Oregon Football: Red-Zone Adjustments Fuel Evolution of Ducks Offense

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Oregon Football: Red-Zone Adjustments Fuel Evolution of Ducks Offense
USA TODAY Sports

For many offenses around college football, a 45.5-point per game average is cause for celebration. At Oregon, it's motivation to improve. 

Head coach Mark Helfrich said at Pac-12 media days that Oregon's "constant deal...is getting better."

Constant pursuit of improvement fuels the program. Despite being one of the nation's best for almost a decade, the Ducks offense is no exception.

"We have to finish drives," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Not leave points off the board."  

On the surface, it might seem the nation's third-ranked scoring offense could not possibly have left many scoring opportunities unfulfilled. After all, the 2013 season marked Oregon's sixth straight of ranking in the nation's top 10 for points scored per game.

And yet, with a 78.4 percent conversion rate, Oregon ranked No. 95 in the Football Bowl Subdivision for red-zone efficiency. Sixteen of its 74 trips into the red zone failed to yield any points, and four of those misfires came in the Ducks' two losses.  

The season's dynamic changes considerably if just one of those scoreless red-zone opportunities goes for a touchdown at Stanford. Convert on half of the 16 red-zone failures into touchdowns, and the Ducks' season average jumps to a hair below 50 points per game.

Oregon has operated in a hurry-up spread system since Chip Kelly's hire as offensive coordinator in 2007. Basic concepts remain the same, but each season, the offense evolves.

The next phase in that evolution is a more effective attack near the goal line. Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost will fine-tune elements that have powered the Ducks in the past, while introducing new dimensions.

Mariota is taking it upon himself to excel in one such facet.

"Specifically, our red-zone passing," Mariota said, stating his focus. "We understand that teams like to load the box against us, and we have to be able to be more efficient outside of it."

Attacking the perimeter is consistent with Oregon's typical game plan: force the action sideline-to-sideline to create space in the defense.

As red-zone touchdowns come through the air, opposing defenses will be forced to pull some of those extra players out of the box and into coverage. Look for the Ducks then to aggressively pound with the rush, as Helfrich discussed.

"That used to be one of the things people said about our league and other Western leagues," Helfrich said. "It's pass-happy and finesse. I think our rushing numbers can speak to that in a different way." 

Rush offense has not been an issue for the Ducks in recent years. An Oregon running back has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark every season since 2007; returning Byron Marshall is the latest.

Marshall is a big-play threat, but before a late-season injury slowed his production, he proved consistent in the red zone. Eight of his team-leading 14 rushing touchdowns were scored from inside the opponent's 20.

Combine Marshall with dynamic sophomore Thomas Tyner, and Frost has the option of throwing more two-back looks at defenses.

That backfield then becomes a three-pronged attack, as the Ducks can also counter with Mariota's decision-making out of the zone read.

The quarterback is among the team's most dangerous ball-carriers, last season racking up 715 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. It's no coincidence the Ducks' worst red-zone performances—against UCLA, Stanford and Arizona—occurred while Mariota played with a knee injury.

A healthy Mariota leaves defenses with a thin margin for error when anticipating zone-read plays.

If misdirection cannot get the Ducks in the end zone, the evolutionary step Oregon can take in 2014 is actually something of a throwback.

In addition to multiple-back sets, a stronger offensive line should allow Frost to play some power football near the goal line.   

Take offensive guard Cameron Hunt, who was thrown into the lineup as a freshman last season. Per 247Sports' Matt Prehm, Hunt arrived at spring practices 20 pounds heavier than his 2013 listed playing weight.

Hunt is the least experienced of the Ducks' starting offensive line. His work in the weight room should have him up to speed with the rest of the unit, and both Hunt and veteran Hamani Stevens should be effective pull-blockers.  

Key Oregon Offensive Statistics Since 2010
Season Points Per Game (National Rank) Rushing Yards Per Game (Rank) Red-Zone Efficiency (Rank)
2013 45.5 (3) 273.5 (9) 78.4 (95)
2012 49.6 (2) 315.2 (3) 90.4 (12)
2011 46.1 (3) 299.2 (5) 86.6 (33)
2010 47.0 (1) 287.6 (4) 82.4 (56)

CFBstats.com

Oregon's physicality inside the 20 will be vital to its offensive evolution, but Helfrich addressed another area in which offseason gains made in the weight room should bolster the Ducks.

"On the scale, [the offseason weight room regimen] absolutely made a difference," Helfrich said. 

"With some guys, it's just confidence. If you weigh 12 pounds more than I do or I've seen you bench more than I do, whatever those things are, I'm going to be a little less confident," he added, speaking from the perspective of an opponent faced with a bulkier Oregon.

Should the Ducks improve their red-zone efficiency, it won't just be players' weight gain making Pac-12 defenses less confident.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com

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