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Five factors: three players and two units that must come to play for the Oregon Ducks versus Tennessee

From coaches’ comments during the week, here are three keys to the game versus Virginia:

Super Mario must be super

Scott Frost said this week that Marcus Mariota has been making good decisions on his throws this season, but the Ducks’ passing game has been plagued by drops, breakdowns in protection and play calls that didn’t work. 

On Wednesday he told Rob Moseley of goducks.com, “He didn’t throw one bad ball (on Saturday). He was 14-of-28, but he had to throw about three away, we dropped about six — that’s nine — and then he took a couple shots down the field that were low-percentage deals, and we missed them. That’s about 12 of the 14. Looking at the tape, he didn’t throw one ball that wasn’t a good throw.”

Virginia defensed Oregon’s screen game really well, making the Ducks look predictable on four plays they disrupted or blew up, one they nearly returned for a pick six. 

Hawaiian Punch: MVP of the Fiesta Bowl, 14-1 as a starter, architect of the finest freshman season in school history, Marcus Mariota has drawn fire from some Duck fans over perceived accuracy issues in the season’s first two weeks. Ducks need him on point and in rhythm against Tennessee (Otto Greule, Getty Images). 

The Ducks need their passing game to be sharper with the PAC-12 season starting next weekend. It’s imperative to have a reliable counter to the pack-the-box-and-be-physical strategy that Stanford employed so successfully last year. As a freshman Mariota completed 68.5% of his passes, but as offensive coordinator Frost suggests, the passing game is a team effort.

Bane must be beastly

The Ducks have to get Colt Lyerla reincorporated into the offense after a bad day catching the football against Virginia in which he had three drops. Lyerla’s a freakishly talented athlete and has been a reliable receiver for the Ducks for two seasons, one who has found the end zone 11 times at TE. Tight end coach Tom Osborne insisted that the drops were rare; the Hillsboro product has excellent hands. NFL scouts rate him one of the top tight end prospects in the country and a likely first round draft pick. 

For any athlete who experiences a slump or a bad day, getting back in rhythm is extremely important. The Ducks need a confident, involved Lyerla for the season. He’s a formidable weapon. Success breeds success, and getting Lyerla involved should be a priority. Frost thinks so too. He told Andrew Grief of the Oregonian, “We’re going to continue to go to Colt.”

One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the 6-5, 250-lb. tight end had four key blocks in the game, springing wide receiver Keanon Lowe for a touchdown on a screen pass in the third quarter.

The Tyner factor

Gary Campbell told the media this week that Oregon’s newest sensational speedster at tailback, freshman Thomas Tyner, has moved up to “2 1/2” on the depth chart after his work in practice and a promising debut in the fourth quarter against Virginia. It wasn’t just the yards he gained it was the way he gained them: both head coach Mark Helfrich and Campbell said the cuts and smoothness Tyner showed on those runs were special, running back plays that offered a glimpse of the gifted Aloha high star’s future. 

In the Tennessee game, look for Dash to get 5-12 meaningful carries in the heat of the game when the first teams are still in. It will be a surer indication of his readiness and learning curve, playing against an SEC team with some talent, size and athletic ability on defense. Tyner’s role for the season is one of the most interesting story lines for the Ducks. If he can adapt quickly and become a solid part of the running back rotation in his first year, it frees up De’Anthony Thomas to be used more in space and in multiple roles, where he puts the most pressure on the defense.

Line play

“A good, quick, small team can beat a big, slow team any time.” –Bear Bryant

Previewing Tennessee in his weekly press conference, Mark Helfrich said, “They’re huge. They’re athletic. They’re well coached. They’ve got a great scheme. It’s a challenge.”

The Vols feature two offensive tackles who play at 320+, and a defensive tacle who plugs the middle at 350. Their middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is 6-2 243 and runs a 4.62 40. 

Winning the line of scrimmage against lines this big is a big deal. It’s the ultimate test of Oregon’s “bullets over bowling balls” approach. It’s a forerunner of what they’ll face against UCLA and Stanford, and again if they make it to the National Championship Game.

On defense, Nick Aliotti’s unit has to stop the running game. The Vols will try to punish Oregon with their twin tailbacks, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, who’ve averaged over 6 yards a carry in the tuneup games. They’ll try to pile up the first downs and keep the high-octane Oregon offense off the field.

Offensively, Oregon has to do more than just run around the Vols. They have to accept the challenge to be physically dominant in this game, and make it about more than just size. This is the PAC-12 versus the SEC, and although SEC supporters will immediately discount the result if Oregon wins, they’ll be all over it if Oregon loses, or has trouble with the Vols physically.

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