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Michigan State at Oregon Preview: discussing the game with Addicted To Quack

We talk with SB Nation's Oregon blog about zone blocking, defensive threats, and where to drink in Eugene.

Otto Greule Jr

On the eve of possibly THE college football nonconference regular season game of the season, we sent some questions to David Piper, one of the writers at the great SB Nation Oregon blog Addicted To Quack. We traded questions with other, our responses to his questions can be seen here as soon as they go up. Edit: They're up! Click here to see my responses to David's questions.

1. Oregon runs out of a zone blocking scheme. For our readers (and myself at times) who are a bit confused by the term, how does zone blocking differ from a normal blocking scheme, and how has that played into Oregon's success running the ball?

In a traditional blocking scheme, the offensive line is blocking hat on hat, meaning that each lineman has an assignment and is responsible for a specific defender on a specific play, with the intention of opening up a specific gap for the running back. In a zone blocking scheme, each lineman is responsible for an area, and the running back gets to choose a hole. The advantage of a zone blocking scheme is twofold. One, the rules don’t really change based on the defensive alignment and two, it allows for smaller, more nimble offensive linemen because there is often a double-team on the defensive lineman, pushing him out of the gap before one of the OLs peel up and takes out a linebacker. For a general breakdown, see this old but simple Smart Football article.

Oregon has three bread and butter plays out of this. The inside zone usually opens up a b gap, while the outside zone is a stretch play. Of course, Oregon’s most famous play is the read option, where the quarterback reads the unblocked backside defensive end, handing it off if that end goes after the QB, and keeping it if he goes after the RB. This is the deception play.

Adding a wrinkle, the Ducks showed a two-back set against South Dakota, which adds a whole new dimension to what they can do.

2. Marcus Mariota is yet another great Oregon QB. If you had to pinpoint one characteristic that has made him successful, what would it be?

Poise. Yeah, he has all the physical tools you want from a QB. But I have never seen him rattled. He exudes confidence and leadership and will not panic in any situation. That alone doesn’t make you an elite QB. But when you add his arm and legs to it, you can see why NFL scouts are drooling over him.

3. The Ducks had a great start to the season, but faded in late November and December in games against Arizona and Oregon State. Was there any one cause for this, or was it a combination of things?

Two things derailed Oregon’s season last year. The first was that Marcus Mariota sprained his knee, which took away the threat of him running the football and changed the dynamic of Oregon’s offense. The second was that the defensive line and linebackers were exposed to be not very good, and teams started running the ball down Oregon’s throats. Oregon State had the worst rushing attack by any major conference team in the nation, and put up 200 yards on the Ducks. It was completely unacceptable in every way.

4. Like Michigan State's defense, Oregon's offense is getting much more attention than the Ducks' defense. Who should the Spartans fear most, and what area might they be able to attack?

During the Chip Kelly years, it wasn’t the transformation of Oregon’s offense, but the transformation of Oregon’s defense into an elite unit that made the Ducks a perennial contender. That unit slid under Mark Helfrich last year, as the defensive line and linebackers didn’t hold up to strong rushing attacks, leading to losses against Stanford and Arizona.

The secondary is elite as always, led by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who would have been one of the top cornerbacks taken had he left a year ago. The defensive line also looks to be much improved. However, the linebackers again looked mediocre against South Dakota, allowing 170 rushing yards due to missed tackles and bad pursuit angles. Linebacker play will be the key for Oregon against Michigan State, and if it doesn’t improve, Jeremy Langford can have a big game.

5. Oregon was about average last season in the kicking game. Is there hope or despair involving the Ducks' special teams this season?

Average? Oregon would have taken an average kicking game in any of the last several years, and there is reason to believe that missed field goals cost the Ducks a chance at a BCS Title. Our kicking game has been a disaster the last several years, though the primary kicker, Alejandro Maldonado, finally graduated.

The Ducks have a new kicker this year in Aidan Schneider, as well as a new punter in Ian Wheeler, and we have a very small sample size on both. But there is hope, as kicking can’t possibly be any worse that it has been.

Oregon is stellar on returns, though. Charles Nelson returned a punt for a touchdown last week against South Dakota, and the Ducks have had very good return units annually since the turn of the century. Any kick or punt return is a touchdown opportunity for Oregon.

BONUS: We have more than a few fans who'll be up in Eugene for the game. Give 'em a couple places on or around campus they need to stop by/have a bite to eat/throw back a couple.

The two main college bars in Eugene are Rennie’s Landing and Taylor’s, both of which are located on the west side of campus at 13th and Kincaid. Younger folks can go there, but older folks steer clear. It would just be weird for you to go.

There is a wide variety of food and drink in Eugene, but I’ll stick to the campus area in this case. There are a couple of great options at 19th and Kincaid right behind Hayward Field. Beppe and Gianni’s is the best Italian food in Eugene. Also at that corner is McMenamins, one of Oregon’s oldest microbreweries. Pro tip: ask for a Rubinator. It’s their best beer. It’s not on the menu, but always on tap as it is a popular combination of their Ruby and Stout. I would also recommend heading to Eugene’s brewery district on Whitaker street and trying out Hop Valley, Oakshire, and Ninkasi.

Thanks once again to David Piper for answering our questions.