Know Thy Enemy: Oregon's offense not efficient as numbers make it seem
Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes from the eyes of The State News to the eyes of the student newspaper of Michigan State football's opponent.
As the bowl season continues, Michigan State (7-5, 5-4 in Big Ten) is part of the fun, facing off against Oregon (8-4, 5-4 in Pac-12) in the Redbox Bowl at 3 p.m. EST on New Year's Eve in Levi's Stadium on FOX.
To preview the matchup, The State News talked to Oregon football beat reporter Maverick Pallack of The Daily Emerald — Oregon's student newspaper — to get an idea of this year's Ducks.
Editor's note: This was lightly edited for clarification purposes.
Q: So obviously, the big name when people think Oregon is quarterback Justin Herbert. How has he evolved over his three years at Oregon, and hasn't declared for the NFL Draft yet, but put himself in that conversation for a top-level prospect?
A: I honestly don't think he's going to declare this year, I think he's going to do a fourth year. He's from Eugene, Oregon, he's a life-long Duck fan and I think he's going to stay. But, what I see most is a projection with him, because he's a big dude (6-foot-6, 233-pounds) and he works hard. I think that's kind of what it is. He has a big arm, and although I think he's better than him in my opinion, like the Josh Allen thing last year where Josh Allen could throw the ball 70 yards, and I think NFL scouts see that with the big arm, his mobility, he's a big dude and I think that's what they see.
Until this year, he hasn't won a really big game. They beat then-No. 7 Washington, and that's definitely his biggest win in his two and a half years as a starter. He hasn't beat Washington State yet. He beat California for his first road win since his freshman year (in 2016) when he beat Utah, so that's the kind of thing that's escaping him is winning away from Autzen Stadium. And I think getting that California win put him into that conversation, definitely. He's lucky they played California before they set their defense and offense and how they wanted to do it. California kind of looks like a Big Ten-style team this year.
He has a really good receiver in Dillon Mitchell, who makes him look really good. But, I know a lot of people want him to start throwing to other guys besides Dillon Mitchell, but he also needs someone besides Dillon Mitchell to get open for that to happen.
Q: Just going off of that, Oregon is No. 18 in scoring offense in the nation (37.2 points per game) and is 31st in total offensive yards (445.9 yards per game). What makes that offense so efficient?
A: It's weird, because when you watch them throughout the whole game, you take Dillon Mitchell out (69 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns), it's not that efficient. Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd are their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. Jaylon Redd has 368 yards and Johnny Johnson has 205, and they're both not big guys. Redd (5-foot-8, 178-pounds) is like a slot guy and Johnny Johnson (6-foot, 197-pounds) has had a lot of trouble with dropping the ball this year. So, it's really just Dillon Mitchell or running the ball.
C.J. Verdell is the lead back, and he's a redshirt freshman. He kind of gets it with volume. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but that's based off big runs and a bunch of one-yard runs. It's not like one of the guys they used to have like (current Denver Broncos running back) Royce Freeman, where he's going to give you four yards every single carry.
It's weird, because this is definitely a great offense, but they also have a lot of flaws in the offense. The offensive line is great, but they tend to run the ball up the middle a lot on first down, where you see it coming. They shove the ball to Dillon Mitchell as much as they can, if a defense has a lockdown cornered they can really give the Ducks some problems.
Q: Moving to the defensive side, when I look at purely stats, a couple players stand out to me. Linbacker Justin Hollins with a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. who has 16 pass breakups, which tied for fifth in the nation. How does the Oregon defense work, and looking at statistics, is it really Thomas Graham Jr. and Justin Hollins leading the way, along with linebacker Troy Dye, who has a team-high 107 total tackles?
A: Jim Leavitt, the defensive coordinator for Oregon, was the linebackers coach with the San Francisco 49ers with they drafted NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes in the middle and this defense looks a lot like that. He was also the defensive coordinator when Colorado made the Pac-12 championship in 2016. The No. 1 guy I would look at is Ugochukwu Amadi. He's the safety and can also play corner. He has a knack for finding the ball. He has two pick-six's this year.
And Justin Hollins, he's a really good edge rusher. He's inconsistent I'd say in a way. He's definitely the best pass rusher on the team, but some games you won't notice him I'd say, and in other games you see him on the quarterback every play.
So, the defense goes based on what Justin Hollins and defensive lineman Jalen Jelks are able to manufacture in the pass rush. Jalen Jelks doesn't have the stats to back it up. I believe he won defensive player of the year with the Ducks voting on it, and he also got mentioned in Pac-12 yearly awards (first-team by coaches). Although he doesn't fill up the stats, he creates a lot of problems for offenses.
And like you said, Troy Dye is far and away the guy that's going to get most of the tackles . He'll probably lead the team in tackles. Linebacker Kaulana Apelu was up there with him, until he got hurt (leg fracture) and missed the last three games (still second on team with 58 total tackles). But, he's supposedly supposed to be back for the bowl game, along with left tackle Penei Sewell (high right-ankle sprain). They were injured for the last couple of games and they're both going to be healthy, from what we heard.
Thomas Graham Jr. has the tendency to get burned a couple times. Like against Washington, he gave up like a 40-yard touchdown where he got burned. But then against Arizona State, he shut down wide receiver N'Keal Harry and had six pass breakups just on Harry alone, and N'Keal Harry is a first-round pick probably, so that's pretty big for Graham.
Graham and cornerback Deommodore Lenoir really stepped up this year, because as two sophomore corners they didn't really have anyone behind them. So if one of them were to get hurt or be ineffective, the Ducks had no one else to turn to. So for them to able to turn in decent sophomore season was huge for the Ducks.
Q: When looking back to pre-season hype to now, how has Oregon fared with its expectations?
A: There's always going to be those people who expect national championships every year, and that was just unfair for this team. Mario Cristobal's first year as a Power 5 head coach, I thought he did really well with that. They had some big mistakes this year. They should've won the Stanford game definitely, and they gave that one away. But, being able to beat your top two rivals — although Oregon State is not a good football team — still beating them and beating Washington for the first time in two years, I think that's big that they beat their two rivals. Obviously, the road losses were disappointing. Giving up 44 points to Arizona was not good. Then a loss to now-No. 13 Washington State, which turned out to be a better loss than people thought — Washington State was No. 25-ranked at the time.
But, I think it was a good season for Oregon, 8-4, possibly being 9-4 at the end of this year. Then next year, if they cut out the mistakes, I think they could do a little better. They did get lucky this year having their toughest games at home — Stanford and Washington. And next year those will be on the road, so we'll see.
Q: Who wins, score and why?
A: I think Oregon wins, because I think Oregon can score more than 20 points, and I don't know if Michigan State can get that many. I think Oregon wins 24-17, and I think Michigan State gets a defensive touchdown. I just don't think Michigan State will be able to manufacture much on offense. I think Oregon, there's a lot of hype around this program. They haven't won a bowl game since the Rose Bowl in 2015. They need to win a big game away from Autzen, and this is the biggest one they can until next year.