The newly minted No. 3 Oregon Ducks will begin defense of their Pac-12 conference titles with a familiar kind of test in the form of the No. 22 Arizona Wildcats. If college football fans are looking for high-scoring, fast-paced action, this could be the game of the week.
The powerful Ducks have established their program as a national contender under Chip Kelly’s version of a spread offense. Kelly’s offensive genius is finding ways to put his athletes in spaces in order to create big plays. Combine that with top conditioning and frenetic pace and the results have been spectacular.
The upstart Wildcats will bring a different kind of spread offense to Eugene, and its author Rich Rodriguez is no stranger to Chip Kelly. His route to the clash in Eugene has classic peaks and valleys, but his coaching comeback still features his familiar quarterback-dominated offense.
Master and Student
Rodriquez rose quickly as an offensive guru with different coaching jobs in West Virginia and as offensive coordinator at Tulane, where he helped coach future NFL-quarterback Shaun King and the Green Wave to an undefeated season.
Unlike other versions of the spread offense, where the quarterback leads a passing attack, Rodriguez developed his system with a dual-threat quarterback. His teams featured athletic lines that could block and open up space for the running backs.
He also created the zone read, in which the quarterback takes his handoff cue from the opposing team’s defensive end. The quarterback’s dual-threat ability also causes hesitation in defensive linemen and linebackers, creating tackling mistakes and coverage gaffes.
Kelly and Rodriguez were both born in 1963, but while Rodriguez was already creating an impressive resume, Kelly was working his way up to offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. According to John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times, Kelly learned his base principles from Rodriquez who was then offensive coordinator at Clemson.
Though it’s unclear how often the two met, their paths diverged. Kelly found his breakthrough with major success behind his quarterbacks often throwing 50 times a game. He then caught the attention of Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti who landed Kelly the offensive coordinator position in 2007.
Rodriguez continued to find more ways to run the football, and by 2007 nearly had West Virginia in the national championship behind quarterback Pat White. West Virginia ran the ball 70% of its possessions.
Kelly’s meteoric rise at Oregon has Rodriguez fingerprints all over his resume. He implemented the zone read behind quarterback Dennis Dixon, and has continued to change its looks with varying personnel the past five years.
Kelly’s quarterbacks read other designated defensive players, and their schemes continue to open up new routes both inside and outside their blocking formations. Opposing teams are usually unable to anticipate Kelly’s adjustments, and Oregon’s up-tempo pace pressures defenses into split-second decisions and mistakes.
Rich Rod’s QB Rules
After West Virginia, Rodriguez flopped at Michigan in a three-year failure to be a national contender. And while fingers can be pointed at Michigan’s defense and Rodriguez’s abrasive intensity to change tradition and culture in the Big 10, his offense continued to be a factor.
Rodriguez helped shape quarterback Denard Robinson into a prolific yard producer and Heisman candidate. The dual-threat quarterback was more apt to be a playmaking runner, but threw well enough to lead the Wolverines offense. Perhaps too much was put on the quarterback.
Now at Arizona, Rodriguez’s quarterback Matt Scott is the center of his spread attack. Scott has produced more team yards passing than rushing, and his importance to the offense cannot be understated. He looks for Arizona’s receivers, often on short horizontal routes with combinations of Rodriquez’s zone read and elements to the old run-and-shoot offense.
Scott is a 6’-3” athletic player with Pac-12 starts and experience. He is confident and possesses the savvy and belief of a fifth year senior. In many ways, his passing ability has made him more dangerous than Robinson, though he looks less to scramble. He has thrown 123 passes and has run 43 times.
In contrast, Kelly has used quarterback Marcus Mariota more conservatively with 77 passes and 22 runs. The freshman is supported by explosive running backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, and a system already in place to groom the talented young quarterback.
To his credit, Mariota has added more of a threat to the Oregon zone read with his ability to run, and has shown remarkable touch with his passing. Kelly seems to have great confidence in Mariota and may be preparing him for a more prolific passing role.
Through three games, the two high-powered offenses show differing methods through their total yards categories. The following is each team’s per-game average:
Oregon: 267 passing, 329 rushing= 596 total yards, #7 total FBS yards
Arizona: 357 passing, 247 rushing= 604, total yards, #4 total FBS yards
Ducks Hold the Cards
Arizona brings adventure. They will be pesky at worst and a legitimate offensive juggernaut capable of outscoring the mighty Ducks. The key for the Wildcats will be to exploit the Oregon defensive backs with crossing routes and rushing gaps. Above all, they must protect Scott and allow him to direct the show with sharp decision making.
Arizona sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey leads the team with 59 carries for 344 yards, which are bigger numbers than Barner’s 56 carries for 324 yards. Carey must continue to be prolific to ease the pressure on Scott’s massive role.
The Ducks must avoid turnovers with their offense. Mariota will need to continue his fine play against another athletic, Pac-12 school. It’s a big test against a defense practices against its own fast offense, and one that held its own against explosive Oklahoma St.
If all goes according to offensive statistics, the Ducks and Wildcats could put up over 50 on each other, but the Ducks likely have a greater advantage with their defense. Look for defensive end Dion Jordan and linebacker Kiko Alonso to come after Scott and pressure him into broken plays. Scott has the ability to succeed, but pressure leads to mistakes.
The Ducks also have Thomas to run back kick and punt returns. Will Arizona kick to him, or give up sizable yardage to keep him from finding space on dangerous returns?
Oregon may find the key to victory behind the steady Mariota and a defense that is still looking to improve. But this is a tricky game. If turnovers and penalties become a problem, it could be a crazy night of highlights at Autzen Stadium Saturday night.