Oregon's Marcus Mariota
has passed for 20 TDs with no interceptions so far in 2013. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
By this point, the speed of Oregon's offense shouldn't come as a surprise. The Ducks are averaging 55.6 points per game, second in the nation. To fully grasp what goes into maintaining that speed, however, it's important to look at the players' off-field tendencies.
“The biggest thing is being in shape,” Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. “It’s very, very hard to be able to play at our tempo. ... We just have to maintain conditioning and a lot of that comes with what you’re doing in the offseason. Taking care of your body, eating right, getting the right amount of sleep, hydration and treating your body like a temple.
“We know what’s bad for us. We know at nine o’clock at night going out and getting a burger isn’t going to help us out the next day.”
Grasu and the offensive line are bucking the stereotype of offensive linemen who move slowly and carry a big gut. And it’s hard to argue with the results so far, something that's certainly a point of pride among those who sacrifice burgers at bedtime. Coming into Thursday night's much-anticipated showdown with No. 6 Stanford, second-ranked Oregon is 8-0. It's averaging 8.09 yards per play, second in the FBS behind only Baylor. The offensive line has paved the way for a ground game that's rushing for more than 330 yards per contest, as backs Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and De'Anthony Thomas have consistently gashed overmatched defenses.
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Of course, healthy eating is not the key to the Ducks' explosive offense. The key is the growth of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Through Week 10, the redshirt sophomore is a certifiable Heisman Trophy frontrunner, even if he isn't focused on a possible December trip to New York City.
“[Mariota and I] are very close and we talk all the time about everything off the field, on the field or personal,” Grasu said. “Not once has he brought up anything about the Heisman or about what this team is capable of doing. Marcus really is the way he is. He’s not putting any extra effort into being humble. That’s just how he is.”
Mariota, who has passed for 2,281 yards, rushed for 511 yards and accounted for 29 total touchdowns (20 passing, nine rushing) this fall, has yet to throw an interception this year. He's averaging 10.1 yards per attempt, and his numbers -- aside from completion percentage -- have improved across the board from his first campaign as a starter in 2012.
Oregon wide receiver Bralon Addison, who has caught seven of those touchdown passes, was a quarterback during his prep career at Fort Bend Hightower (Texas) High. He has seen Mariota mature from a wide-eyed freshman to a steady veteran in the span of less than two years.
“After losing a great quarterback like Darron Thomas, everybody wonders what the new guy’s going to do,” Addision said. “Marcus has come in and handled that the best way he can. ... He seems more familiar and has it down pat that much more. He’s elevating his game to the next level, and he’s taking care of the ball so well this season.”
Given the way Oregon is routing its competition -- its average margin of victory is 38.8 points -- it’s hard to believe the team underwent a coaching change just 10 months ago, when Chip Kelly left for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles. Former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich didn’t mess with a good thing after being promoted to the head job, and new offensive coordinator Scott Frost has used familiarity to breed success.
“Offensively nothing has really changed,” Grasu said. “Everything’s the same. All the terms are the same. All the schemes are the same.”
Still, there is one big difference between this year and last year. The staff has placed significantly more trust in Mariota. The Ducks are airing it out more often, and the coaches encourage him to decide when to tuck and run. Grasu said the line will block as if Oregon is executing a tradtional running play, but if Mariota identifies a favorable matchup, it’s the quarterback’s call to get out and go.
Mariota’s ability to get to the second level is what makes him so dangerous. Yet if teams try to contain that aspect of his game, he’ll lean more heavily on players like Addison, Marshall, Josh Huff (38 catches, 703 yards, six touchdowns) or the now-healthy Thomas. For most defenses, Oregon's wealth of playmakers would seem overwhelming. But Stanford has no ordinary defense.
Thomas proclaimed earlier this week that he expects the Ducks to score 40 points against the Cardinal. While that would typically be considered bulletin board material, it’s simply the norm for Oregon's attack. As ESPN.com Pac-12 writer Kyle Bonagura pointed out, “What would it say about Thomas' confidence in his own team if he didn't think it could score 40?”
However, Stanford was the only team to effectively stop the Ducks last year, holding Oregon to a season-low point total as it beat the Ducks 17-14 in overtime in Eugene. Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason has lived up to his reputation again this year, with his unit holding Arizona State (28 points), Washington State (17), UCLA (10) and Oregon State (12) well below their season scoring averages.
The Stanford defense boasts talents such as safety Ed Reynolds, linebacker Shayne Skov and linebacker Trent Murphy, who recently told SI.com’s Stewart Mandel that he approaches sacking the quarterback like “going hunting.” But the team has weathered its share of injuries: Senior defensive end Ben Gardner (torn pectoral muscle) is out for the year, and Henry Anderson, who is set to return on Thursday, has been out since suffering a knee injury on Sept 14 at Army.
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Last year, Stanford ruined Oregon's shot at both the Pac-12 and national title. This week, the Ducks will get their chance to exact revenge. This rivalry isn't yet on the level of Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan or Texas-Oklahoma. But when both teams take the field on Thursday night, Oregon will have a clear goal in mind.
“Last year Stanford didn’t get our best shot,” Addison said. “We let them outplay us. We made a lot of mistakes and gave them plenty of opportunities to stay in the game. Any time you give a good team so many chances and let them hang around the game, they’ll find a way to win it. That’s what we did. We gave them so many opportunities to stick around. This year, you’ll see a lot more focus out of us.”
• Kyle Bonagura, ESPN.com/CSN Bay Area: "The past two weeks have showcased the type of defense most envisioned [from Stanford] coming into the season and really makes the loss to Utah that much more puzzling. Stanford has leaned on its defense almost every week, and more so on Tyler Gaffney as the season has progressed. Against Oregon, that's not enough. Yes, Stanford limited Oregon to 14 a year ago, but to replicate that is asking a lot. Kevin Hogan needs to make plays to ensure Stanford isn't one dimensional on offense."
• David Piper, Addicted To Quack:
"Given the recent history of these teams, last year's result is the only reason people are not predicting Oregon to pile up the points (as it did the three years prior against the Cardinal). Oregon played its worst game in three years last season, while Stanford played it's best. Ask the question: Is that likely to happen again?"