Virginia Football Week 2 Preview: Oregon

It's going to take a much-improved David Watford for Virginia to hang with the Ducks. - Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos are coming off a big win over BYU, and now face the #2 team in the nation, the Oregon Ducks. The Virginia defense did a remarkable job against the up-tempo BYU offense, but the Ducks are a different ballgame. Their "blur" offense averages a play every 15 seconds, and averages nearly 45 points per game. The Ducks are favored by 22 points, so a win would be one of the biggest upsets in Virginia history.

If you're reading this, you probably know Oregon's situation. Head coach Chip Kelly bolted to the NFL after last season, taking the Eagles job. Even if you don't follow the Eagles, the NFL or Oregon, you probably know it because you follow Virginia and Kelly hired Virginia's Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor to go with him to Philly. Like many other college coaches before him, Kelly left Oregon right before the NCAA levied sanctions against the school. Kelly was "punished" with an 18 month show-cause order, meaning if a school wants to hire him before the end of next season, they'll need to prove to the NCAA that it is necessary. Of course, with Kelly in the NFL, that punishment is useless. Much like the NCAA. But I digress.

Taking over for Kelly is Mark Helrich, who was the OC at Oregon for the past 4 years. This weekend will be Helfrich's first real game, as Nicholls State was 1-10 in FCS last year and wasn't a real opponent. The 66-3 outcome doesn't tell us much, except that Helrich has no problem running up the score against inferior opponents, just like Kelly. Oregon put up a school record 772 yards of offense last week.

Many, of course, doubt that the Hoos will put up much resistance either. The Ducks, after all, are favored by 22 points. Still, while the Hoos struggled last year, their defense wasn't bad, finishing 28th in the nation. Nicholls State's defense finished 109th in the FCS. Pretty big difference there. There is reason to believe that the Hoos can hang around against Oregon's blur offense.

That offense is what has made Oregon famous. Well, that, and their questionable association with Phil Knight (CEO of Nike) and his money. Knight has donated about a billion dollars (seemingly...I mean check out their new facility) to Oregon over the past decade, and has helped turn Oregon into a national powerhouse. It is also part of what caused the sanctions against Oregon.

Let's get back to that blur offense. In fact, let's just go ahead and take a look at Oregon's offense.

Oregon Offense

QB: #8 Marcus Mariota - 6'4" 211 lb, Sophomore; #17 Jeff Lockie - 6'2" 194 lb, Sophomore

RB: #6 De'Anthony Thomas - 5'9" 169 lb, Junior; #9 Byron Marshall - 5'10" 207 lb, Sophomore

WR: #1 Josh Huff - 5'11" 202 lb, Senior; #7 Keanon Lowe - 5'9" 186 lb, Junior; #11 Bralon Addison - 5'10" 181 lb, Sophomore; Chance Allen - 6'2" 191 lb RS Freshman; B.J. Kelley - 6'2" 175 lb, Sophomore; Daryle Hawkins - 6'4" 198 lb Senior

TE: Colt Lyerla - 6'5" 250 lb, Junior; Johnny Mundt - 6'4" 232 lb, Freshman

LT: Tyler Johnstone - 6'6" 275 lb, Sophomore; James Euscher - 6'7" 295 lb, Sophomore
LG: Mana Greig - 5'11" 291 lb, Senior; Cameron Hunt - 6'4" 265 lb, Freshman
C: Hroniss Grasu - 6'3" 291 lb, Junior; Karrington Armstrong - 6'3" 293 lb, Senior
RG: Hamani Stevens - 6'3" 305 lb, Junior; Everett Benyard - 6'7" 208 lb, Senior;
RT: Jake Fisher - 6'6" 285 lb, Junior; Andre Yruretagoyena - 6'5" 279 lb, Sophomore

Oregon's offense is good. Very good. They may have lost Chip Kelly, but Helrich was the OC and he's still there. Their new OC is Scott Frost, who has been there since 2009. There is no reason to believe that their offense will drop off appreciably. Last year, they had the 5th best offense in the nation. That breaks down to the #3 rushing offense and the #72 passing offense. The passing offense was 53rd in efficiency. Keep in mind that Oregon won several games last season by 40+ points, so they didn't exactly need to pass the ball late in games.

Oregon's offense will look something like the BYU offense we saw last week, except on fast forward. First of all, as quick as BYU would set up and run a play, Oregon will be even quicker. Second, the Oregon players are all much faster and more athletic than BYU's.

The Blur offense, as Oregon calls it, is called that for a reason. The whole thing moves very quickly. They snap the ball almost as soon as it is placed down. They'll run read-option, they'll run triple-option, and they'll use a variety of different play fakes. All of this is designed to keep the defense on their heels. They snap the ball so quickly, that it is very difficult for the defense to sub. They will use the pistol formation that we saw so much this week. They will also use some different spread sets. They don't use a ton of different formations, because that takes time.

As soon as one play ends, the offense is lining up for the next play. The play is signaled in and they snap for the next play. Oregon typically averages a play every 15 seconds. That is unbelievably fast.

One reason they are able to run their offense so quickly is that it isn't complicated. Every play is either a run or play action. They almost never use a simply drop-back pass. And their receivers don't run a complicated route tree. Their passing game pretty much consists of WR screens and deep passes. With so few things to practice, they get very good at running the things they do practice.

QB Marcus Mariota is a Heisman contender. His game is similar to what we saw from Taysom Hill last week, except better. A lot better. Mariota is a much better runner, and has a stronger arm. Mariota made a good decision picking Oregon. At many other schools in the country, Mariota would've been a WR or RB.

He's probably not a good enough passer to play QB in most systems. But in Oregon's system, he's perfect. He isn't the most accurate of passers on intermediate routes, but he throws a great deep ball, and he's a great running QB. He's a 4.5-4.6 guy, meaning he can outrun most defenders. Last year, he rushed for over 7 yards per carry and his season long was an 86 yard run. Last week, he rushed for 113 yards and 2 TDs on just 5 carries. He completed 68% of his passes last year, for 32 TDs against just 6 INTs. That made him the 7th most efficient passer in the nation. Again, much this may be due to the system he plays in. That system made Darron Thomas the #8 QB in the nation in 2011, and nobody is mistaking him for Johnny Unitas. Point is, Mariota is very good at what he does, and will really test the Hoos defense.

The RB combo of De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall is as dangerous as any in the country. Both were among the top recruits in the nation (Thomas in 2011 and Marshall in 2012), and both are very fast. Marshall is a bit more of a traditional RB, whereas Thomas is on the small side. But Oregon has done very well with very fast small guys over the past few years. LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner were both diminuitive but fast, and both were among the nations leaders in rushing at Oregon over the past few years. Another RB to watch out for is Thomas Tyner. Tyner was one of the top recruits in the nation, the #6 RB according to ESPN, and the Ducks are very high on him. He did not appear in last week's content, but the word from the coaching staff is that he will debut this week. He's bigger than the other RBs, but he also possesses great speed.

Much like the RBs, Oregon's WRs are all incredibly fast, but on the smaller side. Josh Huff committed to Minnesota, TCU and Utah before finally ending up at Oregon. Bralon Addison commited to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M before ending up at Oregon. Keanon Lowe committed to Washington before ending up at Oregon. Chance Allen commited to Oklahoma State before ending up at Oregon. Daryle Hawkins commited to Northern Iowa before ending up at Oregon. Hmm, I wonder if Nike money had anything to do with all those changed minds.

Anyway, most of those guys are in the 4.4 range. We're talking real speed on the outside. This works so well with the WR screens that they run. All of these guys are capable of taking a quick hitter and going all the way. Thomas actually led the team last year with 45 receptions, but 7 different guys had at least 20 receptions. A lot of Thomas' receptions are flares and dump-offs. But he's so dangerous that he can turn those into big plays. He averaged just under 10 yards per reception. Huff led the WRs with 32 receptions, and averaged over 15 yards per reception and had 7 TDs. He is also a Biletnikoff Award nominee this year. Hawkins and Allen are bigger guys, and may get different looks than the other guys. Hawkins was used more as a possession WR, and averaged just 8 yards per reception last year. Allen caught the first 2 passes of his career, including a TD, late in last week's game.

Not surprisingly, Oregon doesn't use their TEs the way most teams use their TEs. Lyerla would likely not be a TE for most schools. He could've been a RB or a LB or even a DE, depending on where he ended up. He possesses outstanding speed for a guy his size. The Ducks use him as a TE/H-back/FB. He had 25 receptions last year, including 6 TDs and also had 13 rushing attempts which included a TD. This year, he's already scored on a 3 yard run, despite having just a single 13 yard reception. He is often used as a short yardage back for the Ducks. He is a Mackay Award nominee. Mundt is a more traditional TE, but he's still growing into is body. The Ducks are high on him.

On the OL, Johnstone and Grasu are both Outland Award nominees and Grasu is a Rimington Award nominee as well. Jake Fisher is also a returning starter. The other two starters are new for this year. All are solid, although again the system is really what makes them great. On most plays, they don't have to hold their blocks for long. They make an initial block, and then often are into the second level to make a second block. The ball is long gone from the backfield by now. Oregon doesn't give up many sacks, just 19 last year, because Mariota is rarely standing in the pocket looking to pass (his mobility helps as well). They do give up a lot of TFLs (94 last year, 111th in the nation), but again this is the system. When you run an option-based offense, you're going to have some busted plays. But the next play usually makes up for it.

The Hoos showed an awful lot of nickel defense last week. I could see more of that, just in an effort to get more speed on the field. The thing is, UVA's speed doesn't match up with Oregon's speed. So they may be better off keeping base personnel on the field, and trying to slow down Oregon's offense by getting penetration and upsetting the timing of Oregon's option plays. Oregon runs so much misdirection that assignment defense is really the name of the game. If one guy is in the wrong place, or bites on a play-fake, it could mean 6 points for Oregon.

I would like to see the Hoos play press coverage on the outside, and devote 8 defenders to stopping the option plays and misdirection runs that Oregon loves to use. That could leave you susceptible to a tunnel screen where a WR has just a single defender to beat. But you have to pick your poison against Oregon, and I'm fairly confident in our CBs ability to handle one-on-one situations against Oregon's WRs. I'd much prefer that to letting Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas run wild. Heavy blitzing against a quick strike team is playing right into their hands, and sitting back in a soft zone gives Mariota and Thomas too much freedom to run around and make plays. Each player on Oregon's offense should be matched up by a defender, and then it is simply a case of beating your man. If we can win a majority of those battles, we should be reasonably successful.

But what exactly would success mean? Over the past 4 seasons, the Ducks have averaged nearly 45 points per game. They've been held under 20 points just 5 times, and only once in the past 2 years. The Hoos have a good defense, but Oregon has faced good defenses. There's a pretty good chance Oregon is going to score 30+ points. The question is can the Hoos offense keep up?

Oregon Defense

DE: #66 Taylor Hart - 6'6" 287 lb, Senior; #44 Deforest Buckner - 6'7" 286 lb, Sophomore

DT: #92 Wade Keliikipi - 6'3" 303 lb, Senior; #56 Alex Balducci - 6'4" 297 lb, Sophomore

DT: #9 Arik Armstead - 6'8" 280 lb, Sophomore; #90 Ricky Havili-Heimuli - 6'4" 314 lb, Senior

DE: #91 Tony Washington - 6'3" 243 lb, Junior; #96 Christian French - 6'5" 244 lb, Sophomore

WLB: #22 Derrick Malone - 6'2" 212 lb, Junior; #35 Joe Walker - 6'2" 219 lb, Sophomore

MLB: #48 Rodney Hardrick - 6'1" 243 lb, Sophomore; #34 Rahim Cassell - 6'0" 218 lb, Sophomore

SLB: #25 Boseko Lokombo - 6'3" 229 lb, Senior; #33 Tyson Coleman - 6'1" 223 lb, Sophomore

CB: #27 Terrence Mitchell - 6'0" 189 lb, Junior; #3 Dior Mathis - 5'9" 175 lb, Junior

CB: #14 Ifo Ekpre-Olomu - 5'10" 185 lb, Junior; #13 Troy Hill - 5'11" 168 lb, Junior

FS: #21 Avery Patterson - 5'10" 189 lb, Senior; #4 Erick Dargan - 5'11" 212 lb, Junior

SS: #12 BBrian Jackson - 5'10" 197 lb, Senior; #8 Reggie Daniels - 6'1" 208 lb, RS Freshman

Everybody focuses on Oregon's offense, and rightly so I suppose. But other teams score tons of points (eg Nevada, Louisiana Tech) and don't win as many football games as Oregon does. The Duck defense doesn't put up crazy numbers like the offense does, but they have talent and have put a number of guys into the NFL over the past few years, including last year's 3rd overall pick Dion Jordan.

As unconvential as the Ducks' offense is, their defense is pretty straight forward. They are a 4-3 defense that is simply always in attack mode. They will blitz LBs and DBs at just about any time. As much as anything, they are trying to force turnovers in order to give the ball back to the offense. Oregon is perfectly content to give up a few big plays, because that still means the offense gets the ball back. They aren't going to let a team dink and dunk their way down the field. Teams that have had success against them have largely been able to run the ball successfully.

Oregon is regularly among the nation's leaders in sacks and in turnovers. Last year, they forced 40 turnovers and led the nation in turnover margin. Over the past 4 years, they've finished 50th, 5th, 21st, and 14th in sacks. And 1st, 19th, 2nd and 32nd in turnovers forced.

The strength of this unit is in the secondary. All 4 starters return from last year, and along with Dargan (who started the final 3 games of the season after an injury to Patterson, and was the nickel DB before that), include the top 4 returning tacklers on the team and 5 of the top 6. Those 5 guys also combined for 14 INTs, 50 passed defended, 6 forced fumbles (all by Ekpre-Olomu), 6 fumble recoveries, and 5 TFLs.

Ekpre-Olomu is arguably the top CB in the nation, and will be a first round pick in next year's NFL draft. He plays a lot bigger than his size, and he's a big hitter to go along with his solid cover skills. Interestingly, Mitchell is actually a better cover guy that Ekpre-Ololmu, but isn't the all around player that his teammate is. Mitchell was ejected from last week's game under the new "targeting" rule. (This is the hit that got him ejected.) Patterson is listed on the roster as a CB, but moved to FS last season after knee injuries knocked John Boyett out for the season. He's got very good cover skills for a safety, as you'd expect from a converted CB. We'll see plenty from Dargan as well, he's another ballhawking safety who can also come up and lay a big hit.

Oregon's front 7 lost a lot off last year's team. I already mentioned Jordan, but they also lost their top 2 tacklers, as well as 2 of the top 3 in TFLs and sacks. However, the leading sacker and TFL guy was Hart, and he returns on the DL. Hart is a DE, but he'll play both inside and outside depending on the situation. Look at the Ducks DL, they are all big and tall. Watford is going to have to find passing lanes, because there's going to be hands high up in the air in front of him. Those big, tall guys are also plenty quick. True freshamn DE Tarrodney Prevot isn't listed on the depth chart, but saw a lot of run last week and Oregon is really high on him. He's very fast, but he's only about 200 pounds, so he can be pushed around. Watch for him in pass rush situations.

Speaking of quick, the leading returning tackler for the front 7 is Derrick Malone. Malone came in as a safety, but has moved to LB. He has tremendous speed for a LB, and he'll be all over the field. Lokombo is one of the top LBs in the nation, and will likely be an early draft pick. He's Canadian and was selected in last year's CFL draft. The MLB, Hardrick is a bit of a wildcard. He's easily the slowest of the 3 LBs, but he's also the stoutest. He started last week, but played limited snaps and had just 2 tackles. He will likely come off the field on passing downs when Dargan comes on.

Oregon will blitz a lot. They've got the cover guys to handle one on one coverage, and like I said, they don't really mind giving up big plays, because they are going to make big plays of their own. The best way to stop Oregon's offense is to keep it off the field. That means holding on to the ball on offense. It means being able to run the ball successfully. Their LBs are very fast, and are great at pursuing. We aren't likely to have much success running outside the tackles, especially if the WRs block like they did last week. And if we're going to be successful running up the middle, the OL has to be a lot better than it was last week.

Watford is also going to have to make some plays in this one. He's gotta be willing to give it a shot if he sees a good matchup on the outside. Can't play scared this week. If Tim Smith is single covered on the outside, let it fly and see what happens. A couple of big TDs could help swing the momentum and keep the fans in it, which could be big in a game like this.

Special Teams

P: #41 Alejandro Maldonado - 5'10" 187 lb, Senior

PK: #49 Matt Wogan - 6'2" 197 lb, Freshman; Maldonado

PR: Addison; Thomas

KR: Thomas, Lowe

As you can probably imagine, Oregon has some very talented returners. Thomas had a PR and KR for TDs last year. He was 38th in the nation in KR and, though he didn't have enough PRs to qualify, would've been 2nd. Now the featured back, Thomas will get less chances to return kicks, as the team wants to save him for offense. Addison is capable, although his numbers last year in limited opportunities were pedestrian.

Wogan was one of the top PKs coming out of HS last year, and could really upgrade the position for the Ducks. The Ducks lone loss last year was a 3 point loss in OT, in a game where Maldonado missed 2 FGs. He actually split the PK duties last year, but the duo made just half their kicks. Maldonado took the team's lone FG attempt last week, a 29 yarder. Wogan handled KOs, but kicked 2 out of bounds. They split the PAT attempts, going 9/9. They did not attempt a punt last week.

Conclusion

Let's be realistic here. The Ducks are one of the best teams in the nation. It would be a monumental upset for the Hoos to come out on top. The Hoos are much improved from a talent standpoint, but they aren't near ready for this type of challenge.

Last week, the Hoos won a game that many thought they'd lose. But the line last week was UVA +1. This week, the line is UVA +22. The Virginia defense is good, maybe even top 20 good. Oregon's offense has a habit of making good defenses look bad. If the Virginia offense is able to generate a ground game, and keep Oregon off the field, I think the Hoos can keep this relatively close. But if the offense struggles like it did last week, this game could get ugly fast.

Unfortunately, I do not believe the Virginia offense is up to the task.

Prediction: Ducks 52, Hoos 17
Season record: 0-1

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