Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was a headache last season for Pac-12 defenses. He threw for 2,677 yards, rushed for 752 yards and scored 37 touchdowns. Keep in mind that those statistics were without playing much of the second half due to Oregon's overwhelming halftime lead.
How in the world do you stop this guy?
Besides hoping new head coach Mark Helfrich changes the game plan completely (yeah, right,) there is only so much you can do.
Oregon's offense was successful before Mariota came along, but he has the ability to shatter the record book and win the Heisman. He is a terrific athlete, completes a high percentage of his passes (68.5) and has superb top-end speed.
Stopping Mariota is easier said than done, but defenses are going to follow a strict game plan in hopes of slowing him down.
Who Has Who?
It didn't take long before Mariota mastered the read offense.
Read offense. It's just that.
The quarterback puts the football in the belly of the running back and decides whether or not he will actually hand the ball off based on what the defense is doing. If the 'read' crashes down towards the running back, Mariota is going to pull the ball and run it himself. If the 'read' is coming towards Mariota, the running back is going to get the ball.
The offense is designed to take away the defense's defender and make it easier for the ball-carrier to have success.
But what happens when the defense takes itself out of the play?
Here you see Arizona State defend the read option perfectly. The linebackers come free off the edge and the play should result in no gain. Mariota does a great job of reading the WILL linebacker and deciding to keep the ball himself.
The problem is that the WILL linebacker was supposed to cover Mariota and not the running back. Because he was out of position and defended the wrong player, there were two players tackling the running back (who didn't have the ball,) while Mariota took off down field for a touchdown.
Defenses must know their assignment, who is going to take the running back, and who is going to defend Mariota. A confused defense has absolutely no chance against an Oregon offense that averaged 49.6 points per game.
Every player must know his job before the ball is snapped.
Play Keep Away
The best way to slowdown an explosive player is to keep him on the sidelines as long as possible. This means telling the offense to grind out possessions, move the chains slowly and run the play clock down each and every play.
Mariota can't hurt a team when he's not on the field.
Some would think this would have little effect considering Oregon is designed to run a great deal of plays in a short amount of time. In fact, the Ducks ranked eighth in the country by running 1,059 plays last season but ranked ninth in the Pac-12 with a 28:04 time of possession average.
Oregon doesn't need the ball a lot to run a truckload of plays.
However, in the 17-14 loss to Stanford, Oregon had the ball for only 22 minutes and 55 seconds. The Ducks still surprisingly managed to run 77 plays, but they weren't nearly as effective, producing only 20 first downs, and the 405 yards were the fewest during the regular season.
Mariota and the Ducks will continue to run an insane amount of plays (1,015 last season), but it's better to limit them by forcing the offense to play on the opponent's terms. It's a lot easier to run 80-plus plays in nearly 30 minutes than it is in 23 minutes.
Sometimes, the best defense is an efficient offense.
Ah, the basic fundamentals of defense.
Regardless of how well you prepare for Oregon or its flashy quarterback, the offense is designed to put players in space. This puts pressure on the defenders to make a play in the open field. Well, are you up to the challenge or not?
It doesn't matter about the coach, scheme or the talent of the players, every defender must be willing to tackle when given the opportunity. Mariota had so many plays last season that wouldn't have been called dead if he was playing flag football.
Guys must wear their big boy pads when playing against Oregon and play with a physical mentality. The offense is great at creating mismatches and putting defenders at a disadvantage. Truly, the only way to counter that is to simply make tackles in space and limit the big plays. Make the offense work by avoiding the homerun that is often hit by Oregon's offense.
Wrapping guys up is key. Going for big hit is cool for ESPN highlights, but it isn't going to beat Oregon.
Oregon averaged 6.6 yards per play and 537 yards per game. Those numbers could be limited if the defense commits to playing fundamentally sound football instead of looking for somebody else to step up and make a play.
It's not that difficult.