The Oregon Ducks will present the biggest test to the Spartans' defense in years. While the architect of the Ducks' offense, Chip Kelly, is now coaching the Philadelphia Eagles, Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich filled the head coaching vacancy. In this piece, we'll take a look back at the 2013 Oregon Ducks, and see how this year's version might differ from last year's.
How did the Ducks start last season?
In a word, explosively. In August, September, and October, the Ducks scored no fewer than 42 points in each game, with the only 42-spot occurring in a 42-14 win against then #12 ranked UCLA in Eugene. It didn't matter who ran the ball - De'Anthony Thomas missed four games in that stretch, and running backs Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner filled in with 930 yards and 11 touchdowns in Thomas's stead.
I should also talk about QB Marcus Mariota here. The then-sophomore had one or two mediocre games in Oregon's first eight last season (against Cal: 11-25 for 114 yards, but still 2 TDs and zero picks), but he was uber-efficient in the rest. Mariota's touchdown to interception ratio (31 to 4) was one of the few better than Connor Cook's 22 to 6 last year. In fact, Mariota didn't throw an interception until the Arizona game in late November.
Meanwhile, the defense had a couple hiccups (24 points allowed to Washington, 38 allowed to Washington State) during that time, but otherwise they were solid, allowing no more than 16 points to any team from a state that doesn't share a border with Canada.
Are you going to talk about the Stanford game?
Yes, here. The then #2 ranked Oregon's first loss came in a 26-20 loss to #6 ranked Stanford. Mariota was his usual excellent self in this game - 20 of 34 passing for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns - but the running game was stopped. The Ducks could only muster 62 rushing yards on 24 carries. Conversely, Stanford was able to run the ball, running 66 times for 274 yards, while only attempting 13 passes in the game. Oregon would've lost by more if not for returning a blocked Stanford field goal for a touchdown and getting another touchdown from a drive started after a recovered onside kick.
So can the Ducks' rushing attack be stopped? Yes. Will the Spartans do it on Saturday? Please.
How did the Ducks finish the season?
Roughly. They beat Utah 44-21 the week after Stanford, but then traveled to Arizona and suffered a 42-16 loss, which...well, I'll let SB Nation Oregon blog Addicted to Quack explain it:
The Ducks followed up the Arizona loss by requiring a Marcus Mariota touchdown pass to Jake Huff with 29 seconds left to beat Oregon State 36-35 in Eugene. The rest before the bowl game did the Ducks good though, as they bounced back to beat Texas 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl.
Who returns for the Ducks this season?
The Ducks returned seven starters on offense - Mariota, Marshall, and the entire offensive line; however, they lost starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone for the season to an ACL injury during camp. They'll obviously need to find some wideouts to step up, but all the linemen familiar with the Ducks' zone blocking scheme return, which means the running attack won't miss a beat.
On defense, only five players return. One of those players though is outstanding cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a first-team All-American last season. He injured his ankle in Oregon's opener against South Dakota State last week, but Ekpre-Olomu says he's fine and should see the field this week. He's good, and Oregon fans have their tributes:
While the Ducks had a couple hiccups last season, those mostly came towards the end of the season, and not during the first couple months when they were laying waste to any team to cross them. If that trend continues this season, that could spell trouble for the Spartans.