After a (predictably) humbling start to the season against LSU, Oregon’s offense has (predictably) gotten back on track. They’re back to #1 in the nation in scoring at 52 a game, though they have played nothing of note. Its hard to make too much of the LSU loss – LSU’s defense is one of the top 2 or 3 in the country, and while LSU was clearly the better team the game could have been much more competitive had Oregon not repeatedly shot itself in the foot with turnovers. Its also hard to come to any conclusions based on the numbers Oregon has put up since, as Oregon’s offense always has and always will put up huge numbers on overmatched teams. Cal’s defense isn’t LSU’s caliber (it was much closer last year), but it sure is a lot more talented than Nevada, Missouri St. and Arizona.
Cal did a better job solving their offense last year than anyone, employing a risky cover 0 scheme, relying on DBs and Linebackers to cover the whole field and make tackles with no help behind. Does Cal have the horses (or scheme) to do it again?
Cal fans should be familiar with Darron Thomas by now, and at this point it seems he’s a known quantity. Last year he threw for 30 TDs against 9 picks, completing 61.5% of his passes. This year he’s at 12/1 and 61.1%, respectively. He has a decent – but not elite – arm, both in terms of accuracy and strength. He does have elite mobility. His other strength – a requisite in the Oregon offense – is his decision making.
More after the jump.
If you’ve heard of Thomas, you should certainly have heard of LaMichael James. Oregon’s Heisman running back isn’t big, but is explosive, and carries the ball suprisingly well between the tackles (294 carries last year). This year he’s averaging a brisk 9.1 yards on 65 carries, and his Heisman run is back on track after a rough go against LSU (and suprisingly, Nevada as well).
He’s backed up by an army of talented backs as well. Kenjon Barner, last year’s #2, has 17 carries for 79 yards – a pittance for this group. Stud recruit De’Anthony Thomas, stolen from USC at the last second, seems to have taken his place as #2. Small but lightning fast and slippery, he is averaging 7.5 yards on 23 carries. A new name – Tra Carson, has also gotten in on the act with 116 yards at the 1/3 mark of the season.
It goes without saying this group is talented and is loaded with speed. Thomas and James both have over 150 yards receiving this year as well, and you can expect to see them used heavily in the passing game against Cal (which might elicit a shudder if you recall Polk’s 70 yarder…). If you had to name a weakness, its that they don’t have a huge physical back. Their depth offsets some of that disadvantage, however.
Oregon lost Jeff Maehl, a thorn in Cal’s side the last two years. In his place Lavaseir Tuinei is the clear #1. He’s a big, physical presence at 6’5″, 210 – something of a counterbalance to Oregon’s speed and skill everywhere else.
The rest of the receiving corps is still a work in progress. James and DeAnthony Thomas are the next 2 leading receivers. Colt Lyerla and RahSaan Vaughn are up next, with 9 catches between them.
Oregon’s offensive line loses 3 good starters from a year ago, and it has made a difference. With the (very) notable exception of Mark Asper at RT, the unit does not have great size – though some athleticism is required for the Oregon offense.
Asper is Oregon’s most experience, largest and best lineman. He stands 6’7″, 325 pounds, and has started for 3 years. The worry is not with him.
The remaining group, includes Ransen Gopashin, Carson York, Darrion Weems, and Karrington Armstrong, none heavier than about 290 and averaging in the 270s. The line hasn’t been tested since LSU, but against LSU they were outmatched.
Summary: Over the last few years, Oregon’s offense has followed a few themes. First, as previously mentioned – they completely overwhelm overmatched opponents. The Duck offense has a number of ways to beat you. First… they’re athletic and fast. Then, their scheme puts the defense – athletic or not – into a tough position. Defenses must first correctly read the motion of the offense, the QB’s eyes – something that is rarely easy,a s Oregon’s offense involves a lot of motion and misdirection. And even if you have the athletes to match up and read the play correctly, Oregon’s offense puts their offensive skill player into individual matchups where a defensive mistake means a touchdown.
Oregon’s offense, however, does run into trouble. Boise State, Ohio State, LSU, Auburn, and Cal have all handled it over the last few years. Why have they, while some very good and/or talented teams (including, notably, USC more than once) have not?
It comes down to three things. First, time to prepare. In most of these instances, the defense had extended periods of time – either the offseason or the period before a bowl game – to adjsut to the offense. It is MUCH easier to react to Oregon’s motion, misdirection, various reads if you have months to drill it ahead of time. Cal does not have this luxury this year. Last year, however, they did just fine without it. How?
The other ingredients needed to slow down or stop Oregon’s offense revolve around two areas: (1) having a deep, athletic defensive unit – primarily in the front 7, and (2) to make your tackles. You may say item (2) goes without saying, but with Oregon’s speed and the number of players on the field (almost always 4 or 5), your defensive players are forced into 1 on 1 situations where a mistake such as ablown coverage or missed tackle means 6. A shoddy tackling team will never beat Oregon. However, I’d argue that front 7 depth – mostly with the defensive line, is a bigger key. Oregon’s offense is sophisticated, but not in what plays it runs. In fact, 90% of Oregon’s plays probably come out of a single basic formation and the same basic play – the read option. It relies on Darron Thomas to make lightning quick decisions. And it relies on its tempo to tire the defense – which has an inherently more physically demanding job in that it has to both keep up with Oregon and continually react as well.
All 5 of these teams had capable D-lines, lines that rotated 6 or 7 deep. Cal, like LSU and Auburn, had a line with some considerable talent. An NFL first rounder in Cam Jordan, a very active Derrick Hill, and another 5 or 6 guys who could play. These lines force Thomas to make decisions faster, with arms in his face, and they knock him around. When this happens, the entire Oregon offense grinds to a halt. When this happens, without a physical running back or a true downhill running game, they struggle.
It should be noted that Cal’s defense last year threw conventional wisdom on its back and went with Cover 0 – no safety help, everyone man to man. Why would you take that risk? Isn’t it better to give up some underneath to prevent big plays? Pendergast gambled his DBs would make tackles, that his line would get to Thomas before his receivers could get space, and that it’d be better to have everyone covered than to keep things in front of you. It was the most glaring counter to what Cal fans had seen for years with Gregory, and it worked. Chris Conte, in particular, played a hell of a game. Oregon was off rhythm all game, and if Cal had an offense, they would have won.
Oregon’s greatest advantage against Cal’s Defense: Speed against LBs. Unfortunately, based on results thus far, Pendergast has little apparent reason to believe he can do the same. Cal’s DL is clearly not where it was last year, though neither is Oregon’s OL. Cal’s DBs have looked iffy thus far, though Oregon’s wide receivers don’t scare anyone either. However… the linebacker crew, matched up against a bevy of fast running backs, is a scary matchup. Cal’s LBs are young, and in time will be great.. guys like Whiteside, McCain, Wilkerson, etc., and does have some quality leadership with Holt and Kendricks. But they are simply not ready, from what I’ve seen, to read Oregon’s offense and continually stay in position, making tackles on guys like James, both Thomas’, and Tuinei all game while keep Darron Thomas contained.
Greatest Disadvantage: Oregon’s offensive line shouldn’t be able to push Cal’s DL around. I dont except domination by either team, and its possible Cal’s DL could come together some and play to the potential Cal fans expected entering the year.