By Rob Moseley
Few changes were anticipated for the Oregon football program in the transition from Chip Kelly to Helfrich, who played quarterback and coached the position for much of his career. But due to that experience for Helfrich as well as the makeup of the roster he inherited, it was widely assumed the Ducks would throw more often in 2013.
Statisticians would refer to three games of the season as a small sample size. One quarter of the way into the regular season, though, Oregon is indeed passing at a slightly higher rate this fall.
Of the Ducks' 216 plays against Nicholls, Virginia and Tennessee, 90 ended up as passes. That’s 41.6 percent, and doesn’t account for a few called pass plays that broke down into scrambles by Mariota or one of this backups.
And of the Ducks’ 2,016 yards of total offense so far, 950 – or 47.1 percent – have come through the air. In terms of both play calls and total offense, Oregon has been more pass-happy so far this season than in any of the six years Kelly was running the offense.
“As a quarterback, I obviously like getting the chance to throw the ball,” Mariota said. “But it’s going to vary week to week. No matter what, I put my faith in coach Helfrich and (offensive coordinator Scott) Frost to make a great game plan, and we’ll execute it, whether it’s running or throwing.”
The most balanced the Ducks ever got under Kelly was his first season as offensive coordinator. In 2007, 40.2 percent of the plays run and 46.2 percent of the total offense were through the air.
The ensuing five years were each among the 10 most prolific rushing teams Oregon has fielded in the last half century.
The pinnacle was last fall, when 58.7 percent of the total offense and 64.8 percent of the plays run were on the ground. The last time the Ducks had run so much was in 1982, which was also the last season for Oregon in an option offense, prior to the implementation of a pro-style attack with coordinator Bob Toledo and quarterback Chris Miller in 1983.
Thus, statistically the Ducks were almost certain to throw more often in 2013. How much, no one could say initially.
“We say we’re going to be a 50-50 team going in,” Helfrich said in the spring. “And sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Through three games this season, Oregon has indeed been closer to 50-50 than at any time under Kelly. The Ducks are also stretching the field better than they ever did under Kelly, averaging 17.3 yards per completion in 2013; the highest average in Kelly’s six seasons was 13.3, in 2011.
But there’s no guarantee that will continue.
The Ducks ran about two-thirds of the time in their 2013 opener against Nicholls. That rate dropped a week later, against the stout defensive line of Virginia. And then Oregon flipped convention on its head when Tennessee stacked the box to stop the run, throwing for 471 yards while running for 216.
Add it up, and the Ducks are close to 50-50 in total offense between passing and rushing. For now.
“It wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, by this game we want X percentage,’” Helfrich said. “It’s just, in each game, what’s our best scheme?”
The schedule would suggest the balance could tilt back toward the run. Oregon’s next opponent, Sept. 28 in Autzen Stadium, is Cal, which sits 118th in the nation in rush defense, last in the Pac-12.
But the run defenses of Colorado (seventh nationally), Utah (14th) and Arizona (33rd) are later in the schedule. And while Stanford is currently 68th in the country against the run, that’s inflated by the Cardinal’s recent matchup against Army, the country’s No. 7 rush offense.
Going forward, it seems impossible to predict what sort of run-pass balance the Ducks will finish with this season. Which is exactly how they like it.
“We have so many dimensions,” Mariota said, “we’ll be able to do all of them.”