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Can UCLA Provide Ducks A Real Test Saturday?

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Quarterback Marcus Mariota will be a key to Saturday's battle with UCLA. This could be the type of game that catapults him to serious Heisman consideration. Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota will be a key to Saturday's battle with UCLA. This could be the type of game that catapults him to serious Heisman consideration. Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images.

It doesn't take but a quick scan of the Pac-12 team statistics to realize that, at least on paper, Oregon faces its biggest challenge of the season Saturday when UCLA visits Autzen Stadium for a 4 p.m. PT showdown.

While the Ducks have garnered plenty of attention for mauling most of its opponents early and often this season, the Bruins have built a 5-1 record behind a solid defense, a running game that was effective early and the continued development of young quarterback Brett Hundley

The running game has disappeared of late, but Hundley continues to shine. Can he do enough and get enough help to push the Ducks to the brink? That's the question.

Statistically, the teams are as close as any Oregon opponent has been so far this season (rankings based on Pac-12 teams).

Scoring Offense:
1) Oregon 57.6 ppg
4) UCLA 39.8 ppg

Scoring Defense:
1) Oregon 17.3 ppg
2) UCLA 19.2 ppg

Total Offense:
1) Oregon 643.1 ypg
4) UCLA 500.2 ypg

Total Defense:
3) UCLA 357.2 ypg
6) Oregon 370.3 ypg

And while Oregon's rushing offense dominates the league and most of the nation, the two teams' passing offense are fifth (Oregon) and sixth (UCLA) in the Pac-12. Defensively, UCLA is the best group that Oregon's vaunted offense has faced thus far, a step up from Washington's defense, which had its moments. But the real battle in this one should be at quarterback, where Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the template for Hundley.

They do many of the same things and have many of the same responsibilities. They can kill a defense with a well-timed run or unplanned scramble to convert a third-and-long or even score a touchdown. Mariota looked human against Washington State, losing a pair of fumbles that led to two quick touchdowns in the second quarter, but has demonstrated an ability to right the ship any time it starts to take on water. And while Mariota's name appears to be atop the early Heisman polls, Hundley is a player whose name continues to pop into the conversation. In every measurable statistical category, Mariota has the edge, but such is the talent of Hundley that he keeps getting his name tossed into the ring.

A couple weeks ago we hoped for a quarterback showdown between Mariota and Washington's Keith Price that never materialized. Price's numerous leg injuries have obviously left him far less dangerous out of the pocket. Hundley is not afflicted with that problem. He's capable of running and likes to run. Perhaps this is the game that, pushed by another talented quarterback, Mariota delivers a sublime signature performance that lifts the Ducks and his Heisman chances a little higher.

Here are a couple things to watch for Saturday.

Will The Bruins Be Able To Run It?

Word early Friday was that Bruins leading rusher Jordan James will miss his third straight game with a sprained ankle. Early in the season, when UCLA was dealing out plenty of ground game punishment, James was the main gun and one of the nation's leaders. However, since his injury, the Bruins have rushed for 152 yards the last two games and Hundley has become the team's go-to rusher. As Mariota can tell you, it's a lot easier being a running quarterback when your running backs are gashing opponent's defenses, leaving you to enjoy play-action at your leisure — as well as make the occasional read-option keeper that goes the distance. If Oregon's front seven can handle the Bruins running game early and turn UCLA into a one-dimensional team, they'll have a much better chance to put away UCLA early.

Of course, then they have to keep Hundley in the pocket. But one mission at a time.

How Does De'Anthony Thomas Look?

Word is that DAT is going to get some run this weekend. The Ducks have been able to keep its top playmaker under wraps while he heels from a sprained ankle, but now the schedule hardens a bit and we'll see if rest and rehab have done anything to dampen his ability to electrify a crowd. The guess here is that he's as close to 100 percent as he's been in a while and the rest will energize him. It's hard not to predict at least one big play from Thomas, but perhaps the more important order of business is that he looks like his old, quick-burst, hard-to-tackle self.

How Does Mariota Respond To Struggles Last Week?

Oregon's quarterback has done his part the last few weeks to aid Oregon's efforts, but you got the feeling that his focus waned a bit as the Ducks dispatched lesser opponents. Yes, coaches talk about "one game at a time" and the players "buying in totally," but that's rhetoric coaches spew to make themselves feel better about things. Truth is, these are young men and their minds wander at times when things get uninteresting. UCLA is an interesting opponent at last and one of those "visibility" games that could help push Mariota closer to a Heisman win. This is one of those opportunities to simply be the best quarterback in the nation, which, in Oregon's offensive scheme, he's more than capable of demonstrating. Let's see how sharp he is from the outset. The sense here is a big game is brewing for Mariota.

Who Wins Third Down?

UCLA is No. 1 in the Pac-12 in third down conversions at 52.2 percent (Oregon is sixth at 44.2 percent) and also leads the league in opponents' third-down conversions at 29.3 percent. Oregon's defense is next at 30.6 percent. Now, this one could be such a shootout that third down becomes somewhat superfluous, but the team that wins third downs keeps drives alive and gets into the end zone. UCLA's defense is for real and it would be a surprise to see Oregon's offense simply run up, down and around them at will as they have done so often this season.

Oregon likely will have to earn this one. The final spread could be a couple touchdowns or more, but the Bruins play defense for keeps and have bee successful at using their physicality to impose their will on other offenses. Keep an eye on who extends drives with third-down conversions. For UCLA it will be key in keeping the ball away from Oregon's offense. For Oregon, it will offer them more opportunities to get the ball into the hands of its playmakers. The battle for third down commences Saturday in Eugene.