Narratives aren’t reality. They exist to sell the insurance, beer and barbecue charcoal, and the fact that Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard all picked UCLA to win the Pac-12, and Corso and Howard tapped the Bruins as 2014 national champions, doesn’t make it more or less of a possibility.
Last season in UCLA’s 42-14 loss to the Ducks, Brett Hundley was 13-19 passing for 64 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions.
Here’s another example from numbers. Everybody’s talking about how dangerous the Michigan State game is for the Ducks, how physical and tough the Spartans are, and they certainly are a top program with a great defense, a battering, productive running game and a solid quarterback. There’s no question they’ve earned respect as the Big Ten and Rose Bowl Champions. The defense is built around All-American defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who had 37 tackles and 7.5 sacks last season.
Tony Washington’s stats as a junior in his first year starting at Oregon? 60 tackles and 7.5 sacks.
Oregon still gets talked about as a soft team that can’t handle big games, but the narrative doesn’t matter, only results.
Comcast Sports Northwest’s Aaron Fentress says the Ducks have to do five things to contend for the national title. See if you agree with his list:
1. Quarterback Marcus Mariota makes a December trip to New York:
2. The Ducks rush for 300-plus yards per game and run well against tough opponents
3. The run defense returns to form: Oregon’s defense got run over last year by Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State late in the season. Stanford and Arizona had two of the best rushing offenses in the conference, so no big shame there. But OSU?
4. The defense creates more pressure on opposing quarterbacks:
5. The next Bralon Addison, or two, emerges: The loss of the team’s top receiver has created a void in the passing game that might only rear its ugly head in clutch moments against good teams.
The Heisman Trophy isn’t the goal, of course, but getting there would indicate Mariota stayed healthy and had the season he’s expected to have. It’s incredible to contemplate a player who’s that good who is so committed to getting better. He worked on his accuracy and footwork. He’s working on becoming more assertive and comfortable as a leader. He’s made peace with being in the spotlight and learned to rely on his friends and family, putting himself in a position to focus completely on football after completing his degree requirements early.
Mariota has complete command of the Oregon offense and a great understanding of how to sift through his progressions. His escapability and poise allow him to create on the fly and give those young receivers more time and opportunities to get open.
He isn’t likely to have any 64-yard passing days.
2. Not sure I buy the 300-yard number as a benchmark, but agree the Ducks must be able to run the football and have to be able to do so against their toughest opponents, Michigan State, UCLA and Stanford. They should achieve this goal. The line has challenged themselves and gotten bigger and stronger. The development of redshirts Evan Voeller and Jake Pisarcik gives them necessary depth, and junior college transfer Haneteli Lousi has progressed well and will have an immediate impact in the rotation. Even with Johnstone gone there’s plenty of experience, about 86 starts.
Additionally, the Oregon running backs are more physical this year. Tyner and Marshall added strength and power, and freshman Royce Freeman is a bruiser with difference-making balance and drive, very tough to bring down. The hard yards will come easier to the Ducks. They may not have to run for 300 a game, because Mariota can throw for 350. In a long history of good offenses in Eugene, there’s has never been one with this much speed and talent, this many options in the arsenal, ending with the fact that Marcus Mariota can take off and outrun people even if the defense does everything right.
3. Nick Aliotti had a great career as Oregon coach, but last season wasn’t his finest. He wasn’t completely in synch with Mark Helfrich and at times he undermined his leadership. Don Pellum brings a tighter focus to the Oregon defense. His players have done their part in the weight room, and practices have emphasized discipline and fundamentals. There will be a dramatic improvement in the Oregon defense this season. There will be more stops, more pressure, and they’ll create more mistakes. They’ll win more confrontations on third and fourth down and in the red zone. The front seven will be vastly improved. Hardrick’s better after a year to learn. Armstead and Buckner are physical marvels. Balducci, Kamp and Maloata have improved size and strength at nose. Coleman, Malone, Mattingly and Walker will make a lot of tackles.
The leaders and pacesetters of the defense will be seniors Tony Washington and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, two mature young men with warrior mentalities, two who go about their business with a high degree of craft and professionalism. The 2014 defense will have an attitude. They’ve been maligned and overlooked. It’s a very competitive and tenacious group with loads of athletic ability, highly likely to exceed the casual, careless expectations of the ESPN crowd.
4. Pressure is certainly crucial, but not just on imposing quarterbacks. The Ducks need to create more negative plays, tackles for loss, turnovers. They need to be disruptive, aggressive and opportunistic. Oregon’s numbers for tackles for loss and turnovers dropped alarmingly last year. No more passive, tentative defense: it’s time to attack.
5. This is an area where the Ducks have three great strengths: there is a wealth of speed and talent at the position, they have one of the nation’s best receiver coaches in Matt Lubick, and a veteran quarterback who knows how to make these guys better and work with them. Addison is a marvelous talent, and fans will be ecstatic when he returns to the line-up, but Darren Carrington, Devon Allen, Chance Allen, Charles Nelson and Dwayne Stanford have a ton of skill and ability. Oregon’s receivers are tall, fast, athletic and well-coached. It’s not hard to teach a group like that to catch passes.
This year’s Ducks have no barriers. They only have opportunities. It’s a tough, tough league, with great coaching and 10 returning starting quarterbacks. The PAC-12 plays nine conference games and a conference championship, and if they survive all that, they’d have to beat the likes of Alabama and Florida State in a two-week stretch.
Look Marcus Mariota and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the eye and tell them they can’t do it.