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7 keys to understanding Oregon Ducks offense

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota runs the Ducks offense at a high speed.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota runs the Ducks offense at a high speed.
Published Jan. 11, 2015

Oregon's high-powered offense played many of its games on late Saturday nights — past the bedtimes of many East Coast college football fans. • So the Rose Bowl served as a wake-up call for Florida State and the rest of the country. The second-largest cable audience of all time (more than 28 million) saw the Ducks put up 59 points and 639 yards of offense on defending national champion Florida State. • "I think the sky is the limit with our offense," said Byron Marshall, Oregon's running back turned receiver. • Here's a primer on seven factors that make the Ducks offense so good heading into Monday's national championship game against Ohio State:

1. It's fast

The Ducks ran a play every 21.7 seconds this season. That's more than three seconds faster than FSU and about four seconds faster than Ohio State. Only nine teams in the country were quicker than Oregon.

At top speed (and when not eating the clock during wins), Oregon is even faster than that. Before the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl got out of hand, the Ducks averaged one snap every 17.3 seconds, according to a rough Tampa Bay Times analysis.

The speed gives defenses less time to set up or substitute, and it's also hard to replicate in practice.

"You can try to do it as much as possible, but you know it's only going to be different in the game," FSU defensive end Mario Edwards said before the Rose Bowl. "Because they do it every day."

Early in the second quarter in the Rose Bowl, Oregon had already gone through 16 plays in 3:37 on one drive. The Seminoles were gassed and had to burn a timeout; the Ducks finished the 88-yard drive with a field goal.

On the next drive, FSU tried to substitute players but couldn't get set on third down. Oregon snapped the ball quickly, leading to Thomas Tyner's 1-yard touchdown run and an 18-6 lead.

2. It's efficient

The Ducks boast the No. 2 scoring offense in the country (47.2 points per game), but that's more than a product of how many plays they run. No team in the country scored more points (relative to how long it held the ball) than the Ducks. But the Buckeyes weren't far behind.

Team Points per minute
1. Oregon 1.74
2. Baylor 1.66
3. Marshall 1.60
4. Western Kentucky 1.58
5. TCU 1.52
6. Ohio State 1.44

3. It's confusing

Oregon's connection with zone-read option runs is well known. Quarterback Marcus Mariota (left) reads the defense, then decides whether to keep the ball or hand it off to a running back (or receiver).

The Ducks passing game is equally confusing for defenses. Mariota threw the ball 27 times during the first half of the Rose Bowl. All but five of those passes involved some sort of misdirection: a pump fake to a receiver, a designed quarterback rollout, a fake handoff to a teammate, or some combination of the three.

According to profootballfocus.com, Mariota used play action on 51 percent of his 372 passes during the regular season.

4. It's aggressive

Oregon tried to convert on fourth down 26 times this season; only 22 teams in the country went for it more often. The Ducks succeeded half the time.

No team had more successful two-point conversions than Oregon (four). And only Arkansas State attempted more of them than the Ducks (11). Ohio State, by comparison, went for two only once.

5. It uses short passes

Part of the Ducks' offensive speed comes from its play selection.

Only two quarterbacks in the country have thrown for more yards than Marcus Mariota (4,121), but his passes are usually short rather than downfield. Here's a breakdown of how far his 36 Rose Bowl passes traveled:

0-5 yards downfield: 20

6-10 yards downfield: 3

11-20 yards downfield: 8

More than 20 yards downfield: 5

6. It has versatile players

Marcus Mariota is the obvious example. The Heisman Trophy winner has passed for more than 10,000 career yards and rushed for more than 2,000 — a reason why the Bucs are expected to consider him for the No. 1 overall pick, if he declares for the draft.

Byron Marshall is talented enough to rush for 1,038 yards last year, switch to receiver in the offseason, and lead the team with 834 receiving yards this season.

Royce Freeman (right) has a team-high 1,343 rushing yards. The only freshman to put up better numbers in conference history is former Ducks star LaMichael James.

7. It evolves

The Ducks aren't the same under second-year coach Mark Helfrich (above) as they were before Chip Kelly left for the NFL's Eagles.

Oregon has always relied on the run, but it ran the ball about two more times per game in Kelly's four seasons as coach than it has under Helfrich.

But the Ducks passing attack is up under Helfrich. Oregon had 900 more rushing yards per season than passing yards under Kelly; in Helfrich's two seasons, the Ducks have totaled 1,200 more yards through the air than on the ground.

"It's a constant evolution," Helfrich said. "With anything, you're trying to find the edge."