Not many college football teams can gauge their championship mettle the first weekend of September, but in its Week 2 matchup with defending Big Ten champion Michigan State, that's precisely the opportunity facing Oregon.
The following is not a preview. Nearly seven months remain until Michigan State visits Autzen Stadium—six months, three weeks and a day, to be exact. Plenty can change in that time, including the deficiencies in Oregon's game that vexed it against opponents employing game plans similar to the style favored by Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and his staff.
No, the following is not a preview, but rather a review of what kept Oregon out of the title picture, and the importance of the next six-plus months in finding the remedy.
Oregon's seen it all before: stout and physical defense; burly offensive front; power run game able to punish opposing defenses in a particularly brutal war of attrition. The Spartans boasted the nation's No. 1 rushing defense in 2013, and used a punishing, time-consuming and run-heavy offensive approach to complement that.
Prior to January's Rose Bowl, the two participants' similarities generated considerable buzz. Michigan State's opponent was of course Stanford, and losses to Stanford each of the last two seasons kept Oregon out of the Pac-12 Championship game and by extension, the BCS Championship hunt.
Stanford's unique combination of physicality and athleticism in the front seven posed challenges to Oregon's linemen. The Cardinal defenders' ability to shed blockers prevented the Ducks from making the gains on the periphery crucial to their game plan.
The Ducks offensive line is obviously integral to their hurry-up offense, and last season it was faced with replacing standouts Kyle Long and Ryan Clanton. Freshman Cameron Hunt was thrown into the mix down the stretch, and the line was manhandled, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, nearly half its 5.0 yard-per-carry output against Stanford the season prior.
Offensive line play should be much improved in 2014 with a more veteran group, starting with the surprise return of center Hroniss Grasu. Oregon should have more depth across the front five as well to keep the unit sturdier down the season's final stretch.
An offensive line providing better protection is central to Oregon cashing in opportunities, but having opportunities is another issue a team constructed like Michigan State has presented the Ducks.
The A-1 challenge facing new defensive coordinator Don Pellum in the offseason is establishing Oregon's run-stopping defense, particularly on the interior. Much like the offensive line, finding top playmakers is important, but having depth is key, as the Ducks learned last season.
If we stay healthy, we have a good group of guys. We could use seven, maybe eight in the rotation, and all the guys have played the different positions. So when guys need a breather, another guy should be ready to go.
"If we stay healthy" was an important caveat, because depth became an issue evident in the Ducks' two late-season losses.
Defensive line performance was not entirely problematic. Oregon thrived bringing pressure off the edges. With returning defensive end Tony Washington's 7.5 leading the way, the Ducks racked up a healthy 28 sacks. When clicking, Oregon effectively pressured opposing quarterbacks to force turnovers, the catalyst that helped fuel the offense.
However, the front was too thin on the interior to sufficiently stuff the more durable ball-carriers it faced.
Stanford pounded Tyler Gaffney Oregon's way 45 times for 157 yards in the Cardinal's 26-20 win last November. The Ducks' inability to slow Gaffney turned Stanford's offensive strategy into a veritable game of keep-away, with the Cardinal racking up more than 42 minutes of possession. It wasn't a unique or unexpected strategy—Stanford head coach David Shaw did the same the year prior, giving the ball to Stepfan Taylor 33 times for 161 yards and a 37:05-22:55 possession advantage.
Time of possession disparity on its own is not a stat that will concern head coach Mark Helfrich, unless of course the end result is sustained drives that end in opponent touchdowns. A team such as Michigan State, which averaged 33:19 of possession last season, seventh most in the country, is going to dominate the ball.
Yet surely no one will ever confuse Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez's hurry-up spread offense with the ground-and-pound style of a Stanford or Michigan State, but that's how the typically quick-strike Wildcats attacked Oregon in a 42-16 decision last November.
Behind All-American Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona sat on the ball for 35:29. Carey rushed 48 times, and in the second half slammed the door on any comeback effort by attacking the injury-thinned interior on plays up the gut after Ricky Havili-Heimuli left the game injured.
Havili-Heimuli is gone next season, leaving a sizable hole on the interior that Pellum has a little less than seven months to fill before seeing Michigan State's Jeremy Langford. Gone too is Taylor Hart, another veteran anchor of the Ducks defensive line a season ago.
The defensive line's maturation in the offseason is vital to Oregon's championship aspirations, and a number of unproven contenders must step up. Highly touted 2012 recruit Arik Armstead stepped away from the basketball program last month, turning his attention exclusively on football.
With his full attention on the gridiron, Armstead—who has experience both at end and tackle—could fulfill his lofty expectations.
DeForest Buckner showed glimmers of brilliance in his debut campaign. Should he take the next step to full-fledged impact player, he'll bolster the line. And Alex Balducci earned playing time down the stretch that could prove significant in readying him for a more prominent role.
Their countdown to become a championship-ready unit has started: six months, three weeks and a day.
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