How exactly does the Oregon Ducks’ offense really work?

There was a stat on College Gameday this morning — I wasn’t watching live because I was sitting in a generally-boring strategy-type class — that Oregon has scored 45 points in each of their first seven games this year. The last team to do that was Harvard … in 1887. So, it’s been a while since we’ve seen this type of offensive productivity, and Chip Kelly isn’t even coaching in Eugene anymore. He’s leading the Eagles, who are currently a sub-par (if injured) NFL team. Now, the first seven opponents weren’t great — probably the best is Washington, who has now lost three in a row, or Tennessee, who is losing to Alabama by about 40 as I write this post — but still, it’s an accomplishment. And going back to the Kelly era, Oregon has been running up point totals for years. So, how exactly does the offense work?

You can start here for an explanation. Kelly actually comes from a system that is vastly different than the systems he’s now associated with — Power-I formation, two tight ends, mostly run, maybe five passes per game. The actual ideas behind Oregon’s success may be rooted in their practices, which are essentially sprints between drills. One misconception about the offense is that it’s entirely based on speed; while Oregon players are fast, they actually operate at three different tempos, and the difference between the tempos throws some opponents off. Also, at a coaching clinic in 2011, Kelly rebutted the common idea about him — that his QBs are actually RBs with arms (in fact, Marcus Mariota may be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft).

Mark Helfrich, the new head coach, is a bit different: his schemes involve more fake passes and fake runs, as well as specialized halfback plays. The placards are still in place, though — and they allow for part of the quick tempo.

If you’re pretty deep in football knowledge, you can read the transcript of this Kelly speech from 2009; it doesn’t necessarily tell you the “secret sauce” to Oregon’s offense, but it explains how the zone read option works and how coaches can apply it. Interestingly, though, Kelly focuses not as much on scheme as on basic fundamentals like “protecting the ball” — and if you look at some of their notable losses over the past couple of years, such as 2011’s drop to USC (they were No. 4, USC was No. 18), they cough it up a bit (two fumbles lost in that one). From what I can gather, though, the basis of the spread offense is creating mismatches among defenders in terms of their gap assignments. That, plus pace and blistering speed, leads to confusion and regular 91-yard runs. Enough of those, and suddenly you have 45 points.

If you’d like to learn more about the inside zone read, the outside zone read, the power play, the straddled triple option and more, check out FishDuck (their redesign isn’t amazing, but their info is pretty strong). And of course, please remember that for the Ducks to do their thing — beat UCLA, beat Stanford, beat UCLA (?) again, and then win it all against a team like Alabama — they’re going to need a defense that can match their offense. That said, Nick Saban teams don’t do tremendously well vs. mobile QBs and quick-strike offenses, so … that could be an interesting one.

Can UCLA do anything vs. this offense tonight? I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it, although it might snap the 45 points per game streak. One thing to consider (and solace for UCLA fans): future UCLA star QB Asiantii Woulard has been mimic’ing Mariota in practice (can’t hurt for the Bruins), Mora Jr. coached Michael Vick in the NFL (so he has to have some context on stopping speed, as well), and Mora Jr. seems to understand the road map to beating the Ducks — even if he admits it’s not exactly his team’s strength.

Ted Bauer