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Virginia Football at Oregon: The Big Preview

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Can the Hoos rebound from their disappointing start to the season? Playing at Oregon, it won’t be easy.

NCAA Football: Richmond at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off the embarrassing loss to Richmond, the Hoos now have to travel nearly 3000 miles to face Oregon in a nationally televised game. The Ducks aren’t quite as good as they were in 2013 when they came to Scott Stadium ranked #2 in the nation, but they are still ranked (24th) and are coming off a 53-28 win over FCS opponent UC Davis. Oregon finished last year 9-4. That’s a good season for sure, but their first year since 2007 with fewer than 10 wins. They would very much like to get back to double-digit wins this year.

Game Information:

Day: Saturday, September 10
Time: 10:30 PM Eastern
Where: Autzen Stadium, Eugene, OR
TV: ESPN

Let’s take a look at the Ducks and how the Hoos stack up.

Oregon on Offense

QB: #9 Dakota Prukop
RB: #21 Royce Freeman
WR: #7 Darren Carrington, #13 Devon Allen, #6 Charles Nelson

Despite the departure of Chip Kelly, the Ducks still run the offense that make him famous. After all, the new head coach, Mark Helfrich was the offensive coordinator under Kelly. For the second consecutive year, the Ducks are breaking in a new QB and for the second consecutive year, that player is a graduate transfer from the FCS. A year ago, it was Vernon Adams Jr and all he did was lead the nation in passing efficiency. This year, Dakota Prukop is the QB and after one week he’s 12th in the country. Marcus Mariota finished 7th and 1st in the nation in his 2 years. It is an offense designed around efficient QBs and speedy skill position guys.

First and foremost, the QB must be mobile. The read-option is a big part of the Oregon offense. Prukop rushed 11 times for 36 yards and a TD last week. Beyond that, quick passes are the name of the game. A lot of WR screens and quick slants. Then, when the LBs and DBs are up close to the line-of-scrimmage, they'll throw the deep ball over the top to one of their speedy WRs. The goal, generally, is to get the ball into the hands of Oregon’s playmakers as quickly as possible.

And oh boy do they have playmakers. Led by RB Freeman, who rushed for almost 1900 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 17 TDs last year, they have tons of talent. Freeman is also a solid receiver out of the backfield, with 26 receptions last year. Behind him, the Ducks have Taj Griffin, who was the #4 RB in the nation coming out of high school in 2015 and rushed for 570 yards (at over 7 yards per rush) last year as a true freshman.

At WR, Devon Allen literally has world class speed. He was a member of the USA Track and Field team in Rio, running the 100m hurdles. Nelson also has elite speed and quickness and is also a member of Oregon's track team. He is quite possibly the best kick returner in the nation. He finished 20th in the nation in kick return yards last year. Last week, he averaged 27 yards on 4 PR and 39 yards on 4 KR. However, he also fumbled twice, so ball security could be a concern for him. Last year, Nelson played DB as well as offense, starting the last 8 games of the year at safety. He also started 3 times at WR. He’s full-time on offense, at least for now. Also, watch for Nelson as the holder on FGs and PATs. He rushed for a pair of 2 pt conversions last week, and also failed on a pair of attempts. It wasn’t until the game was far out of reach that the Ducks kicked a PAT.

Last week, the Hoos played a lot of man coverage, especially early on. There was often help over the top, but underneath was often man coverage. That won’t work against Oregon, because they simply have too much speed. The Hoos also struggled last week against the run, often being beaten by simply plays. Kyle Lauletta was dangerous on the read-option and Prukop is significantly more dangerous running the ball. When they see the read option, they have to focus on Freeman. He’s so good that you almost have to live with what Prukop can get on the ground, rather than let Freeman get going. And if you get a chance to hit Prukop, go for it. Nothing dirty of course, but you want him to think twice about running the ball.

Coach Mendenhall has talked about simplifying the defense, because he felt the team was overwhelmed with too many options. He wants the kids playing rather than thinking. Simple schemes are probably the way to go, because Oregon has too much talent on offense if the defense is thinking too much. You need defenders who trust their instincts and stay in their roles. If your job is edge contain, you stay on the edge and don’t let the ball get past you. If your job is deep zone, you stay in your zone.

Frankly, Oregon simply has too much speed and talent on offense. Even if the Hoos defenders perform light-years better than they did last week, Oregon is still gonna score points. They averaged 43 points per game last year (5th in the nation) and they might be better this year. Traveling cross-country to face this offense is a scary proposition for a Hoos defense that couldn’t slow down their next door neighbor at home last week.

Oregon on Defense

DL: #92 DE Henry Mondeaux, #50 DT Austin Maloata
LB: #55 MLB A.J. Hotchkins, #35 SLB Troy Dye
DB: #14 CB Ugo Amadi, #2 FS Tyree Robinson

It’s a good thing Oregon’s offense is so good, because their defense isn’t. Last year, they finished 116th in the nation. However, they brought in Brady Hoke as the defensive coordinator, replacing Don Pellum (demoted to LB coach). You may remember Hoke as the head coach at Michigan up until 2014. He’s also been head coach at San Diego State and Ball State and has coached various defenses at schools from Oregon State to Toledo. He’s never actually been a defensive coordinator before, but he’s widely considered a very strong defensive coach. He did not coach anywhere last year.

Hoke has reversed what Mendenhall did for the Hoos, changing the Ducks from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. That may be good, because the best players from last year’s defense are all gone. The team leader in sacks and TFLs was DeForest Buckner, who was a top 10 pick to the 49ers. Behind him was Tyson Coleman, who is also gone. And the leading tackler was Joe Walker, also gone.

The new defense is very young, with just 1 senior starter (Johnny Ragin, and he is a transfer from Cal) and just 4 seniors on the depth chart at all. They are led by the secondary, which returns 5 players who started a year ago (not including Charles Nelson, who started only after Juwaan Williams went down). Both starting CBs are on the shorter side, so the Hoos may have an advantage on the outside with their bigger WRs. Though both are good cover men and play big. Tyree Robinson has started at both CB and S. At 6’4" 205, he’s a big safety who can hit and and also cover. When Oregon moves to a nickel package, Robinson likely moves to the extra DB role with Reggie Daniels replacing him at S. This is because the backup CBs, though talented, are both freshmen.

The Ducks LB corps is very inexperienced. Prior to last week, none of them had ever started a game in college. Hotchkins is a JUCO transfer, and though he was successful at Riverside CC, moving to FBS is a different ballgame. He had just 3 tackles against UC Davis. Dye, a true freshman, led the team with 11 tackles, including 4.5 TFLs and a sack last week. He also blocked a FG. He enrolled in January and spent the spring practice period with the team. He’s 6’4" 225 and was originally recruited as a safety. His size and quickness, not to mention experience at DB make him a very interesting LB. He diagnoses plays very quickly, never seems to be out of position and covers a lot of ground. He can cover TEs or slot WRs, he can set the edge against the run, and he’s proven able to come on the blitz. The third LB is Johnny Ragin, a transfer from Cal who has spent most of his time on special teams prior to this year.

Though Dye will come on the blitz, most of the pass rush is expected to come from the DEs. In the opener, Mondeaux had a sack on the first play of the game. Dye had a sack later in the game, and also had a sack negated by a facemask penalty. The two DTs are stout run stoppers who each weigh in at over 300 pounds. The switch to a 4-3 benefits this duo as much as anybody, because they can be attacking DTs who can use their quickness to help break down the pocket. Their primary goal, though, is to shut down the interior running game. Watch out for Jalen Jenks and Justin Hollins off the edge. Both are young pass rushers with loads of talent. With the Hoos problems on the OL, Hoke will be looking for mismatches he can exploit in the pass rush.

As we know, the Hoos did not have any success on the ground last week. Removing sacks, the Hoos rushed for just 63 yards, at just 3.5 yards per carry. And that includes a 14 yard rush and an 11 yard rush on the Hoos final drive, when the Spiders were essentially in a prevent defense. The first 4 rushing attempts by the Hoos went for a total of 9 yards.

If the Hoos aren’t able to have more success running the ball, they aren’t going to be successful. One way they can, perhaps, have more success is to utilize more misdirection. Rather than running simple plays up the middle or off-guard, they can use some read-option, an end-around, even just some counter plays. These types of plays force the defense to hesitate for a beat, which can open up a hole for a big gain. Richmond ran a lot of misdirection plays, and they opened up big holes for the running backs. These types of plays also work off each other. Just one jet sweep may make the OLBs hold for a second on the next play, just in case the WR comes across again.

Unlike the running game, the Hoos’ passing game was fairly successful last week. When Benkert had time to throw, he was able to pick apart Richmond’s defense. The problem was, he didn’t always have time, and the turnovers killed some promising drives. Oregon’s defense is quicker than Richmond’s but not necessarily better. Richmond played a very disciplined defense and was able to capitalize on Virginia’s mistakes.

There was also a bit of bad luck for the Hoos, as they lost all 3 of their fumbles (one of which was a defender simply pulling the ball out of Smoke’s hands), while Richmond recovered all 3 of theirs. If the Hoos are able to recover even just 1 of Richmond’s early fumbles, perhaps the entire game is different.

The Hoos should be able to score on Oregon. UC Davis scored 28, though some of that came against Oregon’s second stringers. Oregon will try to bring pressure on Benkert, which means offensive coordinator Robert Anae will have to do some things to keep them off Benkert. That means moving Benkert out of the pocket a bit more, that means running some screens and it means having some success running the ball.

The Hoos’ offense looked dangerous at times last week, but was too often undone by mistakes. Cut down on the mistakes and this offense could be pretty good.

Conclusion

It kind of goes without saying that the Hoos are outmatched in this game. After losing at home to Richmond, a win on the road against a ranked Oregon team would be a momentous upset. It seems as though even covering a 24 point spread would be a big accomplishment, considering the 17 point loss last week.

Richmond put up well over 500 yards of offense on the Hoos. The talent on offense for the Ducks is undoubtedly better than that for Richmond. Therefore, you would expect Oregon to put up a similar line, if not better. But the Hoos couldn’t possibly be as bad as they were last week. Even just a small improvement could go a long way towards turning things around.

Still, even with major improvements, Oregon is too big, too fast and too good for the Hoos to compete.

Prediction: Ducks 55, Hoos 24