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In college football, it's full speed ahead for Oregon's 'blur' offense

The Ducks' hurry-up attack bamboozled opponents last season, when they reached BCS title game. So, look for more teams to emulate it this year, and for defenses to devise more ways to try to stop it.

August 05, 2011|By David Wharton
  • Oregon's LaMichael James sprints away from USC's Wes Horton, T.J. McDonald (7) and Devon Kennard (42) on 42-yard touchdown run. James had 239 yards in Ducks' 53-32 win.
Oregon's LaMichael James sprints away from USC's Wes Horton,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The last thing Lance Mitchell wants to see is more of Oregon's "blur" offense.

The safety from rival Oregon State got his fill in a lopsided defeat last fall, his defense unable to stop the Ducks and their no-huddle, hurry-up attack.

The offense that could run plays at a breathless one-every-15-seconds clip. The offense that led the nation in yards and scoring.

"They go constantly," Mitchell said. "It wears you down."

And it could be an emerging trend as college teams across the Pac-12 Conference — and the nation — open summer training camps.

"Whenever anybody is successful in a particular way, there's going to be a lot of plagiarism," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. "That's just part of the deal."

Football is nothing if not a game of fads and cycles. The list of top-scoring teams in 2010 included several prominent names — Boise State, Oklahoma State and national champion Auburn — that liked to rush the tempo.

The Ducks averaged 530 yards and 47 points with a hybrid of the pistol, spread and option offenses and a penchant for snapping the ball as quickly as possible.

But for teams looking to emulate their success, switching to the hurry-up is not as simple as making copies of those goofy placards the Ducks held up on the sideline. Remember? They had pictures of celebrities and cartoon characters — even the Burger King mascot — as whimsical code for calling formations.

"It's not just the tempo," Arizona Coach Mike Stoops said. "It's the players running the tempo."

Quarterback Darron Thomas made sound decisions and tailback LaMichael James had the vision to pick his holes, rushing for a national-best 1,731 yards. Their combined talents encouraged Coach Chip Kelly to push the envelope.

"We don't try to set trends," Kelly said. "It just worked best with the players we had."

So don't expect Stanford to abandon its brand of smash-mouth football. "We're going run the ball — same style," quarterback Andrew Luck said.

And don't look for Arizona State's 6-foot-8 quarterback Brock Osweiler to start acting like a scatback.

More likely, teams will pick and choose from the hurry-up playbook as a way of changing pace. Neuheisel recalls a lesson he learned from the late Homer Smith, who used the analogy of a boxer.

"You want to have the ability to slug it out sometimes," Neuheisel said. "And sometimes you want to have a flurry."

Coaches around the conference liked the way Oregon's players remained poised and communicated in an accelerated time frame. The Ducks showed a variety of looks at the line, then snapped the ball before the defense could adjust.

"You can have a couple of [defensive] changeups," Stoops said. "But they standardize you pretty good because of the tempo."

Some rivals also like that Oregon practices only two hours a day at a fever pitch and spoke of adding some hurry-up to training camp as a way of getting players in shape. If nothing else, defenses around the Pac-12 need extra work preparing for the Ducks.

"We started all the way back in spring ball," Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian said. "So when game week comes around, your kids have all the information they need."

For all the video that offensive coordinators might have watched over the summer, looking for tips, defensive coordinators no doubt focused on two games when opponents slowed the Ducks to a waddle.

Auburn won the BCS national championship by holding Oregon to 19 points, though Kelly insists, "They didn't do anything revolutionary, they just had really good players."

An earlier close call against California might have been more informative. The Golden Bears left their defensive backs in single coverage, devoting more manpower to the box so they could dominate the interior line.

"It's all that zone blocking — Oregon tries to get people moving in a direction, which allows their speed guys, their running backs, to find lanes," said Brock Huard, a former Washington quarterback and current ESPN analyst. "You can't let them dictate the line of scrimmage."

But Oregon has studied that videotape too.

"Once you fool them," Stoops said, "they're going to learn how to attack it."

Favored to repeat as conference champions, the Ducks now face several pressing concerns, first and foremost an NCAA investigation into $25,000 the program paid to a Houston-based talent scout named Willie Lyles. There is no timetable as to when that situation might be resolved.

On the field, Oregon must restock its defense and look to update the "blur."

Kelly returns to the notion of scheming to fit personnel. Thomas and James will continue to anchor the offense, but new starters at receiver and an influx of talent that includes former Crenshaw star De'Anthony Thomas could precipitate changes.

"I'm sure our offense will look different this year," the coach said. "We always try to find new and inventive ways to make ourselves productive."

That doesn't sound so good to Mitchell. The Oregon State defensive back would not be surprised if the "blur" gets even faster — and spreads to other teams around the conference — this season.

"If it works," he said, "it works."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimeswharton

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