It might be have been a tad overzealous for the Oregon student section to chant, "We want 'Bama," as the Ducks extended their sizable lead over historical SEC powerhouse Tennessee late in the first half. But at this point, aside from that team down in Palo Alto, the Crimson Tide might be the only team left that will have a shot at slowing the Ducks down this season.
Despite a really slow start that actually gave Oregon its first deficit of the season, Marcus Mariota and the Oregon offense took its true form this weekend. Whether it was attacking Tennessee with the outside running game, bubble screens, or play action, the Vols had no shot at slowing Oregon down on Saturday en route to a 59-14 blowout. Bralon Addison, Daryle Hawkins, Josh Huff, and true Freshman tight end Johnny Mundt each had flashes of brilliance in the passing game as Marcus Mariota has truly settled in and connected with his arsenal of playmakers out wide. Of course, De'Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall continued their strong performances despite a slightly more limited role against the aggressive Tennessee defense.
The reason the running game wasn't the storyline this week was simply because of how Tennessee chose to defend Oregon's offense. Right from the get-go, the Vols left just one safety deep and dared Oregon to run the ball into the teeth of their defense. Early on, Mariota missed some easy throws and was forced into back-to-back three and outs to start the game. Tennessee took advantage of Oregon's early struggles and marched right down the field on their second drive of the game to take a 7-0 lead, handing the Ducks their first true wake-up call of the 2013 season.
I know Chip Kelly's teams responded well to wake up calls over the past few years, and as the rest of the conference knows too well, an early lead over Oregon might not necessarily be a good thing while Kelly was on the sidelines. Mark Helfrich hadn't dealt with this situation yet, so naturally, Duck fans were a bit restless as Tennessee fans sang Rocky Top to a silent Autzen Stadium in the first quarter.
As soon as the Oregon's offense came back on the field, it was all Ducks from there on out. While a penalty forced Oregon to settle for a field goal on their first drive, the Ducks bounced back with eight more consecutive scoring drives, putting the game out of reach halfway through the second quarter.
During those nine scoring drives, Marcus Mariota spread the ball around to nearly every one of his receivers, and showcased both his running ability, and true drop-back passing ability during his career day. Mariota amassed 456 yards and 4 TDs against the Vol defense, and earned himself a spot near the top of the Oregon record books (via GoDucks.com):
Mariota became the fifth passer in UO history to surpass 450 yards in a game. He tied Akili Smith (1998) and Danny O’Neil (1995) for third on the all-time UO record list at 456 yards, behind the 489 by Bill Musgrave in 1989 against BYU and 468 for Ryan Perry-Smith in 1996.
One more interesting tidbit about Mariota; with the scoring toss to Johnny Mundt in the first quarter, Marcus notched his 16th consecutive game with a scoring toss (One for each game in his career).
This game also shed some light on the answer to one of the biggest questions Duck fans have about the Oregon offense. Over the years, the lack of truly dynamic receivers/passing game caused Oregon to falter when defenses have clamped down on the Oregon running attack. This season is different, and it showed this weekend. Bralon Addison was spectacular, both in the return game, and in the passing game with six catches on the day. Josh Huff made some great grabs, further cementing his spot as Oregon's biggest downfield threat through the air, while Daryle Hawkins found ways to slip behind coverages in key early spots as well.
One of the biggest stories from the game came from Johnny Mundt, a true freshman tight end that filled in for a sick Colt Lyerla against the Vols. Mundt came through for the Ducks when things weren't going very smoothly early on, and with a keen ability to simply get open underneath coverages Mundt became one of Mariota's favorite targets in week three. Mundt had five catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns in his first career game acting as a perfect stand in for the usually productive Colt Lyerla. When Lyerla returns, it will be interesting to see how Helfrich can include the two talented tight-ends in the game plan at the same time.
The offense wasn't the only part of the machine that was working well on Saturday. After Tennessee's early touchdown, the Oregon defense truly shut down the Volunteer offense, not allowing a substantial drive again until the second and third stringers were subbed in. Nick Allioti's defense didn't need to be substantially aggressive, as Oregon didn't pick up a single sack, interception, or tackle for loss on the day, but boy was the defense effective. Following the touchdown in the first quarter, Tennessee either punted, or had time expire on 11 of its final 12 drives.
As per the usual with Oregon's defense, it really was a complete group effort. The Duck secondary, which very well could be the best in the country, locked down Tennessee's exterior threats, while Taylor Hart and Boseko Lokombo locked down the interior of the defense. Both units will continue to be tested, but so far, Oregon's defense has been just as good, if not better and more consistent than Oregon's offense this season.
At the very least, we know Oregon is going to be a very difficult team to beat this season. This year's team may just be the best in Oregon's history, but we won't be able to truly test that for a few more weeks. After a deserved bye-week, the Ducks will welcome Cal and the Bear-Raid to town before heading to Boulder to take on Colorado. Then things really get interesting as the Ducks will have to travel to the new Husky Stadium to take on Steve Sarkisian's best team since his arrival at Washington. After blowing through the out-of-conference tests, Oregon will likely find its next big test in a dangerous rivalry game in Seattle. Something tells me that Oregon will be well prepared for that test as well.