement to the rest of the country that the Sun Devils deserve to be ranked, and the country responded by putting ASU back in the Top 25 at No. 22. More important than national perception, however, is that the Sun Devils didn’t fall to 0-2 in conference play, which would have been devastating for the team’s season-long goals. They picked up a South Division win and are still in control of their destiny in the division. One last nonconference game next week against Notre Dame and then it’s all league games the rest of the way -- including a pivotal Oct. 19 game against Washington and the all-important No. 23 game at UCLA.
Best game: In a week where the average margin of victory was 29 points in the five games, the “closest” was Washington’s 18-point victory over visiting Arizona. But there was a sense Washington was in control all 60 minutes. Oregon was fun to watch simply for the fact that not even Mother Nature could play defense against the Ducks. Stanford was fun to watch because the Cardinal looked explosive. Oregon State was fun to watch because it was a complete performance. But the ASU-USC game probably had the most drama. We had an idea of what was at stake, and even when USC cut it to 48-34 with 9:54 left in the game, there was still that lingering thought that maybe it wasn’t over. Of course, ASU scored two more touchdowns to put it away. And the end result was Lane Kiffin’s dismissal.
Offensive standout: Tough to ignore the kind of numbers Sean Mannion is putting up. After matching a school record two weeks ago at Utah with five touchdown passes, he surpassed the record by throwing for six touchdowns and 414 yards in the blowout win over Colorado. He did have an interception, but only because his receiver’s hands and chest got in the way and it was tipped in the air. Mannion now has 21 touchdowns on the year to just two picks.
Defensive standout: Has to be Darby, who totaled seven tackles to go with his two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Defensive standout 1B goes to Stanford’s Trent Murphy. Is there any outside linebacker with better hands? Or does he only show them off at CenturyLink Field? Saturday he intercepted a point-blank pass in the backfield from Austin Apodaca and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. If that looked familiar, he did the same thing last year at the CLink against Washington.
Special teams standout: With four games in the Pacific Northwest Saturday, weather was dominant storyline when it came to special teams. We saw numerous fumbles, bad snaps and weather-induced wackiness. But there was nothing wacky about Oregon’s Bralon Addison, who returned two punts for touchdowns. The first was a 75-yard return in the second quarter that was pure sideline speed. The second, a 67-yard return, required a little more dancing and cutting -- and avoiding being knocked down by his teammate before the play even got started.
Smiley face: The Pac-12 once again has five teams ranked in the Top 25 in both polls with ASU’s victory over USC. And Oregon State is receiving votes in the coaches poll.
Frowny face: Injuries always get a frowny face -- and Saturday saw two of the league’s superstars go down with injuries. Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas was injured on the kickoff and didn’t return. And USC wide receiver Marqise Lee suffered a knee injury that hopefully looked worse than it really is.
Thought of the week: The Beavers are back, sort of. Oregon State finally strung together a game where its defense matched the offense. And Colorado is a much-improved team from last season. Are the Buffs bowl bound? Probably not. But they aren’t the Buffs of last year, which gives a little credence to Oregon State’s dominating performance. The initial thought was that the Beavers would be 7-0 or 6-1 heading into their Oct. 26 showdown with Stanford. And they might still be (though Washington State isn’t going to make it easy). Not suggesting you go all-in on the Beavers. Remember, they are only a week removed from a miraculous win over San Diego State. But don't sell just yet, either.
Question of the week: The Trojans have a bye week to patch holes and put “Operation: Changing Lanes” in action. Do they look to an NFL name or a college name? UCLA is showing that a former NFL coach can have success in Los Angeles, even if he’s not an alumnus. USC is an attractive gig, and you can bet there were a lot of back-channel phone calls going out over the past 72 hours.
- B1G tests: The Pac-12 faces the Big Ten four times this week. The league went 4-1 last season against its Rose Bowl partners, including Stanford’s win over Wisconsin in the Grand Daddy. This week, UCLA travels to Nebraska, Arizona State hosts Wisconsin, Ohio State travels to Cal and Washington takes on Illinois in Chicago. The Big Ten is already up 1-0 this year after Northwestern beat Cal in Week 1. Over the past five seasons, the leagues are nearly even, with the Pac-12 going 11-10 (including 2013).[+] EnlargeGary A. Vasquez/US PRESSWIREUCLA's Brett Hundley threw for four TDs and the Bruins celebrated a win over Nebraska last year. Can they do it again this season?
- Getting defensive: Last week the Pac-12 had five interceptions returned for touchdowns -- including two by Colorado, two by Arizona and one by Washington State. Utah also returned a fumble for a touchdown.
- Speaking of defensive: Stanford has the longest streak in the nation with 25 consecutive games with a takeaway. Safety Ed Reynolds kept it alive last week with an interception. Oregon has 40 takeaways since the start of the 2012 season, the most of any team in the country. The Ducks already have six this year (three interceptions, three fumbles).
- Rematches: Three of the nonconference games this week are rematches from last season. In 2012, the Bruins topped Nebraska in Pasadena, Cal hung tough against the Buckeyes but ultimately lost and Colorado was blown out by Fresno State on the road.
- Heavy hearts: The Bruins travel to Lincoln this week with the memory of wide receiver Nick Pasquale still very much on their minds. The Bruins will wear Pasquale’s “36” on their uniforms. In a very classy act, the Huskers will do the same with a “36” decal on their helmets, along with a moment of silence before kickoff.
- Off and running: Through two games, Oregon has already produced five 100-yard rushing performances: two from De'Anthony Thomas, two from Marcus Mariota and one from Byron Marshall. Of their 17 touchdown drives, 15 of them have come in less than two minutes.
- League play continues: For the first time this season, all 12 teams will be in action in the same week -- all on the same day, for that matter, with no Thursday or Friday night games. One week after USC and Washington State kicked off conference play, Oregon State (1-1) and Utah (2-0) open their league play with the Beavers heading to Rice-Eccles. Not to put too much into one game, but this one could be huge for the trajectory of each team. The Utes face BYU next week and then have back-to-back home games against UCLA and Stanford. Four of their final six are on the road, so the Utes are looking to take advantage of a schedule that is front-loaded with home games.
- Are you for real? If last week was the Pac-12’s cupcake week, this week is all about measuring sticks. All four of the Pac-12/Big Ten showdowns feature at least one ranked team (No. 4 Ohio State; No. 16 UCLA and No. 23 Nebraska; No. 19 Washington; No. 20 Wisconsin). Eight of the nonconference opponents are 2-0. Fresno State might be the best non-AQ team in college football. Teams such as ASU and UCLA can certainly make a splash on the national stage. And a team like Colorado can take a huge step forward in terms of its perception. Cal beating the No. 4 team in the country couldn't hurt, either.
- North vs. South: For those keeping track at home, the Pac-12 North features three of the league’s four ranked teams. But through the first two weeks, the North Division is a combined 7-3 while the South is 9-1 with five of its six teams undefeated. The North is 2-1 against ranked teams (including a win over then-No. 25 USC), while the South has yet to play a ranked opponent. That of course changes this week with ASU and UCLA. Not making any statements, just an observation.
- QBs on the move: Last season, four Pac-12 quarterbacks accounted for 10 rushes of at least 30 yards each, with half of those coming from Mariota. Through two weeks this season, five Pac-12 quarterbacks have accounted for eight rushes of at least 30 yards. Among them are Arizona’s B.J. Denker (30, 35) and Javelle Allen (61); Mariota (46, 71); UCLA’s Brett Hundley (37); and Utah’s Travis Wilson (38, 51). Each of the eight rushes resulted in a touchdown.