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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Oregon Ducks Offense

Previewing the best offense we'll face all year. After this point, the defense has nowhere to go but up, right...?

Puddles and the Ducks are preparing for a feast on Saturday.
Puddles and the Ducks are preparing for a feast on Saturday.
Steve Dykes

[Disclaimer: Past performance does not predict future results. Last week's patsy may become this week's juggernaut, and vice versa. The quarterback is liable to go Masoli on us, the running back may do his best Chauncey Washington impression, the receivers will channel their inner Paul Richardson, and, of course, the tight end will almost certainly turn into Ed Dickson. Prepare for surprises--both good and bad--each game.]

"Offensive huddles are a monument to the stupidity of man" - General George S. Patton

In our last edition we previewed the most experienced offense we would face all season. Now we preview the best offense we'll face all season. As we know well, the Oregon Ducks have had the best offense in college football over the past three seasons. Their uptempo, no-huddle offense is responsible for countless gray hairs and sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators. Oregon has scored 2,093 points since the start of the 2010 season. By contrast, Cal has scored just 1,055 points over the same span of time. There is a very good reason this team has racked up 23,220 yards since 2010 (that's over 13 miles of offense, in case you're keeping track). They have one of the most difficult-to-defend running games in the nation and that opens things up nicely for a very effective passing game. In fact, they are more reliant on their passing game this season than they have been in years. The team is stacked with athletes who fit very nicely into their system. Although head coach Chip Kelly has left for greener pastures, there is heavy continuity on the Oregon staff. The offense is very similar to the system that has terrorized teams for the past several years. Reader discretion is advised.


Yesterday LiffeyBear posted an excellent analysis that featured several wrinkes in the Oregon offense. Instead of duplicating his terrific effort, I'll provide the basics--the bread and butter--of the Oregon offense. It begins with the staple of their offense, the inside zone read. (Note: much of the following information/visualization comes from If you want to learn all the ins and outs of the Ducks offense, I strongly recommend you check out FishDuck.)

Inside Zone Read

This is the fourth week in a row that we're facing an opponent who uses the zone read. Oregon uses both inside and outside zone read (they differ based on blocking and where the RB is designed to run). First, we'll introduce the inside zone read. The easiest way to tell that Oregon is going to run the inside zone read (IZR) is the alignment of the QB and the RB. If the RB is a yard to the left/right and a yard behind the QB, it's a zone read (unless, of course, it's actually a bubble screen, a play action pass, or an option). Secondly, you can tell it's an IZR by the way the O-line blocks the defenders. The linemen block straight ahead (downhill) on the IZR. Immediately after the snap the O-line typically opens a big hole between a tackle and a guard (see photo below).



At this point the QB will read the unblocked defender (typically a defensive end or outside linebacker) to determine whether to keep the ball or hand it off the RB. If the defender goes after the QB, he will hand it off to the RB who runs up the gut. If the defender goes after the RB, the QB will keep the ball. Take another look at the image above. If the defender goes after the RB, there is a TON of open grass for the QB to run. You DO NOT want to overpursue here. Force the QB to hand off every time and hope the D-line wins the line of scrimmage. They won't usually win that battle, but you still hope. Here's another illustrative example: if the QB keeps the ball, he's running around the edge, which is well sealed off by Ducks.



If the QB-RB positioning telegraphs to the defense that Oregon is running the IZR, why is it so successful? Execution and a numerical advantage. FishDuck explains:

There is also something much more subtle that I believe is the primary reason for Oregon’s success running the ball since the spread was implemented. If the DE isn’t blocked on the backside of the play, the blocking responsibilities shift over from one player to another on the play side. This means Oregon picks up AN EXTRA BLOCKER ON THE PLAY SIDE….where the play is going. That is HUGE! If we can get everyone covered blocking, "hat-on-hat" as they call it, then it shoots our running game through the roof, which in my mind is the principal reason we became one the nation’s leading rushing teams.

To defeat the IZR, you must defeat every player on the offensive line and prevent the ball-carrier from bouncing outside for a big gain. It's possible if you have a defense full of NFL-caliber players (Cal 2010, Stanford 2012), but extremely difficult.

Outside Zone Read

Now let's take a look at the outsize zone read (OZR). Like the inside zone read, the pre-snap formation can tell us whether to expect an OZR. Once again, the key to identifying the play is the spacing between the QB and RB. With the OZR, the RB lines up parallel to the QB, about a yard to his left or right. Secondly, the blocking is distinct from the IZR blocking. Here the linemen kick-step to the outside (the playside) as they move to the perimeter.



Do not be fooled: this is a very flexible play. There is a very good reason defenses have such difficulty defending it. First, the RB usually reads the blocks and reacts accordingly. He may run through the gap between the playside guard and tackle, or he may run off tackle. Or he might cut back and run backside. He'll run wherever the best hole opens up, and this is often decided by the defense. Look at the following example:


USC's defense sees the pre-snap OZR formation and rushes its defenders (red arrows) to the edge of the playside (the direction linemen are blocking). That is bad news for the Trojans. The middle of the field has opened up and that is exactly where TheMichael is running for this 45-yard touchdown. The defense was so concerned about the Ducks' speed around the edge that they left the middle of the field open. Oops!

Cutback lanes are lethal in the OZR. The Ducks count on overpursuit by the defense, which allows wide-open running lanes in the middle of the field. Sometimes the QB or RB will even run around the backside edge (opposite side the linemen are blocking).

You need an incredibly disciplined defense to stop this. The defense must cover the entire field and shut down the running lanes--that is a herculean task.

If you want to learn more about the OZR (I find it to be the most interesting play of the Oregon offense because it is so hard to defend), spend 10 minutes watching this FishDuck video:

Fish Oregon Spread Offense Tutorial #2: The Outside Zone Read (via Charles Fischer)

If that's not bad enough, the Ducks like to combine their bread and butter with other ingredients. They'll playaction out of this and run bubble screens from this. The possibilities/horrors are endless.

Straddled Triple Option

FishDuck calls this the straddled triple option. It's a combination of the IZR and an option. As the image below illustrates, Oregon lines up in what appears to be its IZR. For added fun, they bring the WR across the field, behind the QB.



When the ball is snapped, the QB runs the standard IZR. He can elect to hand the ball off to the RB or he can keep the ball. If he keeps the ball, he still has the option of pitching it to the WR.



Fortunately for Virginia, the QB opted to hand the ball off to the RB who was stopped for a loss thanks to Virginia's ability to overpower the guards and center.

I've focused almost exclusively on running plays, in part because LiffeyBear did a great job covering some passing concepts and partly because Oregon does much of its damage on the ground. Before you dismiss the passing game, however, remember this name: Johnny Mundt. By Sunday morning, you will curse the day that you were introduced to Mr. Mundt.

Why Johnny Mundt Will Haunt Our Nightmares

Oh sure, just a regular ol' OZR, right?



NOPE. It's a naked bootleg and look who is about to break free for a touchdown reception: #83 Mr. Mundt.



So now we have to cover the outside zone read AND cover the tight end?


Comparing Helfrich and Kelly

Remember how occasionally defenses would keep Chip Kelly's team in check during the first half, after which Kelly made his halftime adjustments and ran away with the game? Apparently Helfrich is even more flexible than the Chipper. Instead of waiting until halftime, Helfrich will implement changes as soon as the first quarter, as he did against Tennessee when he began leaning heavily on the passing attack. This pleases FishDuck.

The players in the trenches for Tennessee were some of the biggest that I, and Oregon players, have ever seen; that one defensive tackle was a lean-and-mean 351 lbs? If we had tried to stubbornly run Inside Zone Read plays all day — this game could have been completely different. Instead this was the biggest passing day since BEFORE Chip’s time at Oregon? It goes back to 2005, when Gary Crowton was the Offensive Coordinator, thus this flexibility, this balance of the offense where we truly take what the defense is giving us, is becoming a reality under Coaches Helfrich and Frost.

This is a significant new step for the Oregon offense, and I can’t wait for more of the season to confirm it!

Now let's meet the cast of characters who have kept Andy Buh awake for the past 96 consecutive hours.


* denotes returning starter


*Marcus Mariota: 6' 4", 205 lbs., So.

This is the best quarterback we will face all season. Mariota is the same exceptionally efficient QB whose passing game will vivisect defenses that sell out against the run. He has struggled with accuracy this season, but this is merely an aberration as he completed nearly 70% of his passes last season. In his 418 career passes, he has only thrown six interceptions. He has only thrown one since October of last year. As a complement to his surgically precise passing game, he is a fast, elusive runner. He has an absolutely absurd 17.47 rushing yards per carry this season. Take out his two sacks and he's well above 20 yards per carry.

In his first year, he racked up plenty of awards. He was the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a finalist for the Manning Award, given to the nation's best quarterback. He was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team and Sports Illustrated's All-America honorable mention. He set a couple records, including 32 passing touchdowns as a freshman (Pac-12 record) and 752 rushing yards (school record). He will undoubtedly continue to earn accolades and smash Oregon records.


  • Accurate, efficient
  • Elusive runner
  • Smart with his reads (both on the ground and in the air)
  • Missed some passes earlier this season

Running Back

*De'Anthony Thomas: 5' 9", 169 lbs., Jr.

Byron Marshall: 5' 10", 207lbs., So.

The Black Mamba, De'Anthony Thomas has the best combination of speed and elusiveness in the nation. While a touch slower than our own Khalfani Muhammad, he's fast enough to break free for a touchdown any time he gets in open space. As we have heard (and experienced firsthand) over the past couple years, he's an absolute terror for opposing defenses. Despite only being named to the honorable mention Pac-12 All-Conference team, he was 2nd team All-America on Fox Sports' team. He was a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award, given to the nation's best collegiate player. And those are just his latest awards on top of the bevy of awards he received as a freshman, including Pac-12 Co-Offensive Freshman of the Year and All-Pac-12 First Team and multiple Freshman All-America honors.

Fortunately, he has not had strong rushing performances against Cal in his career. He rushed for only 13 yards on 5 carries last season and 18 yards and a TD on 2 carries in 2011. Of course, his two most productive receiving games of his career were against Cal: 114 yards and 2 TDs in 2011 and 101 yards in 2010.

His backup is no slouch. Byron Marshall is a strong, physical runner. With a 4.77 second 40-yard dash, he doesn't possess elite speed. But he's fast enough that he usually scores a TD when he gets in open space. At 207 lbs, he's a big back and he runs with great strength. He has an uncanny ability to avoid being tackled for loss.


  • DAT is fast, elusive, impossible to catch in space
  • Marshall is big, physical, and tough to bring down


  • Marshall could be faster, I suppose. I'm splitting hairs here.

Wide Receivers

*Josh Huff: 5' 11", 202 lbs., Sr.

*Keanon Lowe: 5' 9", 186 lbs., Jr.

*(Slot) Daryle Hawkins: 6' 4", 198 lbs., Sr.

(Slot) Bralon Addison: 5' 10", 181 lbs., So.

Do not be fooled by their limited production, these are some good receivers. All-Pac-12 honorable mention Josh Huff led the team last year with 493 yards and 7 touchdowns. Huff had a career day against the Bears last season as he piled up 109 yards and 3 touchdowns. Fellow WR Keanon Lowe caught 22 passes for 244 yards and 3 TDs in 2012. The slot receiver Daryle Hawkins is a former QB who has played several roles on the Ducks offense, including running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. He was third on the team with 25 catches last year.

Keep an eye out for backup slot receiver Bralon Addison. The fan-favorite is an exceptional blocker and uses his talents frequently on the Ducks' many runs and screens. He has improved tremendously since last season and could be the Ducks' top receiver after Huff graduates.


  • Experienced starters
  • Generally solid in run blocking


  • High variance in production from game to game

Tight End

*Colt Lyerla: 6' 5", 250 lbs., Jr.

Johnny Mundt: 6' 4", 232 lbs., True Fr.

Following the footsteps of Ed Dickson, Colt Lyerla had the second-best game of his career against the Bears last season. In 2012 he collected 25 passes for 392 yards and 6 TDs, of which 2 TDs came against the Bears. He is also occasionally involved in the rushing game, as he picked up 77 yards and a TD last season.

Lyerla missed the Ducks' last game with sickness. Helfrich was extremely vague about why Lyerla was out and only referred to "circumstances" and it blew up into a media frenzy. I'm not sure if he's going to play on Saturday. If not, his backup is more than capable of continuing the legacy of his predecessors.

In his first career game, backup TE Johnny Mundt had a breakout performance against Tennessee. He caught 5 passes for 121 yards and 2 TDs. Despite appearing in only one game this season, he is already the team's third-leading receiver and tied atop the list with 2 TDs. Of course, now that Helfrich knows what Mundt is capable of, he'll probably throw both Lyerla and Mundt at us.


  • Proud tradition of annihilating Cal defenses
  • Only play Cal once per year

Offensive Line

*(LT) Tyler Johnstone: 6' 6", 277 lbs., So.

(LG) Mana Greig: 5' 11", 287 lbs., Sr.

*(C) Hroniss Grasu: 6' 3", 297 lbs., Jr.

(RG) Hamani Stevens: 6' 3", 312 lbs., Jr.

*(RT) Jake Fisher: 6' 6", 291 lbs., Jr.

Chip Kelly called his offensive linemen the most important members of the team. They lived up to his standards last year when paving the way for 315 rushing yards per game. They return their center and both tackles and are off to a fast start, as they have paved the way for 355 rushing yards per game this season. They're fast, athletic, and fantastic blockers.

Jake Fisher is a great example of the athleticism on Oregon's line. Despite his huge frame, he runs a 5.1 second 40 yard dash. One of his highlights last season was running 50 yards down the field to pick up and score a De'Anthony Thomas fumble in the end zone. He won the team's Pancake Club award for most defenders knocked off their feet. He was also an All Pac-12 honorable mention. Fellow tackle Tyler Johnstone had a great freshman year and was named to the Fox, CBS, and Sporting News All-Freshman teams.

Hroniss Grasu is a two-year starter who has earned plenty of accolades. He is on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top center. In 2012 Grasu won Oregon's Moshovsky Trophy for the team's top offensive lineman. He also earned sports on the All-Pac-12 first team and the CBS All-American third team.

Although they are starting at guard for the first time, Mana Grieg and Hamani Stevens have plenty of experience. Grieg has three years of experience while Stevens has two.


  • Fast, athletic
  • Excellent blockers
  • Very experienced players across the line


  • Relatively undersized, which leaves them vulnerable to being pushed around by big, physical D-lines
Now let's take a look at how well the Ducks have performed this season. (Hint: Very well)


Individual Statistics (2013)

Marcus Mariota

  • Passing: 889 yards, 10.8 yards per attempt, 59.8% completions, 7 TDs-0 interceptions
  • Rushing: 262 yards, 4 TDs, 17.47 YARDS PER CARRY

Look at that yards per carry stat. Just look at it. Pass the tissues, please. My eyes are leaking some sort of salt water concoction. I could continue to describe Mariota's production, but it would probably devolve into a combination of screams, profanity, and uncontrollable sobbing. Let's just move on.

D'Anthony Thomas

  • Rushing: 338 yards, 6 TDs, 8.05 yards per carry

The nation's best running back meets one of the nation's worst rushing defense. This will end poorly.

Byron Marshall

  • Rushing: 196 yards, 2 TDs, 6.76 yards per carry
If (lol "if") this game becomes a blowout, Marshall will take over and continue to gash the defense, as he has done all season.

Josh Huff
  • 298 receiving yards, 1 TD
At least their receivers aren't that productive!

Johnny Mundt
  • 121 yards, 2 TDs (IN ONE GAME)
...except for this big'un. In his only game as starter, tight end Johnny Mundt caught five passes for 121 yards and 2 TDs.

Bralon Addison
  • 174 receiving yards, 2 TDs
  • 19.25 yards per punt return

We're fortunate that we've been great at forcing fair catches, because Addison is dangerous on punt returns.

Team Statistics (2013)


  • 61.3 ppg (2nd)

At least we won't feel so bad if they score 61...?


  • 355.33 yards per game (2nd)
  • 8.46 yards per carry (1st)
  • 17 TDs (1st)

Yes, Oregon continues to be the most efficient rushing teams in the nation. This is nothing new.


  • 316.7 yards per game (18th)
  • 179.11 QB efficiency rating (12th)
  • 10.6 yards per pass attempt (10th)

Don't let those rushing stats fool you, they generate almost as many yards through the air and they are just as efficient through the air. They are Ducks, after all...


  • 46.88% third down conversions (43rd) (120th in nation with only 32 third down attempts)
  • 68.42 red zone TD conversions (41st)

FINALLY! A weakness! They are only above average in their 3rd down and red zone touchdown conversions! Big plays account for many of their TDs, as only 13 of Oregon's 25 TDs have been scored in the red zone. Also, they have only attempted 32 third downs, fifth-fewest in the nation. So they rarely are forced into third down and they score at will from outside the red zone. What was I saying about a weakness?

Ball Management

  • 0 turnovers (1st) (only team in nation)
  • Time of possession: 22:17.67 (LAST)
  • Tempo: 18.58 seconds per play (Fast) (Cal: 18.75 seconds per play)

The Ducks are the only team in the nation without a turnover. Those of you expecting an upset when Cal forces 8 turnovers will have to hope we find some other way to win. They only spend 22 minutes on the field per game, so our defense shouldn't have any problems with getting tired or suffering mysterious cramps (THANKS TOSH). When they do have the ball, however, they move with urgency. They're slightly faster than our offense this year.

Negative Yardage

  • 74.3 penalty yards per game (115th)
  • 2.67 tackles for loss allowed per game (2nd)
  • 0.67 sacks allowed per game (5th)

The key to getting the Ducks to move backwards is by letting them commit penalties. They are exceptional at avoiding negative yardage plays via sacks and tackles for loss. At least we won't have to feel bad about not generating any sacks this week...


What have we learned? We are DOOOOOOOOOMED.