Royce Freeman, Taj Griffin Represent the Future of Oregon Ducks Football


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In the midst of Oregon’s win over Colorado during  a weather storm, the words of a Bob Dylan song–51 years after its release–blew through the wind:

“The times, they are a-changing”

On Saturday, the Ducks were able to delay panic in Eugene for another week with a 41-24 win over Colorado. However, for a team fresh off a campaign headlined by a Heisman-winning quarterback, Oregon was able to pull away from the upstart Buffaloes by minimizing the passing game–almost into complete obscurity.

The fact that the Ducks ran three times as many rushing plays (60) than passing plays (21) might demonstrate how Head Coach Mark Helfrich is pressing the “reset” button on his own era.

Oregon Ducks Head Coach Mark Helfrich’s pass-heavy philosophy, which flourished under the command of Marcus Mariota last season, has been off to a rocky start this year.

Transfer Vernon Adams, while indeed talented, has appeared lost at times. He often has the demeanor of someone who was thrust into a starting role after only several months of being on campus–which happens to be the harsh reality. The fact that Adams is a senior creates an effect where we have become increasingly sympathetic towards his situation while simultaneously becoming more frustrated.

Longtime backup Jeff Lockie has been a mild disappointment so far. The Oregon Ducks redshirt Junior was benched in favor of Taylor Alie after throwing an early interception, and continued to split snaps with him for the rest of the night.

Oct 3, 2015; Boulder, CO, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Jeff Lockie (17) throws an interception on this play in the first quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the Quarterback position immersed in a game of musical chairs, Helfrich decided to turn to the running attack for answers.

For the rest of the night, the only thunder and lighting in stormy Colorado came from the Oregon backfield.

Sophomore Royce Freeman (163 yards) and True Freshman Taj Griffin (110 yards) both eclipsed the century mark to spark a second-half surge by the Oregon Ducks (Stats via ESPN).

Most plays were run out of two-back shotgun sets, which placed the bruising Freeman and 4.3-running Griffin on opposite sides of the run box. Colorado struggled to defend both sides of the field against separate running styles, and surrendered 6 and 10-yard respective averages to Freeman and Griffin.

For the rest of the night, the only thunder and lighting in stormy Colorado came from the Oregon backfield.

In a demonstration of old-fashioned “Bully Ball”, the Ducks would hammer away with Freeman for several plays before sweeping Griffin out on outside zones for a headache-inducing change of pace.

In an interesting case of deja vu. the Ducks’ 361 rushing yards was more reminiscent of the Chip Kelly era–with LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner– than Helfrich’s own. Kelly had an obvious affinity for the run game, and most of his passing concepts were merely screens and bubbles that posed as extensions of the rushing attack.

Oct 3, 2015; Boulder, CO, USA; Oregon Ducks running back Royce Freeman (21) carries for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Colorado Buffaloes at Folsom Field. The Ducks defeated the Buffaloes 41-24. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

A current lack of quarterback stability will force Helfrich to abandon his previously auspicious passing scheme in favor of a philosophy that better suits his current athletes.

Given the fact that half of the team’s total passing touchdowns (2)  were produced by receiver Braylon Adams off a trick play, it might be safe to assume that the marriage to the ground game is here to stay at Oregon.

Freeman is already a legitimate stud in his second year, as he was the first Oregon freshman to ever rush for over 1,000 yards last season. Taj Griffin has a burst that hasn’t been seen with the Ducks since current NFL pro De’Anthony Thomas.

However, for Oregon to compete with other contenders in the PAC-12 (Hello, Stanford), solid quarterback play will have to eventually surface. Whether Adams regains his starting spot, or Lockie hangs on, the pressure will be slightly alleviated thanks to the emergence of the dynamic rushing duo.

While the newly-found offensive success is a source of optimism in Eugene, the real focus should be the greater implications for future seasons.

The Ducks will hopefully have Thomas Tyner rejoin the backfield next season, and universally heralded QB Travis Jonsen will be fresh off a redshirt season. While the current landscape suggests that Oregon is in full swing of a rebuilding year, the success that the Ducks can produce with the talent they currently have will help ease the transition into life without Marcus Mariota.

Oregon welcomes Washington State to town this week(3pm Pacific Time, Pac-12 Network)