John Canzano is master of the negative. If he had been a physicist instead of a sports writer he would have researched antimatter and black holes.
He would have been a tough grader too. Last weekend he gave the Duck offense a C-. In a game the Ducks won 49-0 with 495 yards of offense. Has he watched an SEC game lately?
Part of the problem with Oregon’s offense is perception. Those two pick sixes meant that the Ducks got just two offensive possessions in the fourth quarter, and on the first one they went 12 plays, 86 yards for a touchdown. On the second, with less than three minutes to go in the game and Byron Marshall and Ayele Forde in at running back, leading 49-0, they got a holding penalty on 2nd down and wound up punting, Jackson Rice booming one 55 yards to seal the shutout.
Without the defensive scores, Colt Lyerla carrying the ball against a worn-down Wildcat defense, the Ducks probably pound out another 50 to 100 yards of offense and another touchdown. Instead Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill produce a little instant offense of their own (even though it doesn’t count that way statistically) with 54 and 33-yard td returns. Give the offense two more possessions, and their output for the game comes out around 550-600 yards with 42 offensive points, and everyone’s perception shifts toward B/B+.
Perception isn’t reality after all, particularly when perceptions are being shaped by the Oregonian’s negatively-charged ion of a columnist.
Which isn’t to say the Ducks don’t have work to do on offense, beginning with reducing turnovers, penalties and negative plays. Currently they rank 123rd among Division One teams with 14 fumbles in four games, six of those that have been lost. Worse yet, five of the lost fumbles have come from two of their key playmakers: Marcus Mariota has three and De’Anthony Thomas has two. Those are miserable numbers, and ball security becomes increasingly important in bigger games, where the margin of error is less, pressure is greater and opponents are more athletic. Teams like Stanford and Alabama would salivate watching the Oregon lowlights in film study, and their fast, aggressive defenses would be coached to rip-and-strip every time Mariota or The Black Momba carried the ball.
Even with the errors, which are teachable and understandable for a redshirt freshman, Marcus Mariota is off to wonderful start in his college career. He’s shown poise, elusiveness, intelligence and creativity. He’s completing 69.6% of his passes, and if he completes his first one on Saturday night he’s over 70% for the season. His passer rating is 165.6, with 10 touchdowns against two interceptions. Darron Thomas last year against Arizona, also in game four? 11-20 for 101 yards. In game five, against California on a Thursday night, 13-25 for 198. The Ducks are fine with Mariota at quarterback, and he’s only going to get better. He’s too mature, intelligent and coachable not to. The pick he threw against UA came on a broken pass route; Keanon Lowe was supposed to be in the curl zone but broke deep instead.
Despite a fumble and the INT, last Saturday’s game offered some glimpses of Mariota’s awesome upside as the Oregon qb. He threaded a beautiful 16-yard td pass to Daryle Hawkins. He looked off the safety, pump-faked and hit Bralon Addison in stride for a 55-yard score. He laced two to Lyerla for big gains. Then in the fourth quarter, with the Ducks facing third and 20, he ducks under two rushers that have him dead, scrambles to the outside and evades a third, and finds Bralon Addison for a 21-yard gain and a first down. The athletic ability, the arm and the poise he displayed on that one play alone counts for way more than an occasional freshman mistake, and the mistakes will become far less frequent as the season goes along.
Most alarming on offense right now is the play of the offensive line. The loss of Carson York and various nagging early season injuries have resulted in a lot of shuffling, and there are too many missed blocks, holding calls and disrupted, blown-up plays. In addition, Hroniss Grasu, a revelation as a redshirt freshman last year starting 13 games, has to snap out of a sophomore slump. He’s in a funk with his center snaps and seems half a step slow getting on his assignments. Grasu’s a solid player with a tough job. He’ll come around, even likely to have a much better game on Saturday. Arizona’s 3-3-5 stack, with a lot of speed on the field rallying to the ball, gave Oregon trouble, particularly in the first half when they were limited to 13 points. In fact for the game no Duck other than Colt Lyerla had a carry over 12 yards. Kenjon Barner and DAT were hemmed in all night. As fast and talented as they are, they need some creases to run in.
In the coming weeks, the emergence of Lyerla as power back will punish teams when they go small and try to overwhelm the spread with stunting and speed. And Lyerla, Dwayne Stanford and Bralon Addison will give the Ducks some developing weapons in the downfield passing game. This added balance will help Oregon overcome defenses that sell out to stop their bread and butter running game by keeping opponents spread out, overcommitted and confused. The Ducks rhythm will improve, and problems in ball security and blocking assignments will be addressed. Execution in week 8 will be well ahead of where it is now; this is a young team playing a lot of freshman and sophomores in key roles, and some of those players are just now finding out what they can do.
The lack of a go-to receiver has plagued the Ducks since Jeff Maehl became a Houston Texan, and it continues to be the one glaringly missing element of their offense. It’s a problem that probably doesn’t have one obvious solution, but rather several incremental ones. The first in De’Anthony Thomas: he has great hands, terrific instincts, adjusts beautifully to the ball, and is a threat to take even a simple swing pass for 70 yards. His presence on the field always commands attention from the defense and he’ll always be the threat defenses take most seriously. The 6-5, 210-lb. Stanford is emerging as a reliable possession receiver; he’s a smoother and more athletic version of Lavasier Tuinei. Bralon Addison is a credible deep threat, and a good game against the Wildcats has to increase his confidence and the confidence his quarterback and coordinator have in him.
The other important option is Lyerla. Mariota found him for a 35-yard pass down the left sideline in the third quarter, down to the two yard line, and two plays later the 6-5, 246 athletic monster carried Bryan Bennett into the end zone for one of the most comical touchdown runs ever. He’s had exactly two catches in each of Oregon’s first four games, and the Ducks have to find a way to throw to him five to six times a game. He’s a big, reliable target and tough to bring down, a matchup nightmare for a linebacker or a safety. Throw him the football. It will make the entire offense tougher to defend.
His running ability, and the Wildcat package Kelly and Helfrich introduced against RichRod, out-innovating the innovator and architect of modern spread football, gives the Ducks a dimension that simply isn’t fair. There aren’t enough practice hours in a week to contend with all the ways Oregon can attack a defense, particularly with a running back/tight end/ fullback who combines the physical skills of Rob Gronkowski, Toby Gerhart and Russ Francis. If Bennett keeps, Lyerla turns into a crunching lead blocker, like he did on a key first down run in the second quarter, or BB’s 8-yard td carry in the fourth.
Lyerla is just one part of the offense, but his presence in multiple roles creates so many problems for the defense, and coordinators are already overwhelmed contending with The Black Momba and The Most Interesting Tailback in the World, Kenjon Barner.
With Oregon’s defense emerging as a nasty, salty, resourceful and intimidating unit, whose confidence and motivation is sky-high after pitching the shutout against a statistically formidable Arizona offense, the Ducks offense isn’t far behind. They’ll have a similar opportunity to build their confidence facing a Washington State defense that has multiple holes and problems, although they’ll have to account for linebacker/defensive end hybrid Travis Long, who leads the nation with 6.5 sacks.
The season, believe it or not, is already one-third over. But the growth of a young team is an evolutionary process. It’s too early for midterm grades and negativism. The Ducks have a great opportunity to become the most complete team in school history, and the most accomplished.