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State of the Ducks: an interview with Movoli Sports

Everybody wants to know what’s going on with the Ducks. Today Cullen Burnell of Movoli.com stopped by with seven questions, which The Duck Stops Here answered at a blur-fast pace, though we scowled at a couple of the hypotheticals:

After Chip Kelly decided to leave the program for the NFL, new coach Mark Helfrich and his staff said that little would change in terms of how the famous Ducks offense was run. Has that held true or has the coaching staff changed the system somewhat?

The offense hasn’t changed much in style or productivity as the Ducks have 125 points and 1329 yards over the first two games. Both Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost said that they’d be foolish to try and reinvent the wheel in their new positions with the system being so successful under Kelly, a 46-7 record, 4 BCS bowls, 3 straight 12-win seasons, final poll rankings of 3rd, 4th and second, and 45 points a game.

Keep on pushing on: 645 points a year is a lot of pushups. The Duck cranked out over 500 in the opening win over Nicholls (Thomas Boyd, Oregonian file photo).

 At the same time football is an adjust-or-die world. Defenses keep evolving to attack the spread. The Ducks have kept things pretty vanilla over the first two weeks in games they’ve won 66-3 and 59-10, but they’ve have shown more intermediate passing, and they’ve used versatile slot receiver/running back De’Anthony Thomas almost exclusively carrying the football out of the backfield. In the weeks ahead they’re likely to move him around more to take advantage of his versatility and elusiveness in space.

No one would argue that Oregon hasn’t had phenomenal success over the past several years, but a national championship has thus far eluded the Ducks. Why is this year’s team the one that can win it all? If they’re not, why not?

For a West Coast team to make it to the national championship game this season, they’ll have to have a perfect season. The SEC Champion is likely for one berth, and Ohio State and Louisville both have the talent and the schedules to go undefeated. Perfect seasons are hard. There is always the one game where the offense doesn’t have its rhythm or the opponent executes a great game plan defensively. There is the moment where the season comes down to a crucial field goal. Injuries are always an X factor–like most teams, this would be a much different team without their star quarterback.

This Oregon squad has more talent and depth than any team they’ve ever had. Mariota and Thomas are exceptional weapons, and they’re surrounded by other playmakers like receivers Josh Huff, Bralon Addison and Keanon Lowe, who’ve combined for 17 catches, 335 yards and 3 touchdowns so far.

Byron Marshall looks like a capable relief back, and true freshman Thomas Tyner, who has 10.35 speed in the 100 meters, caught the fans’ imagination with his debut in the fourth quarter of the Virginia game, carrying the ball 4 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns, including a 31-yd scoring burst off left tackle. Tight end Colt Lyerla is a matchup nightmare at 6-5, 250. The junior had three uncharacteristic drops at Scott Stadium but he’s been a potent weapon for the Ducks in his first two seasons, with 11 tds in 32 catches.

The line features three preseason all-conference selections in center Hroniss Grasu, a third-year starter, and tackles Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher. All three are NFL prospects, strong agile blockers who excel at getting upfield. On one 30-yard td in the second quarter of the game against the Wahoos. a screen pass to Addison, Grasu threw a key, crunching block at the five, a full 25 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s serious mobility for a 6-3, 297-lb. interior lineman.

The defense looks improved also. In their first two games, admittedly against two lesser opponents, Nick Aliotti’s unit allowed a little, just 6.5 points per game and 3.7 yards per play. What’s most impressive is that they’ve done this while rotating 26-30 players in on defense, tutoring a linebacker corps that is athletic but new in their starting roles. The defensive line is fierce and deep; they already have 8 sacks on the year. The secondary, led by NFL prospects Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, could be the best in the nation.

National championship? That requires 20 weeks of perfect preparation, health, and a little luck. But this Duck team is the best they’ve ever had.

Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas are the household names on this offense. Who is the player you would point to as an unheralded, but equally important member of that group?

Hard to pick just one guy, because they have so many weapons. Keanon Lowe falls into that category, because he contributes in so many ways, returning kicks, blocking, and catching the football. Already this year he has 4 catches for 66 yards and a td. He’s broken loose for a 48-yard kick return and a 40-yard pass reception. He’s well-spoken and a leader in the group, one of the players that communicates the Oregon Way to younger players.

Are there things about this Oregon team that have you concerned once the schedule gets tougher, primarily against Stanford or UCLA?

Virginia and Nicholls both had success throwing underneath against the Ducks, keeping the football for long stretches of time with screens, draws and short passes. Against a bigger and more talented team this could become a real concern. Though the defense has been generally very good, they’ve given up a 51-yard post pattern to Nicholls in game one, and 45-yard run for a touchdown in game two. Each time key defenders were out of position and missed assignments. The Hoos Kahlel Shepherd rambled for his td on a simple stretch play where no one filled the hole and two players missed tackles. The Ducks have to clean up those lapses. Games later in the season, like the two you mentioned, will be against much better players.

Virginia completely stymied the Webfoots’ inside running game. That’s a concern because it’s been an integral part of the attack for two years, and teams like Stanford and UCLA have the speed to cut off some of the angles on the outside, forcing Oregon to throw more.

Oregon’s fabulous sophomore quarterback has done a great job triggering the offense so far, but he’s struggled with his mechanics at times and his completion percentage has suffered. Through two games he is at 53% in an offense that features a lot of high per centage throws; last year as a redshirt freshman he completed 68.5% of his passes.

Reviewing the game videos, it isn’t just errors by Mariota. Mark Helfrich pointed out that the passing game is an 11-man deal. The quarterback has been pressured numerous times and has wisely thrown the ball away: he hasn’t been sacked in 49 attempts. Receivers have hurt him with 10 drops. Opponents have been successful in sniffing out some of Oregon’s screens, especially the inside screens, and are blowing those plays up. Play calling might be a little predictable in those formations and situations.

The numbers show the offense has been frighteningly effective even with the miscues, and through two games Mariota has 9 carries running the football for 235 yards and 3 tds, a mind-blowing 26.1 yards per carry, with highlight-film td runs of 46 and 71 yards. Thus far his Heisman candidacy is safe; most of the straw polls and watch lists have him in the top three. But for Oregon to stay relevant and undefeated they need more consistency and crisper starts from The Flyin’ Hawaiian.

In your mind, what defines success this season for the Ducks?

The team has won 12 games in each of the last three seasons, the only squad in the BCS to do so. Expectations have no limits. Fans are quite naturally looking to the National Championship Game, but are realistic enough to know that every season plays out differently. If the Ducks won the PAC-12 Championship and wound up in the Rose Bowl at 11-2 or 12-1, no one would be calling for Mark Helfrich’s job.

That said, this season is Oregon’s best chance to win the whole thing: there are 8 draft-eligible underclassmen in key roles, including Mariota, Thomas, Lyerla, Grasu, Johnstone, Fisher, Olomu, and Mitchell. Losing any four of those wouldn’t be crippling, but it would be challenging. This is the widest the window will be in the foreseeable future.

On a more general note: how do Ducks fans feel about seeing elements of the system that their school pioneered being used across college football and now in the NFL?

Duck fans are gratified to have an often-imitated, never-duplicated attack, probably the most entertaining and productive offense in football. They’re looking in with interest as Chip Kelly makes his NFL debut. They’re amused to see hated rival Washington (0-9 against the Ducks since 2003) adopt a no-huddle spread this spring. The Huskies are having some early success with it, busting #19 Boise State 38-6 in their opener last week.

Everything in football runs in cycles, and up-tempo spread offenses are the current rage. Defenses are struggling to catch up, but they will. The Wishbone ruled the ’70s. The West Coast attack ruled the ’80s. The point always is to get fast athletes one-on-on in space, and Oregon does that better than anyone right now.

Bonus question: Over/Under – 2,700 push-ups for the Oregon Duck this season.

Yahoo Sports Dr. Saturday, Matt Hinton, now with the Sporting News, calculated that The Duck pumped out 2,757 pushups in 2010, the year Oregon went 13-1 and made in to Glendale to face Auburn. So far this season he’s on pace for about 3200, but let’s be honest, the bill gets in the way: those pushups are a just a show-stopping part of his schtick. They look more like the ones the skinny kid did in the back of the gym class.