2014 CFN Preview - Oregon Ducks
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
Posted Jul 25, 2014

Preview 2014 - Oregon is out to restore order in the Pac-12 North. (Getty Images)

Oregon Ducks

Preview 2014

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By Rich Cirminiello
- 2014 Oregon Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Mark Helfrich
Second year: 11-2
Returning Lettermen
Off. 24, Def. 26, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 24
Ten Best Oregon Players
1. QB Marcus Mariota, Jr.
2. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Sr.
3. C Hroniss Grasu, Sr.
4. RB Thomas Tyner, Soph.
5. RB Byron Marshall, Jr.
6. LB Tony Washington, Sr.
7. LB Derrick Malone, Sr.
8. DE DeForest Buckner, Jr.
9. OT Jake Fisher, Sr.
10. DE Arik Armstead, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 South Dakota
Sep. 6 Michigan State
Sep. 13 Wyoming
Sep. 20 at Washington St
Oct. 2 Arizona
Oct. 11 at UCLA
Oct. 18 Washington
Oct. 24 at California
Nov. 1 Stanford
Nov. 8 at Utah
Nov. 22 Colorado
Nov. 29 at Oregon State

After failing to appear in a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2008, the Ducks are out to restore the order in 2014 by returning to the top of the Pac-12.

Oregon didn’t like the way last year felt, squandering a late-season lead in the North Division and playing a meaningless bowl game on Dec. 30. From the top of the program down, the Ducks are committed to not only capturing the division and the conference, but also appearing in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Oregon football is built on the motto of winning the day. In 2014, it must seize the day. The reality around Eugene is that the rest of the league has narrowed the divide on the Ducks. Stanford has had their number the past two years. USC is moving further away from the depths of NCAA sanctions. And UCLA, Arizona State and Washington are steadily climbing up the pecking order. Oregon, now more than ever, needs to take advantage of the decisions of QB Marcus Mariota and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to return to school for another year.

The Ducks aren’t going anywhere. They remain one of the nation’s top programs, with the facilities and the reputation to continue reeling in top-flight talent. But the roads to Pasadena and the College Football Playoff are becoming increasingly congested as the Pac-12 improves. And second-year head coach Mark Helfrich knows it. He also knows that Alamo Bowl invitations won’t cut it. Such is life as Chip Kelly’s successor.

The return of Mariota means Oregon has a good shot of averaging at least 45 points a game for a fifth year in a row. He’s one of the more dynamic weapons under center in college football, and he’ll be joined in the huddle by four veteran linemen and the one-two running punch of Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall. The unit’s lone concern is at wide receiver. Last year’s top four receivers, including injured star Bralon Addison, are no longer available, heaping pressure on senior Keanon Lowe, sophomore Dwayne Stanford and redshirt freshman Devon Allen pick to pick up the slack.

The Ducks are about to find out what the defense will look like without Nick Aliotti calling the shots. The popular—and successful—assistant was on staff for more than a quarter-century, the last 15 as the coordinator. Taking Aliotti’s place will be Don Pellum, another longtime Oregon coach. Pellum takes the reins of a D that’s strong at linebacker, the position he played in Eugene, but retooling up front and in the back end. The Ducks return one full-timer on the D-line, DeForest Buckner, and one from the secondary, Ekpre-Olomu. Pellum will be mining for new stars, like DE Arik Armstead, CB Dior Mathis and precocious rookie S Tyree Robinson.

Oregon will start this season much the way it began the last five—favored to win the Pac-12 and contend for national honors. Anything less goes down as a stumble, especially since Mariota’s return was an unexpected gift. It’ll be a particularly big year for Helfrich, who missed the target in his debut, and will be judged even harsher in his encore.

What to watch for on offense: A bigger, more physical O-line. The Ducks have spent the offseason somewhat altering their identity in the trenches. Known for being a little smaller and a lot quicker than their peers in the Pac-12, they’ve collectively bulked up by 100 pounds since the end of last season. Oregon knows it can carve deep running lanes into most defenses on the schedule. But the true gauge of this offense will come against the likes of Stanford, which manhandled the Ducks at the line of scrimmage last Nov. 7, holding them to 62 yards on 24 carries.

What to watch for on defense: The cornerback battle opposite Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. When opposing quarterbacks drop to throw, they can either challenge one of the nation’s top corners, Ekpre-Olomu, or go after his unproven tag-team partner on the other side of the field. Since the latter is the far more likely scenario, it’s incumbent upon seniors Dior Mathis and Troy Hill to push each other to higher ground this summer. If they struggle, redshirt freshman Chris Seisay and JUCO transfer Dominique Harrison are capable of making this a four-Duck race.

The team will be far better if… it stiffens against the run. The Ducks allowed 3.8 yards per carry in 2013, not bad at face value. But digging a little deeper reveals issues that need to be addressed. Oregon yielded 194 yards to Washington, 219 to UCLA, 274 in a loss to Stanford and 304 in a loss to Arizona. Teams that committed to the run did just that versus the Ducks. Now the D must replace Wade Keliikipi and Taylor Hart, two of the staples at the line of scrimmage.

The Schedule: It’s not all that bad, but only if the Ducks are able to get by Michigan State in a Rose Bowl-caliber showdown in Week 2. There’s a nasty interdivision date at UCLA in what might be a Pac-12 championship preview, but Washington and Stanford are at home. Outside of the date with the Bruins, the road games are relatively breezy, going to Washington State, California and Utah before closing out the season at Oregon State. Missing USC is never a bad thing, and not having to play Arizona State is a positive. With a week off to prepare for the revenge game with Arizona at home, and with only one game in November outside of the state of Oregon, the Ducks should be in for a big year.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Marcus Mariota. This is a huge season for Mariota, who’ll have a chance to become the most accomplished Oregon quarterback in program history. He’s aiming to win his first Pac-12 championship, contend for the Heisman Trophy and prove to NFL scouts that his mechanics and accuracy won’t be impediments to next-level success. Mariota is one of the best playmaking quarterbacks in the country, blending a Colin Kaepernick-like gait with emerging passing skills. But the coaching staff is especially fond of his poise, grasp of the system and leadership skills that he brings to the huddle.

Best defensive player: Senior CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The return of Ekpre-Olomu in 2014 was a gift for an Oregon secondary that’ll be breaking in three new starters. The defensive backfield is a need area this fall. It would be a crisis if No. 14 decided to go to the NFL. Ekpre-Olomu has the instincts and the ball skills to completely cut off one side of the field for opposing quarterbacks. And when he gets the ball in his hands, he traverses the field with all of the explosiveness of a Duck back. Even when Ekpre-Olomu isn’t getting into the stat sheet, he’s doing something to frustrate the other guy’s gameplan.

Key players to a successful season: The D-linemen. Oregon has vowed to get much tougher this season, partially in response to back-to-back losses to Stanford. The O-line added 100 pounds, and returns four starters. The D-line must now raise the level of its play, especially since two-thirds of the starting unit has graduated. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, literally immense talents, need to perform up to their capabilities. And junior NT Alex Balducci will be expected to congest the middle of the line on a regular basis.

The season will be a success if ... The Ducks snap their two-year streak without a Pac-12 title. Mariota’s back. Mark Helfrich has that transitional first year out of his system. And Stanford is retooling both sides of the ball. There’s no reason why Oregon can’t win the North, continue its domination of the South and qualify as one of the four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Mariota didn’t return for his junior year to play in a Holiday Bowl. And Helfrich can ill-afford to run second-best to anyone else in the league.

Key game: Nov. 1 vs. Stanford. The Sept. 6 visit from Michigan State will be a very interesting matchup that tests the Ducks’ questionable physical prowess. But the Stanford visit is by far the most meaningful game on the schedule. If Oregon is unable to handle the muscle of the Cardinal for a third straight year, there’s a very good chance that its goals of a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth will evaporate accordingly. Stanford is the undeniable roadblock that the Ducks must clear in order to return to title form.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Rushing touchdowns: Oregon 42 – Opponents 17
- Yards per pass: Oregon 9.4 – Opponents 5.5
- Time of possession: Oregon 25:33 - Opponents 34:27

- 2014 Oregon Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players