Addicted to Quack staff writer Rusty Ryan (@Rusty_Ryan11) answered our questions about the Ducks before the big matchup between Utah and Oregon at Autzen Stadium this Saturday.
1. Oregon has been a historic run the last decade with 4 straight BCS bowl appearances, an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and two national championship appearances. A lot of fans said before the season another national championship appearance was the goal. Is that still the case after three games this season, or have expectations changed a little in the post-Marcus Mariota era?
It's still the goal. Last year Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech who is terrible and still made the playoffs. A loss to a top Michigan State team isn't nearly as bad, but the Ducks don't have a cupcake Big-10 schedule and have to play teams like Utah. At this point with the difficulty level so high the rest of the way and no room for error the fan base is holding it's breath to get into the playoffs. It's so weird though that expectations are so high, as someone who was a fan before 2009, because the way Oregon has played since 2009 would have knocked me over when the Ducks lost to Indiana in 2004 season opener. No one seems to remember that game, which is good because it's hilariously embarrassing. The one thing the first few games have taught us is just how big the threat of Mariota running was. He rarely did and it seems that was a result of teams keying in on him. It's been weird not seeing him at quarterback after seeing him be exceptional for three years. Our version of what quarterback play looks like is severely distorted.
2. Who do you expect to appear at quarterback for Oregon against Utah? If it is Vernon Adams, how much do you expect the broken finger to limit him? If it is Jeff Lockie, what can Utah fans expect to see from him? Have the quarterbacks lived up to their preseason expectations?
Vernon Adams, 100%, will start. If Jeff Lockie starts then I'd be pretty confident in saying Utah wins. Vernon Adams looked fine passing with a broken finger and the glove he wears probably only helps him grip the ball. Although it's a possibility that the glove was more to disguise just how bad the hand injury was that he got during the week at practice. Against Michigan State he was inconsistent. He made one very bad pass that resulted in an interception forcing a wheel route throw. The other pick was a weird bounce of Charles Nelson, which was Nelson's mistake. Then there was the case of missing a wide open Byron Marshall that would've put Oregon up with about a minute left to play. Again, our perception of good quarterback play is very distorted. The finger is going to limit Adams when he really has to whip the ball around on medium to long range passes where a small difference in throwing motion can have a big impact downfield. After a couple weeks he will be better than Michigan State but he won't be at his best. He is aided by an amazing group of skill position players. The receivers are beyond amazing and the running backs are solid top-to-bottom each great in their own way.
3. Oregon's defense was picked in the preseason by the ESPN Pac-12 Blog to be the second best in the Pac-12. They currently ranked last in the conference in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense, and yards per play. Why do you think you the defense underperforming from the preseason expectations? What do the Ducks need to do to fix their defensive issues?
The second-best ranking looks awfully cute right now although with how Oregon plays giving a lot of possessions and plays to the other team I value the stats like yards per play and points per possession much more than total yards and total points. The weakness by far is the pass coverage. After the first quarter the defense played much better against the run but the defense got blasted by Cook in what was the best big game performance of his career. (Cook showing up in big games was a virtual myth given that only twice he had a QBR above 60 against ranked teams. Against Oregon he broke 70.) Oregon's run defense has been good thus far but teams like Eastern Washington and Georgia State had no incentive to run when they could pass at will. The biggest weakness in the secondary is experience. The players were very highly ranked recruits but their youth shows. Eastern Washington had a very experienced and big wide receiver whose experience blew up the young defensive backs. They will get better as the year goes on but this is a big weakness now. Oregon should get more creative with blitzing. What's the point of having two great edge rushers and DeForest Buckner if you never force pressure? The defensive coordinator is now infamous for rushing three and dropping eight even though stats show the defense is at its best rushing with five. The biggest benefit of the 3-4 is getting speed on the field and to do creative blitzing, but Oregon doesn't do creative blitzing. This whole defense, thing, is really a mystery to me.
4. The Utah pass rush has not gotten going this year (only averaging 1.0 sack a game), but they have done well stopping the run, ranking second in the conference. Is there a concern how the Ducks offensive line will do against Utah's physical front seven, both protecting the quarterback and opening holes for Royce Freeman to run through?
Yes and no. Utah's defensive line has struggled getting sacks but Vernon Adams has shown that he sometimes struggles with pressure. He tries to evade pressure by moving backwards, which resulted in a lot of poor downs and distances. Maybe he'll be more comfortable at home and has made improvements. In terms of Utah's defensive line they are absolutely terrifying in this matchup. This year I've viewed our line as soft. In the past you could say they were lighter in favor of speed but now they are fast and big so there really aren't excuses, yet they got pushed around by a good Michigan State team. Not that I don't love Royce Freeman running an interior rushing play into a non-existent hole for a gain of one yard but it isn't all that effective. Utah's defensive line is full of bad dudes. They are physical and will probably bruise our line pretty well over the course of the game. This is a big challenge for Oregon's offensive line. Here's how Oregon has tried to counter that, a good example was against Michigan State. The receivers at Oregon are fantastic throughout the depth chart and have been excellent blockers so far. So the offense runs a lot of glorified run plays to the outside hitting players like Charles Nelson and Bralon Addison on the outside whether motioned out or already on the sideline. Those plays are meant to stretch the defense out more horizontally, theoretically softening up the middle. So I'm expecting the offense to work from the outside in; passing to set up the run. The outside, glorified run plays, have consistently been working thus far. One of the biggest factors in determining how well the Ducks do on offense is based on tempo and playing the game on their terms. If the game is played out how Oregon likes it with a lot of tempo and a lot of scoring then I have a ton of faith in this team to win. When Oregon has to play other teams' tempo that's where things get dicey.
5. Speaking of Freeman, what can Utah expect to see from the standout sophomore running back?
Freeman has excelled on outside run plays this season. How a 230-pound running back can turn the corner on defensive backs is beyond me but Derrick Henry and Leonard Foornette can do it too. But again, it depends. If Utah's defensive line wins the battle at the line of scrimmage there's only so much Royce Freeman can do. Freeman is always good for one amazing play a game. In an ideal scenario Freeman really excels at the second level. In traffic he makes great cuts and runs through tacklers. But when the defensive line forces a stalemate there's only so much Freeman can do and three yards is pretty typical in those scenarios. Not sexy. I'd like to think though that after the Michigan State game the Oregon coaches have found new ways to open running plays and maximize what their line does well and how to better minimize what an opposing defensive line can do. Charles Nelson (#6) is maybe the bigger big play threat. In his first six catches against Michigan State he ran for a first down each time. He plays well on the perimeter and can play in the flats and downfield. Tony Brooks-James (#20) is also a threat on the perimeter as a running back if Oregon is going to run any triple-option.
6. Last season Oregon held Utah running back Devontae Booker to only 65 yards rushing, but he did have 110 yards receiving and one touchdown. How do you think the Ducks defense will fare against Booker in this year's meeting?
Again, I think it depends. I've said the offensive line for Oregon is soft and I think that could also be said of Oregon's defensive line sans DeForest Buckner who will drag this defensive line from mediocrity to average/good by himself. Booker is a complete running back both rushing and catching. He complements the physical line perfectly. I'm pretty worried about the Duck defensive line against Utah offensive line but not nearly as much as the Oregon offensive line against the Utah defensive line. The defensive line has the support of a very veteran linebacker group that have been the standout unit so far along with DeForest Buckner who is just so so so good. Tyson Coleman, #33 and an outside linebacker, has been great. Ragins and Walker, of the infamous fumble return for a touchdown, are fantastic run stoppers. If the Utah line can make some running lanes and the Duck linebackers don't fill the hole to meet him head on Booker could have a day once he hits the second level after watching Utah play the last couple years and knowing how Booker runs. Booker might have a better day receiving than rushing just because passing might just be that much easier than running the football. I think Oregon's run defense is pretty great but it doesn't matter when pass coverage is so weak. Obviously, as with any great running back, you have to get to them before they get the full head of steam and have room to make moves. It's the recipe to beating Royce Freeman as well. I'm not a big "show your manhood and win in the trenches" guy but if getting handled by Michigan State doesn't create enough urgency and an improved performance against Utah then I just don't know what will and maybe that's just what the line is this year.
7. On a lighter note, what do you think of the new uniform combinations Oregon has worn so far this year? Are you a fan of all the different uniform combinations the Ducks wear?
I think the uniforms are cool. It was ten times cooler when that was a new thing in college football but now it's just something to enjoy before every game and if Oregon became bad at football again it would just be sad. Oregon doesn't have the tradition of Penn State or Alabama or Michigan so it doesn't make sense for them to hold onto one uniform combo. One of the big recruiting pitches is that Oregon is innovative and what I call the young money, in the Jay Gatsby sense of the term, teams in college football. It's Oregon's thing. Just like you can't out-Amazon Amazon, you can't Out-Bama Bama. So all the uniforms and death star football buildings and crazy locker rooms is all part of that team/brand identity. If you're bored at all reading the answer to this question by now that's fine because I don't think the fan base at large understands what's occurring. The white helmets against Michigan State were cool and the black being used is cool. The Ducks seem to be going away from the wings and going back to the "O" on the side of the helmet or the new duck mascot head. Fun Fact: there was a lot of litigation for years about the mascot at Oregon being Donald Duck. The issue was settled by finding record of a handshake agreement between Walt Disney and the school. So if you see a Donald Duck look-a-like going through an O or anything that looks like Donald Duck there will be a copyright symbol and "Disney" next to it. So now there's this whole rebranding of the mascot (Oregon tried to distance itself from the Disney look-a-like by coming out with RoboDuck a bunch of years ago but that mascot was an abomination of an animal and all video of it was destroyed... I hope.) in that the mascot image has now become the mascot head from the side and the name has gone from "Donald" to "Puddles" and now the school is shoving "The Duck" into everyone's face. The coolest uniforms, by far, and it's not up for debate, were the ones worn last year against Washington. The uniforms matched the one worn by Kenny Wheaton when he picked off Damon Huard in 1994 that sealed a win over the top-ranked Washington Huskies. That year the Ducks went on to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1948 and "The Pick" is considered the play that changed Oregon Football. Second fun fact: Duck fans hate Washington way more than Oregon State. So if you made it this far into the answer you're the best.
8. What are a few things that Utah fans who are making the trek up to Eugene should do on game day? What can they expect for game day atmosphere in Autzen Stadium?
Autzen Stadium is a walk away from what is campus "proper," I guess. Parking by the stadium is limited but parking by campus is way cooler because you walk over a couple bridges, one over the Willamette River. You go over the river, walk through a cool forest area and then it just opens up into the stadium. Spencer Hall loves it. If you know someone that has a tailgate spot, awesome, if not there's the Moshofsky Center, which is painted completely black with a yellow O on it. It's normally the Ducks' indoor practice facility but gets converted into a space that has food, adult beverages of the local micro-brews, and a bunch of TVs to watch other games. On campus Taylor's and Rennies' Landing are pretty well known. The stadium hasn't been nearly as loud since pre-2007 but it does have its moments in big moments. If you're attending the game and some drunk fan says something dumb take it as a bad apple in the group. The overwhelming majority of the fan base is very respectful of visiting fans, except Huskies but that's because they're the worst.