Byron Marshall channeled the spirits of Mel Renfro, Bobby Moore and De’Anthony Thomas, running and receiving for 228 yards in a spectacular performance that even included a DAT-like boneheaded play, letting the ball go at the half yard line on what should have been a 54-yard touchdown.
Instead, 53 yards was the longest run of his career, now forever marked with an asterisk. Marshall grabbed 8 passes for 138 yards, both career highs, while running 8 times for 90 yards, darting around tacklers with a couple of nifty shake-and-bakes in addition to his long dash to infamy.
His big night was a pleasant discovery for Duck fans, who had worried about the passing game with Thomas and Josh Huff departed for the NFL and Bralon Addison out for undetermined amount of time with an ACL injury. Marshall took over, catching everything Mariota threw him, striking for two touchdowns, 41 yards on a beautifully thrown wheel route down the right sideline on Oregon’s second possession. The second one came on the Quack Attack’s penultimate possession of the second period, 11 yards as the Oregon qb wriggled out of the pocket, nearing the scrimmage line, zipped one quickly to his junior all-purpose back in the left corner with just under four minutes to play.
Mariota started smoothly, three touchdowns on the Ducks first three possessions, the first a post route to 6-5 Dwayne Stanford for 62 yards, a green and yellow rainbow of a pass perfectly in stride. In all the Heisman Trophy frontrunner was 7-8 passing in those first fifteen minutes, for 173 yards and the two tds. Royce Freeman punched it over from the one for the other, running behind center Hroniss Grasu and surprise starter Jake Pisarcik at guard, a redshirt freshman. the Ducks led 21-3 after the first quarter and were never seriously challenged by the Coyotes, an FCS team that went 4-8 last season in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Mariota was crisply efficient in two quarters of work, leading the Ducks to a 41-13 halftime lead before giving way to backup Jeff Lockie, who went the whole way in the second half. Mariota completed 14-20 for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns. His receivers didn’t have a single drop. Darren Carrington, a redshirt freshman playing his first game grabbed 4 balls for 68 yards, including a 34-yard vertical route over the middle with a defender draped all over him.
The Flyin’ Hawaiian added 6 well-timed runs for 43 yards, the longest a 12-yard scramble. Alarmingly, he lowered his head and took a couple of hits in the middle of the field, something Duck fans rarely want to see.
He did his smoothest operating on his last possession. With just 1:36 to work with after South Dakota scored their only touchdown, the cool-breeze body surfer took the Ducks 76 yards in 11 plays, hitting Carrington for 11, Carrington for 14, Tyner for 7 and a first down, throwing the ball away to avoid a loss, scrambling for 12 yards and a first down, finding Marshall for 25 yards down to the 1, then keeping it himself on the zone read, trotting into the end zone when the defense collapsed on his running back.
All through the game Carrington and Marshall displayed very good hands, making a lie out of the preseason bleating that the Ducks were thin at receiver. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost did a great job mixing formation and plays, with Marshall lining up with Tyner in a twin backfield set or as a slot receiver, devastatingly effective in both places. Both of Oregon’s first two touchdowns, each on long passes, came out of the two-back set.
In his debut true freshman Royce Freeman wowed the crowd with 10 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns, the second a 26-yard scoring jaunt on a stretch play right behind the blocking of Andre Yruretagoyena, Oregon’s new starter at right tackle.
The Ducks three-headed monster at running back worked marvelously. Thomas Tyner started and powered for 65 yards on 11 carries, running mostly straight ahead.
It’s curious about Tyner. In his first outing of the year since working on getting stronger and more assertive in the off season, he was quick to the hole and ran with authority, but seems to have forgotten that he’s one of the fastest backs in the country. Suddenly he’s turned himself into Tyler Gaffney. He’d reach the second level with a quick burst, but run directly into a linebacker or defensive back, never a juke, a cut or a burst to get by them. He averaged 5.8 yards a carry with a long run of 15 yards, but the elusive, dangerous open-field runner who ran for 140 yards against Oregon State, or 643 in one game as a prep, seems to have given way to Thomas the Tank Engine, running on rails in a straight line to the first down line. The vision, creativity and spontaneity appears, at least momentarily, to have gone out of his game.
In all 10 true freshman played for the Ducks. In addition to Freeman’s heroics, shifty freshman return man/receiver Charles Nelson broke out of the gate with a 50-yard punt return for the only score of the third quarter. Nelson fielded the ball on the ran, broke around the right side, setting up a key block with a shoulder fake and hesitation move that embodied the best of The Black Momba, then cut back at the 10 to evade the punter and the pursuit. Nelson has the zoom factor and the flair, and he should be the principle punt returner and probably kick returner. The Coyotes wanted nothing to do with Oregon’s dangerous return game: they kicked short every time but the first.
Other freshmen who played included tackle Tyrell Crosby, long snapper Tanner Crew, punter Ian Wheeler (the Maytag repairman of football, punting for the Ducks) kicker Aidan Schneider (no word on Matt Wogan’s absence), Justin Hollins, Henry Mondeaux, and Austin Maloata, who had 4 tackles in his first action as a collegian at nose tackle. Arrion Springs and Jimmie Swain were surprise additions in the fourth quarter, two talented players thought to be on the bubble for playing or redshirting; they came in to the game and contributed a pair of tackles apiece.
It was the most extended work for backup Jeff Lockie, the clear #2 quarterback now after the transfer of Jake Rodriguez. Lockie was impressively cool and effective off the bench, finally getting a chance to really run the offense. He was statistically sharper than Mariota, completing 11-12 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown, his going to tight end Pharaoh Brown on a brilliantly executed option play, a shovel pass to the sideline from four yards out on second and goal.
Lockie looked comfortable in the pocket or rolling out. He meshed well with Tyner, Marshall, Freeman and Kenny Bassett in the zone read, in command running the offense as he led a pair of touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. He used his tight ends effectively, finding Brown with a 28-yard pass down the right sideline, Johnny Mundt for 24 on his second scoring drive. In all 10 receivers caught a pass.
Lockie’s development is an encouraging sign. It suggests the Ducks could survive if Mariota missed a quarter or a game, at least in one of the less stressful matchups of the year. He’d do a workmanlike job as an emergency starter, a confidence Duck fans couldn’t begin to have even two weeks ago.
For all the progress Lockie displayed, the defense didn’t. FCS foe South Dakota shredded them for 377 yards, moving the ball on the first, second and third team defenses, moving the ball on most of their possessions. The Coyotes had 19 first downs and only turned the ball over once.
In the second quarter SD running back Jasper Sanders leaked through the left side for a 45-yard run, and on the play the Ducks broke down in exactly the same way they did a year ago when Khalek Shepherd of Virginia zoomed for 45 yards, or Washington’s Bishop Sankey broke loose for 60 on a 4th and 1 in Seattle: a missed tackle at the point of attack, and no one fills the hole.
Oregon’s linebackers, at least after one game, haven’t learned, and haven’t improved. They’re not getting off blocks, and not recognizing where they need to be. For the game defensive linemen DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Maloata, and Alex Balducci combined for 18 tackles; starting safeties Erick Dargan and and Reggie Daniels led the team with 7 each. Among the linebackers, Derrick Malone had 5, Rodney Hardrick 3, Joe Walker 1, Danny Mattingly, none. Jimmie Swain had two off the bench. Johnny Ragin III looked active and physical in his second half stint and had 3.
Gone are the days, at least for now, of Michael Clay, Kiko Alonso or Casey Matthews, turning in 100-tackle seasons or 12 in a game. To be an effective defense, the Ducks need productivity and volume playmaking from their linebacker crew. They didn’t get it against the Coyotes.
Next week Don Pellum’s defense faces a Michigan State team that dismantled Stanford in last year’s Rose Bowl and throttled Jackson State on Friday. Connor Cook went 21-23 passing in his debut and averaged 21 yards a throw. Bruising running back Jeremy Langford took a half day, rushing 13 times for 57 yards, but remember that last season he rambled for 1422 yards, including 8-straight 100-yard games in Big Ten play.
The Ducks will have to play a lot better to do half as well against the Spartans. South Dakota burned them passing the football, with completions of 28 and 30 yards, moving the chains with simple underneath routes, hooks and outs, or easy tosses to the running back on flair patterns, no one covering him.
Oregon did keep the visitors out of the end zone in the second half, a point of pride that became a reality when Juwaan Williams knifed in on a corner blitz on 3rd and goal from the two with 19 seconds left, a gutsy call and great execution by the redshirt freshmen defensive back.
Tyson Coleman had another nice sack earlier in the game from his outside linebacker spot. In all the Ducks had three sacks, the other by Balducci cleaning up in a collapsing pocket. They managed 6 tackles for loss, ahead of last year’s pace.
Criticism of the defense has to be tempered by a couple of factors. They stayed in a plain-vanilla base defense most of the time. They substituted liberally and played almost everyone in uniform. In addition, a late-night game with a long day to wait is hardest on the defense. The situation induces lethargy and pent-up aggression. Imagine being 19 and full of athletic energy and having to wait through 12 hours of meetings and an afternoon walk to hit somebody.
Yet it’s still disappointing to recount the lack of pressure and penetration, and an inability to take the ball away. With a big physical advantage the Ducks managed just one takeaway.
MSU is a 3:30 start, carried nationally on the Fox Network. ESPN College Game Day will be in town, with Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Desmond Howard all likely to predict doom for the soft, porous Ducks and their suspect defense.
Duck fans will find out what they have in Don Pellum and Mark Helfrich. It’s a referendum on leadership, execution and discipline, their ability to prepare and make adjustments. The Ducks had 9 penalties tonight, for 64 yards, including two unsportsmanlike conduct infractions.
They need to learn to score first, then hand the ball to an official. The margin of error will be much smaller in week two.