ACC All Access: Witnessing Oregon's speed offers eye-opening experience

Many of my esteemed Daily Press colleagues have forgotten more college football games than I’ve seen in my 19 years in journalism (NOT an age insult; just a tip of the hat to experience), but I’ve still witnessed my share of jaw-dropping speed on football fields.

As a journalistic observer of Southeastern Conference programs during my time in the mid-1990s at the University of Georgia, and of Big East and ACC programs in the last 14 seasons, I have a good feel for where the Oregon team I saw Saturday fits in among my personal list of blazing-fast football teams I’ve seen.

At the very least, it’s a team that’s on a comparable speed level with several national championship winners. Prior to No. 2 Oregon’s 59-10 win Saturday at Virginia, the programs that had wowed me the most in terms of sheer number of speedy standouts were:

1996 Florida (national champions) – Running back Fred Taylor and wide receivers Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard

2000 Miami – Running backs James Jackson, Najeh Davenport and Clinton Portis, receivers Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson and defensive backs Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanan and Mike Rumph

2001 Miami (national champions) – Running backs Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, Daryl Jones and Najeh Davenport and receivers Andre Johnson and Kevin Beard, safety Ed Reed and cornerback/return specialist Phillip Buchanan

2004 Auburn – Running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and cornerback/return specialist Carlos Rogers

2007 Louisiana State (national champions) – Running back/return specialist Trindon Holliday, receiver/return specialist Early Doucet, receiver Brandon LaFell and running Keiland Williams

After seeing what Oregon has to offer, I have to put it somewhere among this top five. The ’09 Alabama team and this year’s Alabama team were worthy of consideration, but I think the top-to-bottom skill level of those teams and incredible standards of perfection were what impressed me more than the speed element (though cornerback/return specialist Javier Arenas on that ’09 team is memorable).

As far as U.Va. was concerned Saturday, it was essentially the bug against the windshield of Oregon’s bus to the end zone. Oregon played at the clip in which it’s generally accustomed (18.6 seconds between plays; up only slightly from 16.7 seconds in the opener against Nicholls State) and scored at its usual prolific rate.

"It's the system," said U.Va. safety Anthony Harris of Oregon's read-option spread offensive style. "They ran their stuff and we've got to work on our consistency as far as assignments.

"It's something that brings you down to reality. That's a great football team. They do a lot of things well, really good. So, for us, it's a good measuring stick."

While U.Va.’s inability to match Oregon’s pace was obvious from the opening drive when quarterback Marcus Mariota sprinted past all of U.Va.’s defensive players 71 yards to the end zone, the loss also illuminated more of what plagues the Cavaliers.

If offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s biggest ambition was to re-establish the running game, there’s something wrong with the approach. It’ll be the focus of U.Va.’s off week practice, before it plays Sept. 21 in Charlottesville against Virginia Military Institute.


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U.Va. has played defenses in Brigham Young (second in nation in rushing defense last season, giving up 87 yards per game) and Oregon (45th in rushing defense last season, giving up 144.92 yards per game) that have either had a lot of success or at least have been competent at stopping the run in recent history.

Still, with the experience U.Va. boasts in the backfield (running backs Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd) and its own speed and mobility elements (running back Taquan Mizzell and quarterback David Watford, a Hampton High graduate), U.Va. should be averaging more than 116.5 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.

U.Va. had 124 yards rushing against Oregon, including 45 on a first quarter touchdown run by Shepherd. If not for Shepherd’s run, U.Va. would’ve had just 79 rushing yards on 38 carries (2.1 yards per carry).

Of course, U.Va. would be more successful on the ground if it was able to develop something  at all in its vertical passing game. Watford looked to stretch the field just twice against Oregon, coming up with incompletions on both passes, including an overthrow to receiver Adrian Gamble running behind the defense at midfield on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter.

Instead, the bulk of Watford’s completions (29 of 41) came via short dump-offs to tight ends (12 catches by tight ends, including eight by Jake McGee) and bubble screens. Yards after the catch were almost non-existent, and U.Va.’s blocking wasn’t stout enough to free up receivers after catches. Watford, who also committed four turnovers (three interceptions and a lost fumble) that all led to Oregon touchdowns, averaged just 5.6 yards per completion.

"Obviously, we can't turn the ball over," U.Va. coach Mike London said. "Quarterbacks can't throw interceptions or put the ball down. We need to do better as far as turnovers are concerned. This week will be a great week for us to help (Watford) be a better football player. He's a try-hard type (player) and the timing is great to find out what we can do to help him improve."

At least Watford said he felt more comfortable with Fairchild on the field for the Oregon game as opposed to in the booth, like he was for the BYU game. Continuing to build Watford's base of knowledge through immediate, hands-on cause-and-effect feedback and analysis with his offensive coordinator should help Watford.

"I loved it," said Watford of having Fairchild on the sideline with him. "We were just able to talk more. I was able to pick his brain on the sideline, just talk to him about certain things that I see. Instead of having to get on the headset, I can just walk right up to him, see what he's looking at, see what he's trying to get down and what we're looking for on certain drives."

Falling behind by three touchdowns in the first 11 minutes Saturday didn’t help U.Va. do much to get its running game in gear, since Watford was in passing mode for most of his time on the field. Yet, U.Va.’s lack of a running game makes it difficult for the Cavaliers to gain much confidence in short yardage situations on third down, and makes it nearly impossible to establish an effective play-action game.

Practicing and preparing against an offense with as many weapons as Oregon possesses has paid dividends for the Ducks’ defense. It’s a unit capable of at least keeping up with offenses from a speed standpoint, and confident enough to take chances with the knowledge the offense can score points in bunches.

Mizzell, Watford, Shepherd, Parks and wide receivers Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell are all players on U.Va.’s roster with excellent speed. Finding ways to free them up and create room for them could hold the keys to U.Va.’s offensive success or failure this season.

Now, are they as fast as Oregon? Nope. Not even close. Good luck finding a team in the nation this season with that much burst with the ball in its hands. You can probably find it - in the NFL.

Oh, having seen both No. 1 Alabama and Oregon in the first two weeks of the season play against two programs struggling to get their bearings in Virginia Tech and U.Va., respectively, which would I take if I had to pick one today to win the national championship? I'll go with Oregon.


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