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Air of success surrounds young Oregon squad

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota looks downfield against Tennessee Tech.EUGENE — “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins blared over the Autzen Stadium sound system before Oregon played Washington last week. How appropriate.

There was something in the air, as Oregon played its most complete game, winning 52-21 to move to 6-0 (3-0 in Pac-12) and solidify its No. 2 ranking behind Alabama.

It’s still in the air, and Kenjon Barner says he can feel it. Something special is brewing.

“It’s been a great attitude throughout the season,” the senior running back says. “But it’s constantly progressing into the attitude that we need to have to be a championship team.

“I felt we’ve had a special group my entire time here. But with this team, the attitude is different. The attitude and the drive. We have a hungry team.”

Tougher games lie ahead, with upstart Arizona State at Tempe, Ariz., at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, and road tilts at USC (Nov. 3), Cal (Nov. 10) and Oregon State (Nov. 24), sandwiching a Nov. 17 home date with Stanford. The only gimme will be Colorado at Autzen (Oct. 27).

But the way the Ducks turned up their preparation, execution and hard-fast-finish play against Washington ... they’re going to be tough to beat. The season might turn out the way everybody anticipated: The Pac-12 comes down to two USC-Oregon games, one for the Pac-12 title Nov. 30 (although the Sun Devils, Bears, Beavers and Cardinal will have something to say about it).

n The young Oregon offense starts with redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has suffered through some growing pains — decision-making — but has been proving himself to be the real deal, completing 67.9 percent of his passes and averaging 216.8 yards per game, with 15 TD passes and five interceptions. Fleet afoot, he’s averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 43 attempts.

His intangibles — learning ability, work ethic — impress coach Chip Kelly. Mariota rarely makes the same mistake twice, Kelly often says of his 6-4, 210-pounder from Hawaii.

And, remember, Mariota has been dealing with youth on the offensive line and at receiver and tight end, and injuries on the O-line and to junior receiver Josh Huff.

“It’s fun to watch him grow up in front of your eyes,” Kelly says, of the QB.

Mariota throws a nice ball and displays athleticism on the run. “His pocket presence — it’s amazing to me how he gets out of tight situations that nine out of 10 quarterbacks aren’t getting out of,” Barner says.

Huff returned from a knee injury to make one catch against Washington State, and then had a pretty one-on-one move and stiff arm against a Washington defensive back at the end of a receiving touchdown.

Counting on Huff and tight end Colt Lyerla, as well as stalwarts Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, to make plays can only make Mariota’s job easier. It makes the UO offense whole.

Huff says he’s close to 100 percent after missing 2 1/2 games with a knee injury.

“He can take a 5-yard out route and turn it into a 60-yard touchdown,” Mariota says. “That’s very pivotal for an offense like ours. Now you’ve got to respect his ability on the outside and can’t load the box. That opens up running lanes for De’Anthony and Kenjon. That’s the beauty of the offense — athletes all over the place. The defense can’t key on anybody.”

n Barner has 727 yards rushing (6.3 per carry) and nine touchdowns through six games. Thomas has touchdowns in the past two games, but he has been held somewhat in check in the Pac-12 outings.

Much of UO offense’s success depends on the line, which suffered another injury (Ryan Clanton) versus UW. Carson York has been lost for the season, and others have been banged up.

Kelly likes the play of his offensive line, though. The Ducks are averaging 302.3 rushing yards, 541.7 yards total offense and 52.3 points.

“You don’t consistently run for 300 yards a game if you’re not playing well up front,” he says. “It’s a group that hasn’t gotten enough credit.”

n Bralon Addison caught a 55-yard TD pass against Arizona. Barner slipped out of the backfield for a 30-yard TD reception against WSU. Then, Mariota threw four TD passes against Washington — 21 yards to Keanon Lowe, 10 and 13 yards to Lyerla and 34 yards to Huff. The Ducks have started stretching the field, especially with teams gunning to stop the run. No surprise to the Ducks.

“As an offense, we can always do that. (Versus UW) the opportunity presented itself,” Mariota says. “We capitalized. The receivers have been patient, trying to get open. They’ve been working hard. I’m glad I was able to get the ball to them.”

Mariota says he has focused on his progressions, setting his feet and getting the ball out to receivers — “I have to trust them and trust my ability to get them the ball.”

Barner smiles, confidently, when saying that the Ducks always have had the downfield passing game. They just don’t show it, unless needed to take heat off the run game.

“Our playbook is full of things that you guys never see,” he says. “We go through a lot of stuff in (closed) practice that we never run in games.”

It feeds the perception that Kelly and the Ducks have more offense to display against upcoming tougher opponents.

“I’m not a coach, but if I was, you run what you need to run,” Barner says. “If you don’t have to run anything you don’t want anybody else to see, why would you run it?”