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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Oregon Offense

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The Ducks may have lost four straight, but their offense should still scare you at least a little bit.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Oregon Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it’s important to remind yourself that nobody knows anything about football. Personally, I’m reminded of that fact every time I read the comments on my latest post. (Heyooo, self burn!) But if you ever find yourself scratching your head at a score like...oh I don’t know, 7021, just remember you’re not alone. Nobody knows why anything that happens in football happens in football, except probably Nick Saban.

Even someone like mighty SB Nation wizard Bill Connelly, who knows everything about football, can drop a clunker like this.

Why the heck aren't we talking about Oregon as a serious Pac-12 contender?

Football knows no reason, and it will make fools of people way smarter than you or me. It will make a fool of Bill Connelly (and no disrespect, Mr. Connelly, if you’re reading this). It will certainly make a fool of Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks already have as many losses as they did all last season.

So what gives with Oregon, anyway? Why were they good, and why are they bad now?

Dunno. Nobody knows for sure. Although it might have something to do with a third of their team giving up midway through the season. That kind of thing usually doesn’t help win football games.

What we do know is that Oregon is as bad as it has been in a long time. The defense has been, well, Cal-like. And the offense, though it ranks 28th nationally in points per game, hasn’t been able to make up for it. I’ll leave questions of the defense to Andy, my partner-in-previews, and focus on the Ducks offense.

The offense, last week somewhat notwithstanding, has really not been that bad. They’ve taken a step back from last year’s team (which took a step back from 2014’s team...), but they’ve been productive. That’s what a constant stream of freaky fast skill players will do for you. But as Cal fans know all too well, a productive offense can only do so much.

Before we meet that offense, I’d like to direct your attention to this excellent preview (part two here) of Oregon’s scheme written by Berkelium97. Breaking down tape is not my strong suit, so I appreciate this easily accessible look at what makes Oregon so hard to stop. If you don’t want to click through—though you really should—the basic principle is that Oregon wants to give itself as many options as possible. If you go inside, they go outside. If you go outside, they go inside. And if you happen to get lucky and go the same way they do, they throw the ball over your head. Sounds like fun to defend, no?

Quarterback

Dakota Prukop was supposed to be the Ducks’ Davis Webb. The Montana State rent-a-QB had the FCS-star dual-threat profile that brought Oregon so much success last year. And honestly, he pretty much did what they needed—he completed 66% of his passes through five games, threw more TDs than picks, and got the ball to his talented skill players. But sometimes your team goes 2–4 and a change needs to be made. So Helfrich made a change, sending Prukop to the bench in favor of true freshman Justin Herbert.

I haven’t watched a ton of Oregon football this year, so maybe some of our friends from ATQ can shed some light on what exactly Prukop did wrong. But what’s done is done and this Ducks team undeniably needed a jolt. Is that something Herbert can provide? The results through one game are inconclusive. Against a tough Huskies defense, he put up 179 yards, two TDs, and one Budda Baker interception. He’ll have his first road start against the Bears and will have to put up better numbers if he wants to avoid the hook.

Though Oregon’s offense depends on the QB’s ability to be a run threat, Herbert is more respected as a passer than a rusher. Does that mean the Ducks will let him air it out or will they still try to take advantage of Cal’s weakness on the ground? They tend to run the ball on about 60% of downs, and I’ll guess we see about the same ratio to simplify the game for their young QB.

Running Backs

Royce Freeman, now a junior, hasn’t been quite the superstar everyone expected him to be this season. Granted, he’s been banged up and has still rushed for 513 yards and seven TDs, so don’t feel too bad for the Ducks. And any lost production has been matched by sophomore Tony Brooks-James, who has established himself as a solid second back. Brooks-James has six scores of his own on 47 carries.

Splitting the size difference between the bigger Freeman and smaller Brooks-James is junior Kani Benoit. (In related news, don’t go back and look at how these three did against Cal last season. It doesn’t bode well.) And since three running backs aren’t enough for Oregon, there’s also sophomore Taj Griffin, who is quietly putting together a nice season of his own. That’s four sets of fresh legs, plus Herbert’s, against Cal’s increasingly depleted defense.

Receiving Corps

The preferred target among this mostly-upperclassman pack is junior Charles Nelson, who is the go-to guy on nearly 30% of passing plays. He’s mostly a possession guy, putting up solid yardage, but still lacking a touchdown this season. Those are more the purview of Darren Carrington II, who leads the wideouts with three TDs. Also breaking into the top level is sophomore Jalen Brown, who has impressed with his physicality and playmaking ability in relief of the injured Dwayne Stanford.

Leading at the tight end spot is senior Pharaoh Brown, the sure-handed 6’6” TE. Most of the remaining looks will be distributed among the running backs and a slew of other tight ends.

Offensive Line

The Ducks lost three prominent starters from last year’s crew, none more significant than All-Pac-12 LT Tyler Johnstone. One of the two returners—senior Tyrell Crosby—hurt his foot against Nebraska and was lost for the season. That left the Ducks with a four-freshman starting line, with only senior RG Cameron Hunt returning significant experience. Even so, they’ve done pretty well for themselves; the Ducks allow just upwards of two sacks per game and have utilized the zone read to the tune of 6+ yards per carry.

Expect more of the same against Cal. This Oregon team is fast, they match up well schematically against Cal’s linebacker-light 4-2-5, and they’ll challenge Cal’s defense to make the sort of open-field tackles that have been problematic so far. They’ll move fast and utilize their reads to get in space. That’s the model Chip Kelly built and it’s the one offensive coordinator Matt Lubick continues to utilize. In short, they’ll score points. Then again, the Ducks defense and new quarterback may create enough opportunities for Cal to win in a shootout.