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Saturday Storylines: Can UCLA contain Marcus Mariota and Oregon's offense?

Marcus MariotaMarcus Mariota has passed for 19 touchdowns with no picks in Oregon's 7-0 start. (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

Asiantii Woulard might be UCLA’s quarterback of the future, but right now his job description is a little bit different. Woulard, the Bruins’ 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman, has yet to take a snap as a backup for starter Brett Hundley this season. But that hasn’t stopped coach Jim Mora Jr. from assigning Woulard a truly difficult task as the program prepares for No. 2 Oregon on Saturday.

For much of this week, Woulard was asked to play the role of Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota in practice.

“[Woulard is] about the same height and weight as Marcus,” Mora said during this week’s Pac-12 teleconference. “[He] certainly doesn't have the experience Marcus has, but we put him back there and tell him to do his thing. Marcus is fun to watch; he's very difficult to prepare for. You’re never going to be able to find a kid in your scout team to put out there and say, ‘OK, you're Marcus Mariota.’”

That’s not a slight on Woulard; he was rated as ESPN’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the class of 2013 as a senior at Winter Park (Fla.) High. Rather, it’s a nod to the challenge UCLA will face in Eugene. Mariota is putting together a Heisman Trophy-worthy résumé for the unbeaten Ducks.

STAPLES: Oregon sits at No. 2 in latest college football Power Rankings

Defenses have had very little luck stopping Oregon’s offense this season. The Ducks have scored at least 45 points in all seven games, and Mariota is the biggest cog in that machine. He has passed for 2,051 yards with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. In Oregon’s biggest victory to date, a 45-24 win at Washington two weeks ago, the sophomore torched the Huskies previously stingy pass defense for 366 yards and a season-high 77.4 completion percentage.

Mariota could also have another weapon available with the expected return of tailback De’Anthony Thomas, who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. Mora said there aren’t many glaring holes in Oregon’s attack, though Ducks coach Mark Helfrich sees it differently.

“I think in everything, in every phase, we can get better, starting with me and everything that we do,” Helfrich said on the teleconference. “We're always getting better. We’re always going to try to be more efficient in what we're doing well, and change some things we aren’t doing well.”

The Bruins will look to shake off their first loss of the year, last week’s 24-10 defeat at Stanford, a game in which the Cardinal held Hundley to a season-low 192 yards and forced two interceptions. UCLA managed only 266 yards of total offense on the day and didn’t reach the end zone until the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Mariota will look to improve his ball security. Against Washington State last Saturday, he lost two first-half fumbles that both led to Cougars’ touchdowns. Those miscues marked Mariota’s first turnovers of the year.

“Obviously I have to take care of the ball better,’’ Mariota told The Oregonian. “I was pretty nonchalant with it in the pocket and we can’t have that. Lucky for us, we were fortunate to come out with a win with that, but a couple of these next games, we can’t have that.’’

Oregon’s defense could ultimately determine this week’s outcome. UCLA is set to start three freshmen (tackle Caleb Benenoch, guard, Alex Redmond and guard Scott Quessenberry) on the offensive line, and they'll be asked to block a Ducks’ defense that ranks third in the Pac-12 with 20 sacks. According to Mora, UCLA’s veterans need to play a major role in steadying a largely inexperienced team.

“[Our veterans] impressed me immediately last year with their ability to just refocus,” Mora said. “If you’re going to be a good football team, there’s got to be a consistency with how you prepare and how you perform, how you handle wins and how you handle losses, how you handle games against Stanford and Oregon … It’s just about developing a consistency.”

Of course, in order to stand a chance, UCLA must slow Mariota, who is quickly emerging as the most dynamic player in college football.

“It's certainly a challenge,” Mora said. “They’re very efficient in the way they play the game, they’ve got a lot of skill, and you’ve got to be prepared on every play, or they make you pay for it.”

The other big ones

No. 20 South Carolina at No. 5 Missouri: Redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk looked poised and confident in Missouri’s 36-17 win over Florida last week. Now, Mizzou gets to host a South Carolina team coming off an upset loss to Tennessee. How the Tigers handle Gamecocks running back Mike Davis will be key.

STAPLES: Lessons from last year fueling Missouri's SEC charge; Walkthrough

No. 10 Texas Tech at No. 17 Oklahoma: Quarterback Davis Webb is the first Texas Tech freshman to throw for at least 400 yards in his first two career starts. Against West Virginia last Saturday, he passed for a school freshman-record 462 yards. Webb’s opponent this week, Oklahoma, leads the country by allowing only 149.7 passing yards a game. Something has to give.

MANDEL: Kliff Kingsbury's reputation growing with Texas Tech's hot start

Time to bounce back?

Clemson: Despite last week’s blowout loss to Florida State, the Tigers are still a really good team. This week should be a prime opportunity for Tajh Boyd and company to remind the country of that. Maryland is coming off a bad loss to Wake Forest and will be without receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, who suffered season-ending injuries.

Louisville: The Cardinals’ national title hopes flew out the window with last week’s 38-35 loss to UCF. Teddy Bridgewater watched his name disappear from the Heisman conversation as well. Louisville could get back on track against South Florida, which has won only two games to date.

Northwestern: The Wildcats fell off the map after a 4-0 start. Pat Fitzgerald’s team has lost three straight, capped by last Saturday’s 20-17 result against Minnesota. Northwestern’s next opponent, Iowa, has lost three games, but those losses came to teams with a combined record of 20-1: Northern Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Quarterback watch

Braxton Miller vs. Penn State: The Nittany Lions forced another dual-threat quarterback, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, into two interceptions and a fumble in Penn State’s four-overtime win over the Wolverines two weeks ago. If Bill O’Brien’s team can find similar success against Miller, it could set the stage for a potentially seismic upset in the Big Ten.

Johnny Manziel vs. Vanderbilt: Johnny Football tweaked his shoulder in the Aggies’ loss to Auburn last week, but he's set to start against Vanderbilt, which upended a depleted Georgia squad last Saturday. We’ll see if the ‘Dores can engineer more magic against an A&M defense that seemingly can’t stop anyone.

Jameis Winston vs. NC State: The Wolfpack gave Clemson’s Boyd a real test in Raleigh earlier this season. NC State upset Florida State when the two teams met last October. But this year’s matchup is in Tallahassee, and few quarterbacks are playing at an elite level like Winston. With former ‘Noles coach Bobby Bowden in attendance, expect another big performance from the redshirt freshman phenom.

MANDEL: Florida State-NC State, Oregon-UCLA; more Week 9 picks

De-fense! De-fense!

Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech’s defense has lived up to expectations. The Hokies have allowed more than 17 points only once since a Week 1 loss to Alabama, and they’ve won six straight games since falling to the Crimson Tide. This Saturday, Frank Beamer’s squad will play Duke, which comes to Lane Stadium after scoring 35 unanswered points in a win over Virginia.

Michigan State: The Spartans’ offense has been painful to watch at times, but their defense has been a thing of beauty. Last week, Michigan State pitched a shutout against Purdue and scored another defensive touchdown. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will have his work cut out for him this weekend.

Washington: The wheels have come off for Washington. After allowing a mere 10.8 points per game during a 4-0 start, the Huskies have surrendered an average of 45 points in their three-game losing streak. It will be interesting to see how Washington handles a Cal team that averages 359.9 passing yards per game.

Any chance …

The Vols continue their run? Butch Jones and the Vols took Georgia to the wire two weeks ago and upset South Carolina last Saturday, but both of those matchups took place within the confines of Neyland Stadium. Traveling to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama could be a different story. Plus, the Tide have allowed a combined 16 points in their last five games.

Kansas holds Baylor below 70? The sixth-ranked Bears have scored at least 70 points in four of their last five games. Last week’s win -- a 71-7 thrashing of Iowa State -- marked the largest margin of victory in a Big 12 game in Baylor history. Could quarterback Bryce Petty and company race to an even more lopsided outcome against the Jayhawks?

Minnesota notches an upset for Jerry Kill? The Gophers coach remains on leave while dealing with his epilepsy, but his team continues to play tough. Minnesota toppled Northwestern in Evanston last week. Now the Gophers will play Nebraska, which is set to return starting quarterback Taylor Martinez.

Upset brewing?

No. 8 Stanford at Oregon State: As my colleague Martin Rickman wrote this week, the country’s most prolific passing attack resides in Corvallis. Quarterback Sean Mannion and receiver Brandin Cooks lead the FBS in passing yards and receiving yards, respectively, in helping Oregon State go 6-1 and debut at No. 25 in the BCS standings. The Beavers face a staunch test against Stanford, but Mike Riley’s team is riding its longest winning streak in 13 years.

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