We at CougCenter love the guys over at ATQ, and jtlight was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us. He touched on the performance of Marcus Mariota, the development of the defense, how big it was to lose all-Pac-12 safety John Boyett for the year and just how many Oregon fans we can expect to see at CenturyLink Field on Saturday. We then flip it around and give you our answers to their questions.
Away we go ...
CougCenter: Was there any trepidation when Marcus Mariota beat out Bryan Bennett at quarterback? And I'm fairly certain there's absolutely zero remorse over the decision at this point, right?
Addicted to Quack: None at all. After Mariota was sensational in the spring game, a lot of Duck fans felt he'd beat out Bennett. Personally, I was glad that Mariota won the job because of his passing skill. While Bennett has all the tools, he never amazed me with his pocket abilities, and that was one of the first things about Mariota that jumps out at you. He has a great feel for the pocket and throws on the run as well as any QB I've seen at Oregon. Bennett would have brought a more physical running presence, but he has a Masoli-like tendency to take off running. That can be fun, but the offense seems to be much better off in Mariota's hands, and Chip has now shown he'll still bring in Bennett in running packages.
The offenses have always been good under Chip Kelly, but now it looks like the Ducks have a defense that's also very good. How has that unit been able to take a giant step forward?
I actually wouldn't call it a giant step forward. The Oregon defense has been slowly progressing since Chip Kelly has taken over as head coach. This Oregon defense has been building for some time. In 2009, Oregon had the 19th ranked defense in the country according to S&P+. In 2010, it was 16th, and last year 10th. This year, the Ducks are 2nd.
There are a couple reasons for this. First, the Ducks have been recruiting very well defensively over the past few years. Recruiting great top-to-bottom classes started in 2007, and that has continued as Chip Kelly has taken over. This influx of talent (as well as the number of plays that Oregon runs offensively) has allowed Oregon to expand the number of players getting significant playing time. Over the past few years, Oregon has consistently gone 25 players deep on defense, which is another great recruiting selling point. Redshirt freshman defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are seeing significantly playing time as the Ducks rotate so many players. The cornerback two-deep is composed entirely of true and redshirt sophomores who have already gotten significant experience.
Second, this depth and talent has allowed Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti to get very creative with his schemes. Oregon can play anywhere from 1-4 down linemen on a play, and can bring pressure from anywhere. With talent across the board, he can essentially do whatever he wants. He can bring the house and not worry about corners getting burned. He can drop 8 into coverage and still count on someone getting to the QB in a decent amount of time. He can do everything in between. Last year's game against Stanford and last week against Arizona were examples of him locked in. For a team that is known for it's offense, the defense has been just as fun to watch over the last couple seasons.
The defense doesn't yet appear to miss John Boyett, projected to be an all-Pac-12 player at safety before going down for the year with an injury. Will it eventually?
There will probably be a handful of plays this season where we miss John Boyett dearly, but I'm pretty happy with his backups. Avery Patterson practiced at free safety all of spring and fall camp, and has significant game experience, so we have a good idea what we'll get out of him.
The biggest argument for why the Ducks won't miss Boyett is that safety is not the most important position on the field. A great safety can cover up a lot of poor play elsewhere on the field, but so far that hasn't been an issue in Oregon defense. With how Oregon's defense has been playing, I don't know there are many teams that can really force the safeties to make plays. I don't think this question will be really answered until Oregon takes on USC in November.
How much green/yellow/silver/black/neon/gray should we expect to see in the stadium on Saturday?
I think you'll see a lot of Duck fans in Seattle. I know a number of people that are headed up for the game and the athletic department is making a push for Duck fans to show up and make it be another home game. At this point, I'm expecting about a 60/40 split of Cougars and Ducks.
Addicted to Quack: The one thing that seemed sure under Mike Leach was that the offense, with a capable QB/WR combo in Jeff Tuel and Marquess Wilson, was going to put up a lot of points. Unfortunately, the offense seems to have actually regressed from where they were last season under Paul Wulff. What has happened, and why has the unit seemed so underwhelming?
CougCenter: Well, people tried to tell us that the Air Raid is highly nuanced and takes some time for teams to pick up, but there was a school of thought -- one espoused by me -- that the transition would be easier because of the pass-heavy nature of the Cougs' offense under offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy. (WSU passed on about 60 percent of plays last year.) After watching the team struggle, my new pet theory is that it might actually be harder to go from a pass offense to the Air Raid than from a run offense to the Air Raid. Leach, who is very particular about how he wants things done, is asking them to change their pass game habits, rather than just learn new pass game skills. The quarterbacks have seemed to struggle with making the correct reads, and the receivers have seemed to struggle with finding -- and settling in -- the open spaces the Air Raid does such a great job of creating. At some point, it will click. But not yet.
Conversely, we knew the defense would struggle, and that it would take time for Leach to get adequate talent on that side of the ball. This has largely come to fruition, but what have the bright spots been defensively thus far this season?
Travis Long has been very good from his Buck linebacker spot. It's a hybrid pass rusher/OLB position, and he's demonstrated excellent versatility -- you'll even see him line up at MLB occasionally. The middle of the front seven also has been pretty stout and more than respectable against the run; nose tackles Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole get a lot of the credit for that, as does starting middle linebacker Darryl Monroe. The problem, of course, is that those guys don't cover receivers. As soon as teams realize they don't even have to try to run to move the ball, it's pretty much over.
I don't think anybody has any illusion as to the likely outcome of this game. That said, the Cougars, for whatever reason, have given the Ducks more trouble than expected the past two seasons. Are there any areas maybe flying under the radar where you think Washington State can give Oregon trouble.
I think the answer to the previous question touches on one thing -- if Oregon is set on running, that plays into WSU's defensive strength. The Cougars have been susceptible, at times, to runs on the edges, but the rush defense in general has been pretty darn good. Offensively, if Oregon insists on blitzing, that's probably to WSU's benefit as well, as Connor Halliday is a much better passer against single coverage than when he's trying to find holes in zones. Then there's the mental aspect. Under Paul Wulff, WSU tended to play much better when there was nothing to lose -- when nobody expected anything out of them -- which I think explains the games the Cougs have played against Oregon the last two years. They're pretty down after blowing a late lead to Colorado; that loss could be the point at which they go in the toilet, or the point at which they decide to have a little fortitude and fight back. I honestly don't know which it will be.
Obviously, its been a bit rougher start to the Leach era than many were expecting. Does the start change your overall expectations for Mike Leach long-term? And what are your expectations for the rest of the year?
Nope. The only thing that's changed is the short-term expectation of how this season unfolds. Before the year, it was assumed by most that this team was bowl bound. I never believed it was a foregone conclusion, but I also figured they'd be able to get to six wins with some Mike Leach smoke and mirrors. That's obviously in serious question at this point. But long term? The only people doubting him now are the ones who doubted him when he was hired -- and there weren't too many of those kinds of people to begin with. The vast majority of fans believe he just needs to get some of his own guys in the program before it dramatically turns around.