College Football Insider: Is this the best Oregon team yet?

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2013 - 11:20 PM

Is the program at its peak with this season’s team and this season’s quarterback, Marcus Mariota?

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Quarterback Marcus Mariota leads an Oregon team averaging 57.6 points per game. He has 2,051 yards in total offense.

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It’s too early in the college football season to make these sorts of declarations, but already there’s talk that Oregon might have its best team yet.

Better than the 2010 team that lost the BCS Championship Game to Auburn on a last-second field goal. And even better than last year’s team, which went 12-1, the only loss coming by a field goal against Stanford.

Those two teams were coached by Chip Kelly, who brought his high-speed offense to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. But so far, this year’s team hasn’t lost a step under new coach Mark Helfrich, who had been the Ducks’ offensive coordinator.

With a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, in sophomore Marcus Mariota, Oregon began stating its case two weeks ago, with a 45-24 win over then-No. 16 Washington. And the Ducks will have more chances to impress the next two weeks, against No. 12 UCLA on Saturday and at No. 6 Stanford on Nov. 7.

On this week’s Pac-12 teleconference, Helfrich wasn’t about to look ahead. He was too consumed by the challenge coming from linebacker Anthony Barr and UCLA’s defense.

“He’s phenomenal, and the thing is, he’s not the only one,” Helfrich said. “I think they play about six guys at linebacker that are like that. They’re outstanding.”

Second-year UCLA coach Jim Mora has the joy of preparing for high-flying Oregon, one week after a 24-10 loss to Stanford’s smash-mouth offense.

“It’s certainly a real contrast,” he said. “You’re talking about polar opposites, in terms of the way they approach their offense.”

Oregon’s 57.6 points per game rank second nationally only to Baylor (64.7). The Ducks’ point-per-minute offense is hardly new, but this year’s squad also ranks 12th in the nation in scoring defense, at 17.3 points per game.

“I think they’re certainly the best they’ve been [defensively],” said Cal coach Sonny Dykes, whose team lost to Oregon 55-16 in September. “I think the secondary is really, really good. They are good at linebacker, and they are pretty active up front.”

Oregon ranked 25th in scoring defense last year (21.6 points per game), but this year’s numbers are actually comparable to 2010, when the Ducks allowed 18.7 points per game.

Maybe that’s why Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti went off on Washington State coach Mike Leach for running so many passing plays (89) in last week’s game. The Cougars scored two late touchdowns to make the score look better in a 62-38 loss.

According to the Oregonian, Aliotti called it “low class … to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team.”

One day later, Aliotti apologized to Leach and Washington State in a statement, saying, “I’m embarrassed that I got caught up in the moment after the game. … I made a huge, human error in judgment.”

Maybe the football gods will punish Oregon for this. That might be the only explanation if Mariota suddenly starts turning over the ball.

Mariota has yet to throw an interception this year — in 197 passing attempts. The sophomore from Honolulu has thrown for 19 touchdowns and rushed for another nine scores. He has passed for 2,051 yards, rushed for 493 and ranks fifth in the nation in passer efficiency rating, at 181.72.

“There is no doubt it in my mind when he leaves, whenever that time comes, he will be the greatest quarterback to ever play at Oregon,” former Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington told the Oregonian this month.

That’s high praise from Harrington, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2001. At the rate Oregon is going, the accolades will keep coming.

Big Ten short takes

• After losing a shootout at Michigan last week, Indiana has a bye week heading into its Nov. 2 home game against the Gophers. The Hoosiers need three wins to secure their first bowl berth since 2007, and besides Minnesota, they also have remaining home games against Illinois and Purdue.

Indiana already got a signature win for third-year coach Kevin Wilson when it defeated Penn State 44-24 on Oct. 5. Next week’s game against Minnesota will be a measuring stick for both programs.

• Two weeks ago, Ohio State’s next game against Penn State didn’t look so tough. But that was before the Nittany Lions bounced back from the Indiana loss by winning a four-overtime thriller over Michigan. Now Penn State will head to Columbus coming off a bye week.

Christian Hackenberg, a three-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week selection, will get his next test Saturday in prime time, at the Horseshoe.

• While NFL teams are combing the college ranks for tall, fleet-footed receivers in the mold of the Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson (6-2, 220 pounds), it’s still fun to see a little guy like Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (5-8, 184) light it up on Saturdays.

Gallon, a senior from Apopka, Fla., set a Big Ten record last week with 369 receiving yards against Indiana.

Big Ten power poll

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0): The nation’s longest winning streak has reached 19 consecutive games.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1): Only team besides Florida State to rank in Top 10 nationally in total offense and defense.

3. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0): Spartans seemed to find an offense, then scored one offensive touchdown against Purdue.

4. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0): Nation’s 10th-ranked scoring offense (42.7 points per game) heads to TCF Bank Stadium.

5. Penn State (4-2, 1-1): Ranks 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (157.2) but third in passing (283.7).

6. Michigan (6-1, 2-1): A well-timed bye week heading into a huge test Nov. 2 at Michigan State.

7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2): Hawkeyes need to follow strong showing at Ohio State by handling Northwestern at home.

8. Indiana (3-4, 1-2): Hoosiers average 342.7 passing yards per game, 55 yards more than any other Big Ten team.

9. Gophers (5-2, 1-2): Important win at Northwestern last week, but Indiana’s résumé still looks more impressive.

10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3): A stunning drop. The Wildcats sat at No. 2 in this power poll just three weeks ago.

11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2): Sixteen consecutive Big Ten losses since the Illini defeated Indiana on Oct. 8, 2011.

12. Purdue (1-6, 1-2): Last two games vs. Illinois and Indiana will say a lot about Darrell Hazell’s first year as coach.

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