Ducks Eye Redemption In Civil War Showdown
By John Baker
Just a few short weeks ago it shaped up as a huge battle with, perhaps, national championship implications, but certainly Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl possibilities. Yes, it seemed only a few short weeks ago that the Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers had plenty to get excited about for this year's Civil War on Friday afternoon.
Not so much anymore.
The Ducks got handled by Stanford and then watched the Pac-12 title go bye-bye last week with a butt-kicking in the Arizona desert. Oregon State feasted on lesser teams in building a 6-1 record and are now in the midst of a four-game losing streak highlighted by last week's we-didn't-show-up performance in a lambasting by Washington at Reser Stadium.
Yes, things have changed for the Oregon teams, but heading into Friday's game, the Ducks have plenty of reason to keep the Beavers in second place in the Oregon football derby. For Oregon, a win gives them 10 wins and the possibility of an 11th in a bowl game, not too shabby a season even if it's considered a disappointment. The Beavers are trying not to end the season 6-6 on the heels of five straight losses. Yup, there's plenty to play for even though the big goals aren't in play.
Both teams are struggling on the field in and between the ears, making this week's matchup an interesting test of mental strength and coaching acumen. Both teams are reeling a bit — the Ducks seem unable to shake the impact of Stanford's domination and the Beavers discovered that perhaps the early part of the season was an illusion.
Here are the things Oregon needs to do to turn the Beavers into a .500 team.
Make OSU's Offense Play Like OSU's Offense
The Ducks defense has proven vulnerable to a pounding running game, which, fortunately, the Beavers don't have. The Ducks should be able to shut down the OSU running game and turn the Beavers into a one-dimensional team. That pits Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion and star receiver Brandin Cooks against the Ducks linebackers and secondary, a battle Oregon should win.
Mannion has led the nation in passing most of the season,surpassing the 4,000-yard mark last week against Washington. But, it's a double-edged sword — the Beavers have to pass because they have struggled mightily to run the ball. As many yards as Mannion has, he's struggled of late, tossing interceptions and making bad decisions the last four games. Given the Ducks' playmaking secondary, that's not a good combination. So, it's a simple formula — the Ducks must stop the Beavers running game and then the hunt is on for turnovers from a quarterback that is struggling with his confidence.
Run The Ball — Hard
Byron Marshall is nursing a sprained ankle that put him out of Saturday's game early and has left him a question mark for Friday's game. Marshall is but five yards from a 1,000-yard season, but he's only part of the equation. The Huskies ran over, around and then over the Beavers defense last week, offering a glimpse into what should be a big part of the Oregon game plan this week. The Beavers' interior linemen couldn't get off blocks and the linebackers and secondary made a habit of arm-tackling.
Oregon's offensive line has been maligned a bit this season and has gotten handled in a couple games, but the Beavers don't appear equipped to do the same. Marshall needs to pound away while De'Anthony Thomas delivers gashing big plays that turn the momentum. It will be interesting to see if touted frosh Thomas Tyner gets any run in this one after a key fumble a week ago. He's kind of the hybrid — Thomas speed with a little more bulk like Marshall. Oregon needs to run the ball down the Beavers' throats if possible. It looks like it has a huge advantage in that area of the field.
Mariota Needs To Be Mariota
Questions continue to linger about Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota: How healthy is he? Will he play Friday? What's happened to his accuracy? All valid given the fall-off in his play and his sudden interception binge. Mariota had to be helped off the field against Arizona, but has said all week he'll play Friday.
If he plays, he needs to play like the Mariota of old. A gimpy Mariota is a non-factor in the running game and obviously a far less accurate passer, two situations that make this a game when, on paper, it shouldn't be. Hopefully the passion and intensity that surround the Civil War will afford Mariota the adrenaline surge he needs to be more like the pre-Stanford Mariota and not the struggling, situationally-unsure guy he's been of late.
Rediscover The Big Play
Other than Thomas' kickoff return score two weeks ago, the Ducks have been woefully short of the big plays that used to define this offense. Bralon Addison hasn't been nearly as dynamic as he was and Thomas has been less than scintillating outside of the kickoff return. Oregon needs to get back to gashing its opponent — the Beavers — for big plays and momentum-turning touchdowns.
Mariota, Thomas, Marshall, Addison and the cast need to make sure the Beavers know which team is the big dog in the Oregon pound. If Oregon State's defense frustrates Oregon early and turnovers or ineffective play allow Oregon State to stay in the game, it just gets harder for Oregon. The Ducks' calling card used to be big plays and dynamic gains. That needs to happen again.
Remember You're The Better Side
The hard truth is that Oregon has more talent, more dynamic playmakers and certainly more going for it than Oregon State even with both teams sliding. The Ducks need to eliminate the turnovers and dumb penalties that come so easily in a rivalry game. Do that and the talent level should favor Oregon.
This should be the Ducks' game to lose, but that's what has become scary — the certainty of a few week ago has been replaced by a ton of questions. Oregon can answer those questions simply by being Oregon. The Beavers, as a program, simply aren't there yet. That should be the difference-maker.