Vols next test: Dealing with No. 2 Oregon's pace
Sep 11, 2013 at 5:38p ET
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fast, faster and fastest -- so it goes for Oregon football, which hasn't missed a beat after former skipper Chip Kelly raced to the NFL to coach the Eagles.
After leading the nation in scoring last season, the second-ranked Ducks are at it again this year under rookie head coach Mark Helfrich, the offensive coordinator under Kelly the past four years. His team is already leading the nation in scoring at 62.5 points through two games despite being ranked last in the nation in time of possession per game (20:30).
Next to test the Oregon turbines is visiting Tennessee, also 2-0, but also a four-touchdown underdog for the game Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
"As we all know, (we're) going to play the No. 2 team in the country, they're 31-3 at home in the last five years, four consecutive BCS bowl games, and they're as good as advertised," said Vols first-year coach Butch Jones, whose team has beaten visiting Austin Peay and Western Kentucky in convincing fashion.
"Probably the most complete team I've seen in a number of years to date," he added. "Team speed, everything that you think of when you think of Oregon comes to your mind."
Oh, where to start when trying to figure out how to stop -- uh, make that try to slow -- the Oregon offense that is led by quarterback Marcus Mariota. A leading Heisman Trophy candidate, the sophomore accounted for 321 yards -- 199 passing and 122 rushing -- in last Saturday's 59-10 win at Virginia.
Or it could be focusing on junior running back De'Anthony Thomas, also a Heisman Trophy contender. All he's done so far is score five touchdowns, adding to his career average of 1.4 touchdowns per game. After gaining 124 yards on 11 carries with three touchdowns last Saturday, he was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week. He had 128 rushing yards against Nicholls State.
"A very, very athletic quarterback that can throw the football, make plays with his legs," Jones said of Oregon's offense. "Great team speed on the perimeter, great running back, physical offensive line."
But the Ducks are more than just offense. The Ducks' defense has made more game-changing plays than any other defense in the country since the start of the 2012 season. Last year, they led the nation with 40 takeaways (25 interceptions, 15 fumble recoveries), 32 of which were done by current players. And they already have six takeaways (three interceptions, three fumble recoveries) this season.
"Defensively, (they're) very, very physical, very skilled in the secondary," Jones said, "and then where you really notice it is in the special teams. Our special teams game, just from a speed standpoint alone, is going to be challenged this week."
So, should the Volunteers even show up? After all, they were blitzed by the Ducks in the teams' only meeting during a 48-13 home loss in 2010.
A good place for the Vols to start in trying to pull the upset would be controlling the ball on offense behind their talented offensive line, considered one of the best in the country, and moving the chains behind the two-pronged running attack of junior Marlin Lane and senior Rajion Neal. Thus far, Neal has 215 rushing yards at an average of 6.9 yards per carry, while Lane is averaging 6.1 yards per carry in gaining 135 yards.
"I think just being able to keep the ball and maintain possession and putting some drives together will help our defense," said Vols junior quarterback Justin Worley, who earned the starting nod just prior to the season opener. He has completed 22-of-32 passes for 246 yards with four touchdowns and one interception.
"We have to focus on staying on the field as an offense, whether it is a fast-pace tempo, or if we grind it out a little bit," Worley added.
Defensively, the Vols will finally have senior defensive end Jacques Smith, who missed the first two games while recovering from a broken thumb suffered early in preseason drills. They're also hoping to have junior linebacker Curt Maggitt, who is returning from an ACL injury, but that decision will come later in the week.
In the meantime, the Volunteers' defense has been opportunistic, albeit against lesser competition. Their nine takeaways, including seven in last Saturday's 52-20 win over Western Kentucky, is tied for first in the nation. Sophomore strong safety Brian Randolph was named Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week after two interceptions and eight tackles against WKU.
"Seven turnovers is a confidence boost because now we know what we can do," junior cornerback Justin Coleman said. "We know we can make the turnovers because we do ball drills every practice, and we work on our catching in practice. We will be ready to create turnovers against these guys because we know it is going to affect the whole game."
Even so, the defense will not be able to substitute in normal situation patterns because the Ducks race to the ball after every offensive play is complete and snap the ball quickly for the next play.
"We're going to have to be able to withstand without substituting seven, eight, nine plays in a row," Jones said. "Can our defensive front play mean football for eight, nine plays in a row without substituting? Can we get lined up fast and decipher the call and execute our assignment when you can’t hear, you can't communicate?
"You're on the road, you're in a hostile environment, and you're in a different environment that nobody’s used to even being in. That’s all part of that mental toughness, that mental conditioning. So, it's all going to be on display, and a lot of our younger players are going to have to grow up in a hurry."
In the meantime, Jones does admit at marveling what Oregon has achieved, especially during the four-year tenure of Kelly, who made his NFL debut Monday night with a high-octane win over the Redskins. Helfrich was offensive coordinator under Kelly the past four seasons.
"I look at the fundamental aspect of the football team -- and we spoke about a lot of times when you play fast -- the things that are compromised are your fundamentals," Jones said. "I don't see this with this football team. I think they’ve been on the cutting edge in college football from the sports science part of it, of having resources available to their players, being able to monitor where they’re at with being able to take care of their bodies, sleep, nutrition, and all that.
"I think they've been a step ahead in that world, and I think it all shows."