Here is a story from our Gannett partner in Salem, Ore., on the fifth-ranked Oregon Ducks, who play at the Arizona Wildcats this Saturday (1:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2).
By Gary Horowitz
Salem Statesman Journal
EUGENE — Oregon has regained control of the Pac-12 North, but its once potent running game has fallen off.
Is it a two-game aberration or a trend? Answers could arrive Saturday at Arizona (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12 South). The Wildcats are seventh in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, allowing 163.5 yards per game.
No. 5 Oregon (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12 North) still leads the conference in rushing and ranks No. 10 nationally (285.9 ypg), but the past two games against Stanford (62 yards) and Utah (145) were the Ducks’ lowest rushing outputs of the season.
In the first half of last Saturday’s 44-21 victory against Utah, the Ducks had 10 rushing yards on 15 carries, which factors in three sacks of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“I wasn’t too pleased with the first half, personally with the way I played and the way the offensive line played,” center Hroniss Grasu said. “It starts with me and I’ve gotta get that energy going.”
Part of the problem has been a lack of production from Mariota in the read option. In the past three games, he has minus-16 yards on 17 carries (eight sacks) and no touchdowns.
Mariota has worn a brace on his left knee since the second half of the UCLA game Oct. 26 and has not been running as often. He had four carries in the Utah game, and three of them were sacks.
Mariota has downplayed the injury and said it has not affected his decision-making in the read option.
“It’s been the looks,” Mariota said. “The last couple weeks defenses haven’t been giving me an opportunity to pull it (and run). If Arizona starts crashing down (on the running backs), I’ll make the most of the opportunity to run.”
It should be noted that Oregon played stingy run defenses in Stanford, which ranks first in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (91.6 ypg), and Utah (fourth at 142.6 ypg).
Byron Marshall leads the Ducks in rushing (991 yards, 14 TDs), followed by Thomas Tyner (496 yards, eight TDs), Mariota (477 yards, nine TDs), and De’Anthony Thomas (410 yards, seven TDs). Marshall needs just nine yards to record the 20th 1,000-yard season in school history.
There has been continuity on the offensive line, with Grasu, left tackle Tyler Johnstone, left guard Mana Greig, right guard Hamani Stevens, and right tackle Jake Fisher as the primary starters. True freshman Cameron Hunt has started the past four games.
The running game seemed to be back in sync in the second half against Utah, with 135 yards and two Marshall touchdowns on runs of 17 and 16 yards.
“We need to coach our execution better, ” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “Part of that is on the front, part of that is on the back end of it.”
Heisman watch: Mariota is third in this week’s Heisman Pundit Heisman Watch and fourth in the ESPN Experts’ poll, trailing quarterbacks Jameis Winston (Florida State), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and Bryce Petty (Baylor).
Mariota could benefit from his streak of pass attempts without an interception, which stands at 285 this season and 353 overall dating to the Stanford game of 2012. No college quarterback has played a full season and attempted at least 350 passes without a pick.
Mariota is the NCAA career leader in interception percentage at 0.97 (600 or more attempts).
Touchdown maker: De’Anthony Thomas’ 86-yard kickoff return for a score in the Utah game was the fourth of his career, extending his school record. Thomas has 45 career touchdowns, tying Derek Loville for third-most in school history.
By the numbers: Oregon ranks third nationally in scoring (50.9 points per game), second in total offense (580.2 ypg), seventh in turnover margin (plus 12), and eighth in scoring defense (18.2 ppg).