Five Things We Learned About The Oregon Ducks in Week 1
By John Baker
The sacrificial lamb was accepted, the money for the trip delivered and the new uniforms got merchandisers excited, so Oregon's 62-13 win over South Dakota was all it was supposed to be in the run-up to this Saturday's visit from Michigan State.
Oregon had its moments of struggles and uncertainty against the Coyotes, but, in the end, the speed and athleticism of the Ducks was far more than their visitors could handle — as was expected.
But even in a blowout season-opening win, there are subtle indicators and clues to the future that can be gleaned. Here's a look at five things we learned about Oregon heading into the showdown with Sparty.
Can they handle the rush?
If you watched the game, you noticed an interesting trend that, unfortunately, South Dakota wasn't able to exploit much because of how quickly the game got out of hand. It was an old, familiar issue: stopping the inside power running game. South Dakota had more than a little success going right at the Duck defense between the tackles, pulling the offside guard into the hole; followed by a fullback and then the ball carrier.
South Dakota's top two running backs, Jasper Sanders and Trevor Bouman, averaged more than six yards a carry against the Duck defense. Granted, some of that success was late, but watching the game you saw a defensive line that had trouble getting off blocks, linebackers struggling to get into the hole and, in general, a struggle to stop a far inferior opponent from running the ball right at them.
Let's see, pulling the offside guard into the hole, followed by a fullback and the ball carrier, who does that remind us of? Oh yes, Stanford. Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci and company will need to be far more effective at stopping that kind of "We're going to bully you" play or pay the price...again. They'll get a chance to practice that this weekend as MSU will be more than happy to grind it if Oregon can't stop it. It's a worry that followed this team from last season and watching South Dakota have some success doing it in Week 1 was disturbing.
A new Marshall plan
There was a lot of hand wringing and speculation about Oregon's three-headed running back monster heading into the first game, but an interesting thing happened on the way to the party — Byron Marshall found an interesting role. With the loss of De'Anthony Thomas to the NFL after last season, it appeared that "multi-use" role of receiver and running back may fade away. Marshall, it seems, may fill that role in 2015.
He was heavily involved in the game plan from the outset and was the team's leading receiver and rusher on the day, catching eight passes for 138 yards and two scores, while rushing for 90 yards on eight carries. He would have had another score if he hadn't been a bonehead and dropped the ball a yard from the end zone in an apparent "being cool" moment. Marshall showed good hands, ran good routes and demonstrated speed and elusiveness in the open field. Helfrich said that Marshall was use in a "hybrid" role and could continue depending on matchups and packages they want to run.
It's interesting to note that Marshall was considered a "thumper" type back when he entered school, but he's slimmed down while muscling up and is now the smallest of the three main backs behind Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. The Ducks lined up with two running backs a significant amount of time in the opener and it looks like Marshall is going to be a guy who gets involved running and catching the ball.
Backup QB found
A year ago, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota tried to play through a knee injury and struggled with accuracy, mobility and was a shadow of his pre-injury self. Duck coach Mark Helfrich didn't say so, but the feeling was that a limited Mariota was a better option than the team's stable of backups at that point.
A call to find a second-stringer who could come in and help this team was sounded in the offseason and it looks like Jeff Lockie may be that guy. Lockie played the entire second half and looked to be in command. Again, this is South Dakota we're talking about as the opponent, a team that should be outmatched at just about every position, but Lockie still was impressive. He completed 11-of-12 passes for 113 yards, a score and no picks. Oregon hopes that Lockie is its quarterback of the future, but if injury should come to Mariota this season, it now seems more reasonable that Oregon has a second option that can make the plays needed to keep the season on track.
Ducks love their freshman
Once again, Oregon put freshman on the field early and often and they produced.
Running back Royce Freeman is the real deal -- a big back with speed to burn -- and he didn't disappoint Saturday, scoring twice while picking up 75 yards on 10 carries. Receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson played plenty on Saturday. Carrington is a big receiver (6-2, 190) and had four catches for 68 yards. Nelson is at the other end of the spectrum at 5-9, 170 pounds, but showed a lot of speed and quickness and was targeted several times early despite finishing with a single catch. It's a sign of Oregon's prowess on the recruiting trail that they are getting the kind of athletes capable of coming in and playing immediately. Once again, it looks like freshman will play a role on this team.
These guys could be real good
In post-game comments, Mariota said there was nothing his offensive line had to do or change heading into the Michigan State game. Led by all-conference center Hroniss Grassu, Oregon's offensive line looked crisp, physical and kept its quarterback clean the entire game. Obviously, it's hard to gauge things accurately against a team like South Dakota, but Oregon's offensive line opened big holes and finished blocks downfield regularly. Additionally, it became obvious that the improved physicality hasn't come at the cost of agility. Oregon's offensive linemen can run and get out on the perimeter and make blocks.
They'll get a much more physical test this week, but reading between the lines of comments made by Mariota and Helfrich, you get the feeling they like this offensive line and its ability long term.