Big Picture: How Oregon Ducks are even better post Chip Kelly

EUGENE, Ore. — Yes, at Oregon — in the Life After Chip phase — the Ducks still do everything fast. But it was still impressive to see second-year coach Mark Helfrich sitting in front of the media Saturday night firing out clever one-liners in rapid succession, a lot like his predecessor.

Asked what he said to his team at halftime that must’ve prompted the Ducks’ 28-point flurry after a shaky first half, Helfrich shot back, "It was Gettysburg Address-ish-esque."

The 46-27 Oregon romp over No. 7 Michigan State and the Spartans’ vaunted defense not only boosted Ducks QB Marcus Mariota’s Heisman stock; it was the biggest win over Helfrich’s short tenure at UO, too. It also should silence whatever skeptics there were predicting an Oregon decline in the post-Chip Kelly era.

"This was the most prepared we’ve ever been for a game since I’ve been here," Oregon senior offensive lineman Jake Fisher told FOX Sports.

Saturday night’s performance by the Ducks against MSU was uneven, but that probably had more to do with Michigan State than anything else. Oregon’s potent ground game was bottled up by the Spartans in the first half. Oregon managed just 13 yards rushing and went only 1 of 7 on third downs, which hindered its ability to get into a rhythm or ramp up the tempo. But midway through the third quarter, credit Mariota for doing what the truly special players do. He sparked his team with a little off-script magic when the Ducks needed it most. 

"Unbelievable," Helfrich said of Mariota’s uncanny play-making savvy. "I should pay to watch that guy play."

Among the areas the Ducks staff has been pleased with Mariota’s improvement since last year include his becoming a more vocal leader and packing on 10 more pounds, which has shown up in added arm strength and in his ability to pull free from tacklers, as he did several times Saturday night to extend plays.

The Ducks were trailing 27-18. Mariota turned a third-and-11 into a first down with some crafty improvisational skills by evading pressure from the aggressive MSU D and shoveled the ball to standout freshman tailback Royce Freeman for a 17-yard gain. In what felt like just a few heartbeats later, the Ducks were in the end zone. In a little over five minutes of game action, Oregon — in vintage Oregon fashion — scored 21 points.

"We knew we would have to take a few shots, take some body blows and weather it," Helfrich said.

As if things weren’t tough enough against the ferocious MSU defense, the Ducks had to rely on true freshman Tyrell Crosby after starting right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena was carted off the field with a leg injury. 

BEST IMAGES FROM WEEK 3

"I thought it was a real mark of our character when they had us on the mat in the third quarter and our kids kept fighting," said Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost. "I think our team really grew up (Saturday)."

The Ducks felt good about their game plan. Matt Lubick, the passing game coordinator, was well-versed in MSU’s ballyhooed Quarters coverage. He said when he was the safeties coach at Arizona State, the defensive coordinator ran a version of that defense, so the Ducks were armed with many of the Quarters-beaters that used to give that ASU D fits. They also knew the Spartans are very aggressive in how they generate pressure and that MSU wouldn’t allow them much on the perimeter in the passing game, but the deep middle of the Michigan State defense could be vulnerable.

On Saturday night, it was. A Spartans defense that didn’t allow a single pass play of 60 yards or longer in 14 games last season allowed two in a little over a quarter to start the game. Mariota went on to throw for 318 yards on just 28 attempts and three TDs.

"All of the shot plays that we had prepared for them were there," said Frost. "We didn’t hit all of them, but we hit enough of them to make a difference."

Frost, the Ducks’ play-caller, had a pretty shrewd take on how this matchup would be viewed by a lot of people. A little before kickoff he shared it with Helfrich.

"I figured if we lost the game, they’d be saying Mark Helfrich is no Chip Kelly, and if Michigan State lost the game, they’d be saying the Big Ten’s not ready to compete with the power conferences, and that’s all really a bunch of hooey," Frost said.

Frost is right. The Spartans, despite their conference’s nightmarish Saturday, are a very, very good team. After all, they had come into Autzen having beaten their last three top-five opponents and had finished in the nation’s top six in total defense in each of the past three seasons. There’s nothing fluky about Mark Dantonio’s team.

Meanwhile, in Eugene, Helfrich has established himself as a leader of a serious national title contender. It might stun some people to read this, but the Ducks’ offense has actually been even better in the past year-plus than it was under Kelly, one of the sport’s true innovators. 

In Kelly’s four seasons as Oregon’s head coach, the Ducks averaged a gaudy 44.7 points per game, but in Helfrich’s 15 games since taking over, that number is actually up to 46.6. The total yardage numbers and yards per play have made more substantial jumps. In Kelly’s four years they were at 501 and 6.67, respectively, and are now up to 567 yards per game and 7.66 yards per play under Helfrich. The Ducks’ big plays (20 yards or longer) have gone from an average of 6.3 per game to 8. 

"Mark is really, really detail-oriented," longtime Oregon O-line coach Steve Greatwood told FOX Sports. "He has a much more approachable personality for the kids compared to Chip. They’re identical in the way they prepare and the detail that goes into it. Mark is a great motivator. He never lets them get down on themselves or doubt themselves."

JAMEIS WINSTON INCIDENTS TIMELINE

Those are key attributes for a team loaded with skill players who are either freshmen or sophomores like this team is.

Oregon AD Rob Mullens has been impressed by Helfrich’s work and how the 40-year-old has grown into the position but said he’s not all surprised by how well Helfrich has made the transition.

"I’ve always felt very strong about the hire," Mullens told FOX Sports Saturday night. "We went through a thorough process. We knew who Mark was, and we had a year to think about it and how Mark would handle the transition when Chip first looked at the Buccaneers. We vetted very thoroughly everything about our options. He rose to the top clearly. He was a highly prepared coordinator. We loved his passion for the student-athlete experience and for developing the whole student-athlete." 

Mullens acknowledged the expectations in the post-Kelly era are exceptionally high. "It may be more difficult to take over a program that had just been to four straight BCS bowls than to go do a rebuild job," he said. "The expectations are double-digit wins, league championships and competing for BCS bowl championships."

It’s also worth noting that Helfrich wasn’t the only one who was in the midst of transition. Frost, a rising star in the coaching world, was, too. 

"I think I’m more comfortable this year," the former QB told FOX Sports. "Mark’s always the voice in my ear as I’m making play calls. I love having him on the headset. 

"As a play-caller, the game slowed down. We go so fast. You try to watch the play. You try to watch what the defense is doing, why it worked or why it didn’t, and you’re trying to think about the next play. So you’re deciphering that in about 13 seconds."

Warp-speed or not, things seem to be going just fine in Oregon for a machine looking primed to make a title run behind their superstar QB.

ABDULLAH THE LEADER

Saturday obviously was an awful day for the Big Ten. It would’ve been considerably worse had Nebraska not had Ameer Abdullah, who once again showed why he is one of the best players in college football. His 58-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown with under 30 seconds to save the Huskers against little McNeese State was a prime example of a stud putting an entire program on his back and willing it to a victory.

The comments from Abdullah in this Steve Sipple column are more reason why this kid is so special:

Despite the loss, Pelini spoke with a confident tone. Abdullah was different. His skies were almost all gray — yes, even after his latest moment in the sun, one that topped his first-down lunge last season against Northwestern. On a personal level, this win felt like a loss, he said. He said he was "very disappointed." He said the Huskers failed to respect the game. Failed to respect the importance of preparation. Failed to properly respect the foe. Failed to take the game plan seriously enough. He said he sensed Nebraska’s lack of fire as the week progressed but thought he would see a shift. He didn’t speak up. He will next time.

NOT A GOOD LOOK FOR HOKE

Back to the Big Ten. Three of the league’s top schools — Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan — lost by a combined score of 112-48. Things look bleakest in Ann Arbor after the Wolverines got shut out at Notre Dame, 31-0, snapping the school’s NCAA-record of 365 games without a shutout. The Wolverines now have lost seven of their past 10 games.

I figured if Brady Hoke got his team to 9-3 this season he’d be safe, and I think that could still happen. Aside from road trips to Michigan State and Ohio State, I suspect the Wolverines will be favored in the other eight games, but things certainly look a lot more dicey than they did Saturday morning.

A BETTER GOLSON DRIVING THE IRISH

Speaking of Notre Dame, hats off to the Irish. Brian Kelly has dealt with a lot of key staff transition and some hefty off-field distractions and put a very sharp team on the field in the first two weeks. Also, QB Everett Golson has been superb. Two seasons ago, Golson had a modest 12-6 TD-INT ratio and completed 59 percent of his passes, but after his year away he’s come back very sharp. Golson’s always had a powerful arm, but it seems like he’s benefited from the months he spent in San Diego training with George Whitfield last fall. Golson has thrown five TDs and yet to throw a pick while hitting on 66 percent of his passes. His yards per attempt have gone from 7.56 to an impressive 9.30.

A point of emphasis Golson worked a lot on in California was extending plays but not bolting downfield, so in essence he’s trained to run to throw instead of just running to run at the first sign of trouble. Whitfield told me Sunday they also spent a lot of time with some technique things that included holding the ball higher when he runs. "Before, the ball would get down by his stomach, so it would come up as a wind-up," Whitfield said. 

The private QB coach also acknowledged he’s pleasantly surprised at just how quickly Golson has heated up: "I thought it’d take a couple of games before he’d really settle in — maybe by like Game 5."

HERE COMES KD

We talked about Baylor true freshman WR KD Cannon in our FS1 pregame show before the Bears opener against SMU last week, and the speedster has been every bit as dynamic as Art Briles told me he would be.

This week, Cannon caught six passes for 223 yards and three TDs in less than a half of action against Northwestern State. He already has four plays of at least 40 yards or longer this season.

THE FRIDGE’S IMPACT

Granted, Rutgers hasn’t begun its conference schedule yet, but early returns are that Ralph Friedgen was a terrific hire for RU. Gary Nova has a 6-1 TD-INT ratio and is completing 67 percent of his passes — up from 55 percent last year. He’s also been sacked only twice after going down 25 times in 2013.

U-DUB’S DOMINATOR

Washington D-lineman Danny Shelton has been a dominator for the Huskies, notching 7.5 TFLs in UW’s first two games. The 6-foot-2, 339-pound former Academic All-Pac-12 pick, a standout prep wrestler and shot-putter, had 12 tackles and four sacks against a very good FCS program in Eastern Washington.

TIME’S TICKIN’, UCLA

A lot of my media buddies picked UCLA to make it to the College Football Playoff. The Bruins’ O-line better improve in a hurry. They’ve allowed 22 negative plays already this season, worst in the country.

KIFFIN DIALING UP COOPER

Lane Kiffin has been an easy target, but he’s off to a very strong start as the new Bama OC. The Tide have played two FBS opponents and are averaging 579 yards of offense and 7.62 yards per play. WR Amari Cooper should be especially happy to have Kiffin running the show. In two games this season, Cooper has 25 catches for 319 yards, meaning he already has more than half the catches he had in 2013 (45).

YOUNG, IMPRESSIVE DUCKS

When I visited with Ducks assistant Matt Lubick last Friday, he gave me some insight into many of Oregon’s freshmen. He raved about RB Royce Freeman and WR Charles Nelson especially, saying the latter reminds him of De’Anthony Thomas in regard to his burst, but is much more physical and stronger. He also mentioned Tyrell Crosby, a long-armed O-lineman he said was going to be really, really good down the road.

Well, fast forward some 24 hours and Crosby was thrust into the lineup at right tackle against one of the best D-lines in the country and responded very well.

"He doesn’t blink," Greatwood, the Oregon O-line coach, told me. "Sometimes I feel like I need to check him to see if he has a pulse. He reminds me a lot of when Marcus was a freshman. Same demeanor."

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

The last time Ohio State lost at home to an unranked opponent was in 1982. Back then, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was a 36-year-old in his second season as head coach at Murray State, and DC Bud Foster was a graduate assistant on his staff. Foster’s Hokies D is tied for the national lead in sacks with 11.

Shane Beamer, Tech’s associate head coach/running backs coach, said the postgame scene in the Hokies locker room was the best he’s ever been around in all his time as a coach or player, including in 1999 when he was on VT’s squad that went to the BCS national title game. "Seeing all the youth that we had in that room, with all the true and redshirt freshmen and the looks on their faces, the looks on the staff’s faces starting with my dad, it was really special," the 37-year-old said. "I spent 11 years in the SEC as a coach and that was as great an atmosphere (Saturday) night in a stadium as any I’d ever seen in any SEC stadium. 

"It wasn’t just beating Ohio State in front of 108,000 fans. It was becoming the first team to beat Urban Meyer at Ohio State in the regular season, becoming the first unranked team since 1982 to go there and beat Ohio State, and you had it from a recruiting standpoint because there were a lot of big-time prospects there and the feedback we got after the game on the way to the airport was great. But it’s also from a perception point — it was so big. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t hear any of the talk about how Va. Tech is descending or how our time had passed. That motivated our players, and I know how rewarding it was for (Frank Beamer). He’s such a competitor at heart, and I knew he had a little extra juice last week."

A couple of key factors in the improvement in this year’s Hokies squad: Much more playmakers at the skill positions, and once again Foster has a nasty, nasty defense. He’s playing more man coverage than he had in the past, and against the Buckeyes and their redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett, the Hokies brought five or more rushers on a lot of snaps, playing man coverage with a single-high safety and swarmed the young quarterback. Beamer told FOX Sports that Foster counted up 31 plays where the Hokies hit the Buckeyes QB, combining both run and pass plays, which included seven sacks.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

Last season Pitt allowed 43 sacks, 122nd in the nation and also more than any other team in the country that went to a bowl game. So far the Panthers are one of only five teams in the country to play two games without allowing a sack. The bad news: Starting center Artie Rowell tore his ACL in his left knee and is done for the rest of the year. Sophomore Gabe Roberts takes over.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

As Chris Vannini pointed out, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has held Stanford to four touchdowns in the past three years: one on Saturday with USC and three over the previous two years when he was the DC at Washington. Wilcox’s D was really stout in the red zone in these games, limiting the Cardinal to just three touchdowns on 10 trips inside the red zone.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.