LOS ANGELES — Home to several Olympic track & field athletes and the iconic Hayward Field, Eugene, Ore., has become known as “Tracktown U.S.A.”
But over at Autzen Stadium, the speed on the gridiron is just as great. Oregon has built its empire primarily on speed and it’s probably the worst kept secret in college football that the Ducks play fast, wear down their opponents and rack up the points.
And there is no secret to stopping the run against a team full of Usain Bolts. In fact, according to No. 12 UCLA, you don’t try and stop the speed — you try and match it.
“You play with them,” said linebacker Jordan Zumwalt. “There’s nothing you can really do to slow them down. They tend to speed up their tempo when they get success so we’ll keep their success to a minimum and it will slow them down. But other than that, you just kind of have to keep up with them.
“That’s no problem for us because we run with an up-tempo team every day. It’s our own team.”
But Mariota might not even be the speediest Duck on the field. That honor may go to De’Anthony Thomas, who was the fastest high school athlete to run the 200m as a high school junior at nearby Crenshaw High. Thomas can both run and catch passes and is expected to come back this week after missing the last four weeks with an ankle injury.
“He’s blessed,” said defensive end Cassius Marsh. “Certain guys are blessed in ways that others aren’t. You have to be aware of where he is on the field.”
Byron Marshall, another former high school track star, moves the ball forward and nowhere else – he averages a team-leading 100.6 rushing yards per game and has lost only 13 this season.
Their weapons are innumerable.
“They’ve got speed everywhere,” said defensive coordinator Lou Spanos.
With so many effective skill players, the challenge now becomes executing defensive assignments to near-perfect levels. The Ducks are heavy on the read option plays which is the Bruins are familiar with having faced Nevada, Nebraska and even Utah and California run some spread option.
But this is speed like the Bruins haven’t seen before and one blink of an eye can set UCLA back another seven points.
“It’s assignment football,” Zumwalt said. “You have to do your job. When you’ve got 10 guys doing their job and one guy messes up that’s where they take advantage of you.”
Thomas and Marshall aside, it’s Mariota that has the ability to completely derail a defensive game plan. A quick, accurate passer with the ability to throw long, the ability to use his speed and scramble and remarkable vision that allows him to adjust on the fly gives him a rare combination that is not often seen.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora had to take a breath and collect all of his thoughts on Mariota before delivering his assessment.
“One of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen some really good ones,” Mora said. “I had a couple guys ask me last night, a couple NFL guys, ask me if I thought he could play at the next level. I was like, ‘Have you not watched him?'”
Mariota has rushed for gaudy numbers and passed for even larger ones, scoring nine touchdowns and passing for 10 more than that. He has the whole college football world in awe of his sheer athleticism and high football I.Q. and he has the attention of the Bruins.
“I love to watch him play,” Mora said. “But I don’t know how excited I’ll be to watch him play Saturday night.”