Freshman running back gives Ducks a boost
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) Marcus Mariota took another step toward the Heisman Trophy and positioned No. 6 Oregon to get serious consideration when the playoff rankings come out next week.
Freshman running back Royce Freeman also came up big for the Ducks, giving some much-needed balance to coach Mark Helfrich's offense.
Freeman rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns in Oregon's 59-41 win over California at Levi's Stadium on Friday night, the third consecutive game in which he has rushed 100 yards or more.
That kept the 5-foot-11, 229-pound running back on pace to reach the 1,000-yard mark, something the Ducks have done every season since 2006.
More importantly, Oregon's success running the ball has taken some of the pressure off its dual-threat quarterback and the rest of the Ducks' high-octane offense.
''It benefits us a lot,'' Freeman said while standing outside Oregon's locker room Friday night. ''At first, we weren't starting off with the running game very well. We picked it up so it's opening other things in the offense for us.''
Freeman's recent surge came almost without warning. He averaged only nine carries through the Ducks' first three games while Thomas Tyner shouldered the brunt of the workload in the backfield, but has since picked up the pace.
While Tyner - who was injured in Oregon's 45-20 win over Washington on Oct. 18 and didn't make the trip to California - stayed at home, Freeman put together another solid night's work.
A true freshman who was heavily recruited by the likes of Alabama, Florida State and USC before settling on Oregon, Freeman repeatedly gouged the Golden Bears for big gains all night. He scored on a 4-yard run in the first quarter to tie the game at 14 and added a 2-yard score in the third that put the Ducks up 52-28.
Freeman finished with 22 carries, one week after running the ball a season-high 29 times against Washington.
The increased work and production from Freeman has allowed Mariota to ease up a bit when it comes to his own running. After rushing for 1,467 yards during his first two seasons in Eugene, the Heisman hopeful has backed off. He's averaging only 40 yards a game on the ground and is on pace for a career-low in rushing attempts.
Not that he's complaining.
''It's fun because this entire offense is starting to click,'' Mariota said following the win over the Bears.
How much Freeman's running changes how defenses play the Ducks is debatable.
Mariota remains the team's primary offensive weapon and is seen by many, including Cal coach Sonny Dykes, as the best overall player in the country.
He threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Stanford in the first quarter to break Oregon's career passing record, then added four more touchdown throws to give him 24 for the season.
Freeman has been getting into the end zone pretty frequently, as well. The young running back scored four touchdowns against Washington and has eight in the last three games.
Still, Helfrich hinted he may try to limit Freeman's touches. Backup running back Byron Marshall ran seven times for 58 yards and added another 133 yards in receptions against Cal.
''Royce is a stud, but that can't last over the course of a season, that many shots, the things he's been doing,'' Helfrich said. ''We need the committee; we need multiple guys, in some way, to carry the load, whether it's off of Marcus or off of Royce and just be complementary.''