On paper, it seems like an impossible task. On the field, it might be even more difficult.
Trying to figure out a way to slow down – because you won’t completely stop – Oregon’s spread option offense seems to elicit only more questions and few answers.
It’s a seemingly unsolvable, uptempo, 11-on-11 riddle that the Washington Huskies face on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
“We’re going up against the No. 1 team in the country,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said on Tuesday, “a team I voted as the No. 1 team in the country in my vote. I’ve got a great deal of respect for what they do and how they do it; Coach (Chip) Kelly has done a fantastic job of taking that program to another level, and they are rolling right now.”
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The Huskies, particularly their porous defense, would be considered the antithesis of “rolling right now.”
The numbers aren’t pretty.
Oregon comes into the game leading the nation in scoring offense (54.9 points per game) and total offense (572.9 yards per game). The Ducks rank third in rushing yardage (308.8), 36th in passing (266.6) and overall are tied for third at 7.2 yards per play.
And those numbers only inflate in Autzen Stadium where Oregon is averaging 61.3 points per game and 642.7 yards per game.
“It’s a great offense,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “It may be one of the best to ever play college football.”
The same could not be said about the Washington defense, which is one of the worst in the Pacific-10 Conference.
The Huskies rank ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (34.1 points per game), total defense (429.8 yards per game) and rushing defense (212.1 yards), and fifth in passing defense (217.6 yards). UW allows 6.1 yards per play, which ranks the Huskies 95th of 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Think about it this way: The Stanford defense that shut out the Huskies and held them under 100 yards of total offense until 3:37 remained in the game gave up 52 points, 626 yards of total offense, 388 yards rushing and 31 first downs to the Ducks earlier this year.
So is there any helpful advice for the Huskies to even somewhat slow down Oregon?
Kiffin and Sarkisian have talked a few times this week, and Kiffin offered this advice:
“I told him he better slow the game down,” Kiffin said.
How exactly are Sarkisian and the Huskies supposed to do that? The basis for Kelly’s spread attack is play fast and score fast. The Ducks play at a tempo that could make a track sprinter wheeze. It’s no-huddle, call-the-plays-at-the line, run-as-many-plays-as-possible mayhem.
Remember the old mantra about how time of possession wins games? Oregon ranks 114th out of 120 teams in time of possession at 26 minutes, 51 seconds per game.
Defenses simply get worn down by the breakneck pace and the lack of rest between plays.
“You could see us just run out of gas,” Kiffin said. “It was very obvious.”
USC kept things close for three quarters. But in the fourth quarter, the Trojans simply couldn’t keep up the pace.
“You have to try to practice at their tempo,” Sarkisian said. “That’s the only way you can do it. We’ll do some unique things this week to try to generate that tempo.”
On Tuesday, Washington practiced at a far faster pace than usual, trying to give players a feel for what a game will be like.
“Last year, if we had a practice like we did today, I don’t know if I would be able to talk to you right now,” said defensive lineman Alameda Ta’amu. “It was crazy. It was twice as fast. There was no rest time between plays. There’s no huddle, and they keep the other team on skates. We finished our service in under 20 minutes, and it was a 30-minute period.”
Ideally, the way to combat that fatigue is to substitute players and keep the front seven as fresh as possible. But because Oregon doesn’t huddle, subbing is difficult.
“It’s really hard to sub,” defensive coordinator Nick Holt said. “But you got to do it to keep your guys fresh. You just have to get the guys out there and be really quick with your substitutions and call your stuff. You can get caught and you don’t want 12 guys on the field or 10 guys on the field.”
Often, substitutions are curtailed from play to play, and done more series to series.
“Those 11 guys who start a series are probably going to be the ones who finish it,” linebacker Cort Dennison said.
The Huskies struggled with that a little in the loss to Stanford when the Cardinal surprised them with some no-huddle look.
“There were a couple times where Stanford went no-huddle and you know we didn’t get lined up really fast,” Holt said. “We got misaligned and got some runs broken on us, and we weren’t lined up correctly.”
That simply can’t happen against Oregon.
If the Huskies do line up properly, then come the Ducks’ series of misdirection reads that Kelly’s version of the spread option presents with two talented and ultra-fast players leading the way – quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James.
They are equally dangerous in the read-option – Oregon’s most reliable and most-used play.
James is a Heisman Trophy candidate, who’s already rushed for 1,210 yards this season. He averages 7.1 yards per carry and has scored 14 touchdowns.
Thomas has rushed for 311 yards, while averaging 6.1 yards per rush. He’s also been a better passer than expected. He has completed 128-of-211 passes (60.7 percent) for 1,827 yards and 21 touchdowns. Last year’s starter, Jeremiah Masoli, threw for 15 touchdowns all season.
One way the Huskies could slow the pace is with long, time-consuming drives. But Washington’s offense has been inconsistent at best this season with Jake Locker at quarterback.
Now, with Locker injured and out, the Huskies will have a redshirt freshman, Keith Price, making his first collegiate start this weekend. The probability of UW controlling the clock and time of possession seems remote.