By REED NELSON
Like late-summer movies, the late-summer schedule for the Ducks often wanes on importance and excitement.
Mired in the midst of an opposition rut reeking of mediocrity, the weeks following the opening kickoff can seem — dare I say — boring. Luckily for our adrenal glands, however, this week’s opponent, Fresno State, isn’t your average Mountain West Conference slouch, just your average MWC member. It’s not like they’re Boise State (or what’s left of Boise State) or anything, know that a halftime exile against this bunch might be premature.
But, considering that Fresno State isn’t exactly Notre Dame when it comes to national recognition, I present the in-depth preview that nobody asked for, taking you so far inside the matchup that you might think the Bulldogs have a shot (they don’t):
Quarterback Battle: Derek Carr vs. Marcus Mariota
Hailing from the First Family of Fresno State football, QB Derek Carr (brother of David) came out firing against FCS-foe Weber State. He tossed for 298 yards and 2 touchdowns, completing 20 of 25 passes. He’s coming off a 3,500 yard junior campaign and is apparently gelling with new head coach Tim DeRuyter. And don’t count Carr out just because he plays in the now-crippled Mountain West — his brother was a former #1 overall pick, he can huck a football and Fresno State has 14 former players in the NFL. Translation: Fresno State recruits star-caliber NCAA talent.
But, even with the pedigree, Carr hasn’t exactly been able to compensate for the talent gap in past games against top-ten foes. Against Nebraska last season (#10 at the time), Carr managed 254 yards, but just one touchdown en route to a 13-point loss on the road. Against a #5 Boise State team, he looked like a bugler on a battlefield, mustering just 126 yards on 17 of 30 passing, throwing a costly pick too, like the cherry on top of a shit sundae. Fresno State has switched their attack to a spread-option in 2012, but Oregon might have the best defensive unit that Carr has faced in his three-year career, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Nick Alioti brought the house early and often.
Marcus Mariota also looked brilliant last Saturday against his designated FCS lamb-for-slaughter. He put up video game numbers in his quarter and a half of action, throwing for 200 yards and three touchdowns, completing 18 of his 22 throws and piloting Oregon to a 50-10 halftime lead. He didn’t take a snap in the third quarter, but it’s not a stretch to think he wasn’t quite finished when Chip pulled the plug on his XBox. This will only be the redshirt freshman’s second start, but he looks like a pretty cool customer. And if he gets into any trouble, he has the benefit of an Autzen home crowd (the real 12th man) to pick him up.
Look for similar production for Mariota, but not from Carr. Even if he has the chops, his offensive line has been steamrolled in past marquee matchups. Edge: Mariota.
Running backs: Robbie Rouse vs. The Two-Headed Ferret-Badger-Cheetah
Fresno State back Robbie Rouse seemed to enjoy the new offensive attack last week, rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Rouse has now rushed for 3,280 yards in his college career, tying him for second on the school rushing list with San Diego Charger Ryan Mathews. But, similar to Carr, those good-but-not-great stats came against an FCS opponent, and figure to regress significantly against Oregon.
The Ducks, of course, are a totally different story. They have one of the most dynamic (if not the most dynamic) backfields in the country. Their two feature players — De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner — are on Heisman watch and are home run hitters of the caliber not seen since the BALCO days. This week they should get a few more touches, another added bonus of playing a better program. Edge: Seriously?
Offensive line: Super SA%-sy
Since 2010, Oregon has been ranked in the top 15 in the FBS in adjusted sacks allowed*, never allowing a sack on more than 3.7 percent of their attempts, so they’re solid if not elite.
Fresno State isn’t abysmal when it comes to SA%, hovering around the 30th-50th ranking range in the last three seasons (around 5 percent), but they are also supposed to be a somewhat dominant team in a conference that has been pillaged and plundered by AQ conferences in the last three seasons. The spread-option should help them improve an already decent number (ASU, for instance allowed a sack on 6.88 percent of attempts last season), but not in this game. Guys like Dion Jordan and Isaac Remington should put their human-blending settings on puree Saturday afternoon. Edge: Oregon.
Defense: Pop Quiz time
Fresno State has two potential future-NFLers in NG Tyeler Davison (extra “e” added for effect I suppose) and senior DE Anthony Williams. They’ve switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this season, which will put some added pressure on a linebacking corps that had to add a member over the summer. They looked good against Weber State, holding them to just 10 points on 274 total yards, but, yeah, that was against Weber State’s offense, not America’s touchdown assembly line.**
Oregon looked good last week against Arkansas State for the 17 seconds they were on the field — John Boyett even picked off a pass! — but this week is their first actual test. Or more like a pop quiz, maybe. Either way, it’s graded. Look for Jordan and Remington to feed Carr a steady diet of rubber pellets harvested from recycled Nikes. Edge: Oregon.
Special Teams: The been there’s vs. The never have’s
One apostrophe’d word: De’Anthony.
Oh, and Fresno State doesn’t have a player on the roster that has returned a kick or punt for a touchdown. Edge: DAT.
NFL X-Factor: 21-14
If the transitive property existed in the odd lexicon that is competitive athletics, or, more specifically, in college football, then it would be wise to assume that the most successful programs harbor the best and most talented players. Thus, it would also be wise to assume that those teams feed a disproportionate amount of talent into the next echelon, in this case the NFL. But, this is sports and absolutely nothing makes sense in sports (see: Labor disputes involving the two wealthiest workers unions in the whole wide world… cough… NBA and NFL… cough…), thus it is not reasonable in the slightest to assume any of this. And Saturday’s matchup is a brilliant representation of why. Oregon, winners of 44 games in the past four seasons (an average of eleven wins a season) has managed to convert just 21 players into current NFL players.
Fresno State, inversely, has won 27 games in the same time period, yet has 14 players currently in the NFL. Not that any of this matters (though Oregon’s lack of a professional foothold, a’la USC’s, LSU’s or Alabama’s, is a bit baffling), but based on a per win basis, Fresno State holds the slight edge. They need one. Edge: Fresno State.
So, in the true spirit of Hollywood, I’ll leave you without a true kicker, no ending in sight, a horizon-less sky, because that would be totally Avant-garde, way too chic, the essence of mumblecore, and modernist to a fault. Now stare at the boat as the camera zooms out.
*Sacks allowed divided by adjusted pass attempts
** These shots at Weber State are totally uncalled for, but I can’t stop myself. It’s just too easy. It’s like hanging 64 on… nevermind.