The Oregon Ducks fly into Rice Eccles Stadium on Saturday night to take on the Utes in a battle of top 25 teams. The Ducks come into Salt Lake City surging, coming off a 45-16 drubbing of Stanford and climbing to no. 4 in the latest college football playoff rankings. Let's take a look at Oregon's high flying offense and what the Utes can expect to see Saturday night.
The offense is led by none other than Heisman front runner Marcus Mariota. The redshirt junior is the unquestioned leader of not just the offense, but the entire University of Oregon squad. He is a two time first team all Pac-12 quarterback, Heisman Trophy front runner and arguably the best quarterback in the country. He is the lynchpin for this Oregon team and if you can stop Mariota you can stop the Ducks. Problem is, no one to date has been able to do that.
Mariota has a passer rating this season of 187.21 throwing for 2,541 yards with 26 touchdowns against 2 interceptions. Dangerous with his feet as well as his arm, Mariota is not an easy quarterback to prepare for. His best attribute however is neither his legs nor his arm, it's his head. Mariota has the composure to keep cool in any given situation on the football field. He never appears flustered and always seems to know where to go with the ball even in the most dire of circumstances. He has a 76.5 % completion percentage against the blitz this season and his passer rating actually gets better when Oregon is playing from behind (220.57 when down 1-7 points).
The Utes number one strength on defense is being able to pressure the quarterback. Normally this causes problems for opposing quarterbacks, forcing them into sacks and mistakes. Mariota however does better than almost anybody at the quarterback position in this situation, making it all the more important that Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick make the most of their opportunites to bring down Mariota. If Mariota escapes the pocket, it is almost a guarantee he will make the defense pay with a big play.
Mariota likes to spread the ball around in the passing game. Oregon has five different receivers with over 300 yards receiving on the season and a sixth if you count senior Keanon Lowe who is just 3 yards shy at 297 receiving yards on the season. Recievers Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford, Keanon Lowe and tight end Pharoh Brown all have multiple touchdown receptions on the season. Even Mariota himself has a touchdown reception this season! Interestingly enough the Ducks leading receiver is Byron Marshall, officially listed as a running back. Marshall is a bit of a renaissance man, lining up all over the place for the Ducks this season. The Utes will need to prepare to see him line up wide at receiver,at the slot position, coming out of the back field to catch passes and also taking the traditional handoff.
Joining Marshall in the backfield for the Ducks are sophomore Thomas Tyner and breakout freshman Royce Freeman. The Ducks have a history of great backs recently but Royce Freeman has a chance to be one of the best. At the start of the season the feeling was Marshall would be the feature back and be spelled mostly by Tyner as a change of pace back. Freeman, however, has kicked the door down on the starting tailback position for the Ducks, hogging the majority of the carries, running for 846 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Freeman has done it against top defenses as well. Against a very tough front seven for Washington, Freeman had his best game of the year, rushing for 169 yards and 4 touchdowns embarrassing the typically stout Washington line.
OK, so we know Oregon has an unflappable quarterback that can beat pressure and a stable of super athletes to throw and hand the ball off to. Do the Ducks have a weakness on offense? Can they be beat? The answer is yes. Obviously we know the Ducks can be beat, because Arizona walked into Autzen on October 2nd and did just that. A big factor in Oregon losing to Arizona was the play of it's offensive line. In fact, a week prior to the Arizona game, the Ducks traveled to Pullman Washington and had very close call with the Cougars. Again the offensive line play was suspect in that game.
Missing in both of those games was starting left tackle Jake Fisher. In both those games Mariota was under heavy pressure most of the game. And while Mariota stayed calm and poised in both games (not throwing an interception in either) it did cause Mariota to throw the ball away more than he'd like and the Ducks to punt more than they would normally. This gave both Arizona and Washington State chances to to put the pressure on the Ducks with scores of their own.
When things are clicking for the Ducks offense, there is not a team in the country that can outscore them in a shootout. The best you can hope to do is limit their chances which is exactly what the Wildcats were able to do by making Mariota get rid of the ball before he wanted to. Pressure also allowed Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright to cause a rare Mariota fumble on the final drive of the game to seal the win for Arizona. So while Mariota is better than just about any quarterback under pressure, he is not immune.
While Jake Fisher is back in the lineup and the offensive line has played much better since his return, there appear to be new cracks in the armor. Right tackle Matt Pierson went down with a knee injury late in the Stanford game and his return to lineup this week does not appear likely. This is bad news for the Ducks, because Pierson isn't even supposed to be starting in the first place. A former walk on tight end, Pierson was pushed into the starting role when Andre Yruretagoyena went out with an injury against Michigan State. With both appearing unlikely for this Saturday's game, freshman Tyrell Crosby will likely fill in at the right tackle position for the Ducks. If that's the case ,Hunter Dimick and Nate Orchard may find themselves bearing down on Mariota more than a few times this Saturday evening.
For the Utes to win this game it will take a herculean effort by all members of the Utah defense. The front seven will need to continue to find ways to pressure the quarterback and the secondary will need to play lights out against the Duck receivers. Oregon will need to be kept in check for as many possesions as the defense can muster to give the Ute offense a chance to score. Unfortunately for the Utes, the offense is not on par with the likes of Arizona or Washington State, so the Utes will need to play a perfect game in all facets to have a chance at pulling the upset. Tune in to ESPN at 8pm MT to watch the Utes take on the Ducks!