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Ducks overcome growing pains

Reliable ground game still at mercy of inexperienced line


by: COURTESY OF JESSE BEALS - Oregon Ducks star De'Anthony Thomas found himself bottled up, for the most part, in last week's 51-26 Pac-12 win over Washington State.Despite suffering turnovers, inconsistent quarterback decisions, penalties, suspect blocking, communication errors, youthful mistakes, minus yardage on runs, lack of receiver productivity, a drought of De’Anthony Thomas explosion plays and periods in each game during which the offense has sputtered against five lower-echelon opponents, the Oregon Ducks’ yardage-and-point machine keeps cruising along.

The Ducks are 5-0, averaging 52.4 points and 550.6 yards offense, with 303 yards rushing per game.

The players and coaches are getting it done.

Next up: Washington, 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium (ESPN).

Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich cannot be more emphatic about his unit being a work-in-progress, with redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, a green receiving corps and young players at offensive line and tight end.

“Absolutely,” he says. “We have a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot of college football. You’re always drawing on your pages of wisdom, and we just don’t have that many pages to draw from. ... We’ve got unbelievable guys. They battled through adversity (in a 51-26 win over Washington State) and didn’t blink. When you start from that kind of foundation, you can do some things.”

It’s clear that the young offense, bolstered by an experienced and solid defense, needs to keep improving for the Ducks to win another Pac-12 title. Tougher games lie ahead, starting with Saturday against the Huskies’ revitalized defense led by coordinator Justin Wilcox.

It all starts with the UO run game, and racking up 303 yards per game doesn’t look too shabby. But the Ducks have been contained at times, and they have drawn on various ways to get the yardage — Kenjon Barner’s steady running (121 yards per game, nine TDs), Thomas’ explosion plays, Mariota’s scrambles, and contributions from tight end Colt Lyerla and third-string back Byron Marshall. Barner rushed for 195 yards and scored four times against Washington State, including an 80-yard TD run.

The offensive line lost Carson York to injury, and senior Ryan Clanton and freshmen Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher are first-year starters, joining veterans Hroniss Grasu and Nick Cody.

“Whenever you put a new group of linemen together, it’s a matter of getting continuity together,” says Gary Campbell, running backs coach. “Sometimes it takes awhile.”

The plethora of youth on offense, Campbell adds, compounds into poor play.

“At times it’s young guys, sometimes it’s just some guys get a little confused about what’s going on,” he says. “We’re not all on the same page, and communication is not what it should be.”

Mariota ranks second in the Pac-12 passing efficiency, behind ASU’s Taylor Kelly. Mariota has thrown for 220.6 yards per game and completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns, with four interceptions.

He has been great at times, and made bad decisions at other times. When he scrambles he can be dangerous, as he showed on a 13-yard TD run against the Cougars. Steve Sarkisian, UW coach, says Mariota’s speed shows up on film; he’s faster than Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas, the coach says.

“There’s going to be times when the offense does kind of struggle,” Mariota says. “For me, it’s a first-time thing (playing) and I’m learning as I’m going.”

Barner has been healthy and durable and productive — fortunate for the Ducks, given that Thomas is a hybrid player and Marshall is a true freshman backing him up.

The non-descript receiving corps saw the return of Josh Huff from injury against WSU. The receivers have shown spurts, including Bralon Addison’s 55-yard TD reception against Arizona, but can they be counted on in big games?

It’s clear that the Ducks have two difference-making players in Lyerla and Thomas. Lyerla can be used in the passing game and running game with his 6-5, 245-pound frame. Thomas lit the world on fire in his first 17 games, scoring 25 touchdowns and going into the Arizona game with consecutive TD runs of 91, 64, 33, 39, 51 and 59 yards — an average of 56.7 per touchdown tote. He had averaged a touchdown every 5.2 touches, carrying and receiving.

But the past two games have been a different story. He had 97 all-purpose yards against Arizona — including a 38-yard punt return — and 126 against WSU. The Cougars held him to 26 yards on six carries (he scored on a 4-yard run) and 28 yards on six receptions. Not exactly what had gained national notoriety and landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Asked what the ‘Cats and Cougs have done to contain him, Thomas said: “I’m not even sure.”

What have the two teams done to contain him, coaches?

“He had 18 touches (vs. WSU),” UO coach Chip Kelly says, including returns. “I don’t think they were keying on him. They did a good job of understanding where he is. They did a good job defensively. .... The competition has increased; Arizona and Washington State are probably the two best teams we’ve played.”

Arizona and Washington State went a combined 7-17 last season, allowing 67.2 points and 870.1 yards per game — they were two of the league’s worst defenses. This year, Washington State had given up 531 yards to Colorado, and Arizona gave up 613 yards to Oregon State.

Campbell says teams are focusing on the explosive touchdown threat. Thomas does serve as a heck of a decoy.

“When you are talented like he is, everybody’s aware of him and where he is,” he says.

“It does open up things in other areas of the field. They’re not going to let him have much breathing room. With them taking him away and us having other weapons, they’re going to have to cover those other weapons and things will open up for him again. He’s going to make some big plays. There’s a lot of football left in this season. You’ll see down the road he’s going to make big plays for us.”