Jim Mora has never been on the opposite sideline of an Oregon Ducks football team, but the second-year UCLA head coach knows very well the challenge it brings.
"You've got to be on point every single play, or they'll make you pay for it," he said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
Indeed, no team in college football is more adept at creating opponent mistakes and parlaying them into points. A lot of points.
Oregon’s sideline-to-sideline speed creates mismatches against virtually any defense it faces, the result of which is a 57.6-point-per-game average. Sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota is the engine driving the race-car tempo Ducks offense.
“This kid’s something else. He’s a great player,” Mora said of Mariota. "He's fun to watch, and he's really difficult to prepare for."
Freshman Asiantii Woulard, ESPN.com’s top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2013 signing class, is taking on the role of Mariota in Bruins practices. There are similarities: Woulard is 6’3”, 205 pounds; Mariota is 6’4”, 211 pounds.
“[Woulard is] extremely athletic like Marcus—certainly doesn’t have the experience Marcus has,” Mora continued. “You'll never be able to find another player to stick out on your scout team and say, 'OK, you're Marcus Mariota,' and get the exact same look.
"You look at game film and also look at TV copy film to get a real-speed feel for what he does," he added.
Familiarity with the Ducks scheme is one thing, but it accomplishes little without the right personnel.
Slowing the Ducks requires an equally fast counterpart in the defensive front seven. Fortunately for Mora, he has exactly that.
“They are an athletic, physical defense. They’re equipped to stop a lot of people,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said on Tuesday’s conference call.
The game-within-the-game Saturday at Autzen Stadium is the Oregon’s explosive playmakers—Mariota, running backs Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and De’Anthony Thomas—against one of the nation’s best linebacker corps.
Anthony Barr is the face of this group. The preseason All-American’s draft stock continues to soar, commensurate with his impressive statistics. He has 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles on the season.
“The thing about Anthony that I think has really helped him make the move and be as efficient as he is, is that he’s an extremely bright young man,” Mora said.
A converted running back, Barr has speed to spare. His ability to run down speedy running backs is crucial against Oregon's capable ball-carriers and slot receivers.
Various experts project both Mariota and Barr to go in the first 10 picks of next April’s draft. Saturday in Eugene, Ore., one will leave with some bragging rights.
Expect plenty of showdowns between the two, with Barr spying Mariota in an effort to contain the quarterback’s game-changing rushing ability.
"[Barr]'s phenomenal, and the thing is, he's not the only one," Helfrich said. "They play six guys at linebacker [who] are like that."
He has a worthy sidekick in true freshman Myles Jack. Jack's multifaceted skill set is evident in his 41 tackles—most among UCLA linebackers—and team-high seven defended passes.
His ability to defend the run as well as drop into pass coverage will factor prominently into UCLA’s strategy against a deep Ducks receiving corps.
Barr and Jack will be responsible for countering Oregon's plays on the edges, with veteran inside linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks working to limit the explosive run plays through the middle.
For the senior Zumwalt, slowing down the Ducks is a chance for the program to take a significant. He told the Los Angeles Times that Saturday is an "opportunity to grow," coming off a tough 24-10 loss at Stanford.
It's an opportunity for UCLA to grow, and for this group of linebackers to make a major statement.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer for B/R. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.
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