Grading the Ducks: breaking down the opening drive, play-by-play

The Ducks opened Saturday’s game against Nicholls with a signature 64-yard drive in six plays. It took 1:31 off the clock and showed why execution and ability makes this the number one offense in the country. Here’s a detailed look at that drive, with grades for each position group and offensive coordinator Scott Frost.

Role reversal: contrary to expectations, Byron Marshall was the breakaway threat and De’Anthony Thomas the move-the-chains workhorse in the Ducks 66-3 victory over Nicholls. Marshall earns a DSH grade of A for his speed and elusiveness in the team’s home opener (Comcast Sports Network photo). 




A confident athlete with good recognition, Keanon Lowe ranges all the way up to the 25 to field the opening squib kick. The Colonels game-planned on special teams to kick away from De’Anthony Thomas, but Lowe made them pay for that strategy with a return here to the Oregon 36. Later in the game he dashed 48 yards up the left sideline to the Nicholls 31, setting up the offense in great field position both times. 

The wedge forms nicely on this return and Lowe misses an opportunity to cut left for perhaps a big return, but he makes a nice adjustment getting up field to pick up the ball, ensuring the good start. Lowe’s sure-handed and has good judgment as a returner. He’s a physical blocker if the ball does go to Thomas.

Kick return team grade: A-

(All grades adjusted down one-half a letter based on the quality of the opposition.)

14:55 1st quarter. Opening play of the first drive. Ducks in a “Wishbone” kind of look with two backs behind Mariota, who gets it out quickly to Josh Huff for 9 yards. Huff is a trailing man on an inside zone read, but the play has him ranging out wide to the sideline to pressure the defense to defend the whole field.

Mariota has to throw under pressure and Huff makes a terrific adjustment to the ball, athletic as he spins completely and gets quickly upfield for a good gain on first down. He gets two good blocks on the perimeter by Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison.

Wide receivers blocking grade: A+. Receiving: B+

Regardless of the competition they WRs were superb in blocking, springing each other and the running game for big gains all day. As pass receivers they got downfield and made big plays, but there were a couple of drops, and a failure to adjust routes and get open on a couple of occasions when Mariota scrambled out of pressure.

Receivers have to help their quarterback by working back to the ball when he scrambles, or releasing deep behind the defense. They should be able to separate better, especially with MM’s ability to buy time and the constant threat of him running.

14:39 1st quarter 2nd and 1. Thomas rush for 7 yards, 1st down. Ducks strong left, 3 wide receivers and a single tight end. 6 in the box for Nicholls. An inside zone read to the right. The line gets a good push off the ball and Thomas sees the defensive front is squeezed in by the blocking and he quickly breaks it outside around the right tackle.

Nice double team block on the defensive left end has him completely neutralized defending the edge. Hroniss Grasu stands up the tackle inside. DAT’s quickness and vision turns this into a positive play as there isn’t a hole inside. His quick bounce outside doesn’t give the FCS slower linebackers time to react and fill his hole.

No one blocks the middle linebacker but Thomas just outruns him for yardage as Josh Huff screens off the outside linebacker. The secondary has to make the tackle after a good gain.

Note #63 Mana Greig and Jake Fisher ranging upfield to throw additional blocks. Fisher takes a defender completely out of bounds as the whistle blows, and Fisher is 12 yards upfield.

Offensive line grade: B+

The quarterbacks weren’t sacked, but they were hurried throughout the game by an undersized, undermanned defensive line. The running game produced 502 yards and 6 touchdowns, second in school history, but it was a product of superior speed and athleticism rather than gaping holes and physical dominance at the line of scrimmage.

Everett Benyard did a great job of sliding out to take Jake Fisher’s place after Fisher left the game with injury. (No word, as always, on his status).

DAT really didn’t have superb explosion or elusiveness in this game. He ran hard and nimbly up the middle and took good care of the football, but he really didn’t defeat any tackles at the second level. His longest run of the game against a 1-10 FCS opponent was 22 yards. He seemed so focused on being productive as a workhorse that he sacrificed some of his creativity. Byron Marshall and Ayele Forde provided the running fireworks on Saturday, with runs of 49,47, and 45 yards.

It’s a minor concern that Thomas can be completely stonewalled on some carries and thrown down like a Kermit the Frog stuffed toy. He needs a crease, though he runs plenty hard most of the time with good durability.

De’Anthony Thomas grade: B.

128 yards and 7.1 yards a carry, but he didn’t have any wow factor runs against an inferior opponent. In 2010 LaMichael James torched Portland State for 227 yards on 14 carries in a similar matchup, with td runs of 66 and 35 yards.

14:02 2nd and 8. Tight end right, two receivers left. Snap is slightly high, which makes the timing of this play a little sloppy, Mariota making an abbreviated zone-read fake to Thomas. The fake isn’t clean or convincing because the mesh is mistimed with the snap, but the quarterback completes a 15-yard pass to Bralon Addison.

The linebackers are frozen in place inside, instructed to defend the run at all costs, giving MM an easy window for his throw on the outside. Four man rush and everyone is picked up securely with a double team on the nose, Grasu reading accurately that the linebackers aren’t coming.

Mariota brings the ball up quickly, seeing from his pre-snap read that Addison has soft coverage on the outside, settling into an unguarded zone 5 yards deep, tight to the sideline. This simple play puts a lot of pressure on a defense. Mariota’s accurate delivery on quick throws means the defense has to cover every square inch of the field over the first 25 yards, very hard to do against the Ducks’ speed.

Addison gathers the ball in smoothly. He’s a chest catcher by preference, but that’s okay, because he has great feet and makes the initial defender miss with a nifty stop/start move, working his way up the sideline for ten more yards before the deep defenders have him bracketed.

Scott Frost, play-calling grade: B+

The Ducks were rarely disorganized and had a good rhythm offensively, scoring the first six times they had the ball before turning it over on downs just before the half, their only serious hiccup in play-calling in the first half, having to call a timeout on 4th and 5 rather than just lining up quickly and beating the Colonels with tempo.

Frost had a play ready throughout the day and did a good job of taking advantage of the numerous mismatches; he also did a good job of injecting some play variety in the fourth quarter, allowing the coaches to get a good look at the young quarterbacks in game conditions. Lockie and Rodrigues were challenged to run the offense rather than handing off on the Zone-Read 20 times, and they’ll benefit from the experience.

13:51 1st quarter, 1st and 10. Slot right, single back, wide receivers to each side. Marcus Mariota 27 yard run down the right side to the Nicholls 4 for a first down. He fakes the outside zone read to Thomas, sets up in the pocket, which holds beautifully. Fisher collapses the strong side defensive end inside.

Mariota checks three progressions and doesn’t find an open receiver, rolls right to buy time. There’s no contain so he looks for a full six seconds before tucking the ball and speeding down the sideline. The wide receivers don’t have the angle to make a block for him and all three of them wisely avoid a clip. Mariota just outruns the defense before stepping out of bounds.

Marcus Mariota passing grade: B-. Running grade: A+

Throwing the football Super Mario had several unforced errors, missing high. Despite his reputation for being “Cool Breeze” he admitted he was a little too amped for this game, something that used to plague Joey Harrington early in games quite often as a Duck.

He settled down in the second half and made a series of strong , accurate throws Huff for 27, Lowe for 40, Hawkins for 11 and 8 to get the Ducks out of a hole starting at their own three yard line.

Running, Mariota was flawless. He tore off chunks of yardage picking the perfect times to keep or scramble out of the pocket, chewing up turf with his long graceful strides, carries for 46, 27, and 22 yards, in all 5 carries for 113 yards and two tds. In addition he did a great job of protecting himself when he runs, observing vital fundamentals like when you go out of bounds at the sideline, keep running. It prevents a late hit, one of those awkward tangles at sideline with bodies twisting around legs, an injury minefield.

Mariota trusts his speed as a runner and accelerates into lanes. He had all of his best running days and longest carries of the season in the second half of last year, and it was a superb debut for him as a dual threat, even considering the opponent. The quarterback’s job in the spread is to exploit errors and take advantage of mismatches, and he did that perfectly in the Oregon running game Saturday.

13:34 first and goal, opening drive. De’Anthony Thomas 4-yard touchdown run. Inside zone read right, six in the box. Snap is at Mariota’s face again but he brings it down smoothly to complete the play. The offensive line pushes the Colonel defense inside and collapses the scrum. The weakside defensive end is unblocked by design but doesn’t have the quickness to catch Thomas, who slithers through a small seam right up the middle and drives through a tackle at the one.

Sometimes fans talk about The Black Momba like he’s a delicate flower, but he runs harder and more effectively in heavy traffic than many give him credit for. He has good vision, quick feet, and dozens of shifty little moves that allow him to avoid blows and navigate in the land of the giants, like a quick little point guard scooping to the hoop for a lay-up. We all know how Thomas loves easy lay-ups. Grasu and Benyard drive the nose tackle off the ball to create a seam, and Lyerla seals off the defensive end on the other side of the slash of daylight.

(Video compiled by Mike Wines of Oregon Duck Soup and YouTube Channel madmike1951 :)