1. After Chip Kelly departed for the NFL last season and Mark Helfrich was promoted to head coach with no previous experience in that position, there were no guarantees that the offense would continue to produce at a high level, but it has. How do Oregon fans feel about the job that Helfrich has done this season?
A lot of Oregon fans are down on Mark Helfrich. Oregon was never upset by an inferior team under Chip Kelly, and the Arizona upset combined with some players talking after the Stanford game that they didn't want to play in the Rose Bowl, led to a vocal minority of the fan base to call for his ouster after one season. That's a pretty ridiculous bar to set, as Chip Kelly is a special coach, and having that be your standard simply isn't fair. The majority of the fanbase takes a more rational approach. This season was clearly a disappointment, but Marcus Mariota is coming back, and Helfrich certainly showed enough to make you believe Oregon's gonna be pretty good.
2. The Ducks are probably as talented as any team in the country this season, so what did the Cardinal and the Wildcats do to pull out victories?
Oregon has had a lot of trouble stopping the power run game this season, a factor that causes worry for some Oregon fans in the Alamo Bowl. Stanford just ran a bunch of two and three tight end sets and ran power up the middle. The Ducks go a great job of stopping explosion plays, but couldn't stop Stanford from gashing them for 5 yards every play and grinding together long drives. This, in turn, kept the Duck offense from getting any rhythm early in the game.
Arizona also ran a power game with Ka'Deem Carey, but didn't use the line-heavy sets that Stanford did. It was pretty evident on both sides of the ball that Oregon had mailed it in on that trip, and it stands out as an aberration looking at the last five years. More concerning is that in the Civil War, a game where it was obvious Oregon was trying, an Oregon State team that had a bottom-ten running game in the nation ran all over the Ducks. They've got plenty of beef on the defensive line, but they're not getting any push. Add to that the linebacker play taking a huge step back this year and you begin to see why there have been so many problems.
2. There have been some let-down moments this season, especially in the Arizona game after Oregon got knocked out of the national championship picture. What are your thoughts on where this team is right now and will the Ducks show up in San Antonio with something to prove?
It's hard to say, but this is a test for Mark Helfrich after that Arizona game. I can tell you a number of Oregon's players are from Texas. Josh Huff has been very vocal about wanting to prove something to Mack Brown and Major Applewhite for telling him he's not good enough to play at Texas. I think the team in general seems to have used the Arizona game as a learning experience and wants to end the season on a positive note.
3. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was in the Heisman picture for much of the season and finished with a 1.1% interception rate with four interceptions, all of which came in the last two games. Was that a developing trend for Mariota and did he have some luck to avoid interceptions earlier in the season or does he just protect the football that well? Are there any easy answers for the Texas defense in stopping him?
Mariota's level of play regressed when he sprained his MCL, rendering him useless as a running threat and forcing him to be one dimensional. Even a one dimensional Mariota is a pretty great quarterback, just not the phenomenal one that he is when the threat of tuck and run is there. Mariota rarely makes a bad decision-one of those interceptions was on an insanely phenomenal defensive play and another was a receiver running the wrong route. Mariota's MCL should be fully healed, meaning that he should be his old spectacular self.
4. Given that Texas opted to pass on star wide receivers Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, do you see those two players using those slights as motivation for the game?
I haven't heard as much about Addison but, as I said above, Huff has no love lost for the Longhorn coaching staff.
5. How good is this Oregon offensive line? A physical interior running game has been an underrated part of the Duck attack for years. Are there any weaknesses and where does this group stack up with previous offensive lines?
Hronnis Grasu is an All-American caliber center, and the tackle play has been okay. The guard play has been a total dumpster fire, and is one of the reasons why the running game hasn't been as dominant this year as in years past. The guards aren't opening holes, and aren't pass blocking well. It's been a rough year in that department.
7. De'Anthony Thomas had both of his 100-yard rushing games and five of his eight rushing touchdowns in the first two games. Has Oregon failed to utilize him later in the season or are opponents merely doing a better job of stopping the dynamic hybrid player?
After Thomas sprained his ankle against Cal and sat out four games, Oregon started using him totally differently. They made him the feature back the first few weeks, not yet trusting Byron Marshall or Thomas Tyner to get the job done. Once Thomas came back from injury, Marshall was firmly entrenched as the main running back, and the Ducks started using Thomas much as they have in previous years -- mixing him in at running back and in the slot. This decreases his total numbers, but increases the chance of an explosion play. It's the position that he's been so good at in the Oregon offense and, given his slight frame, the better fit for him health-wise.
Stay tuned for Part 2, honing in more on the Oregon defense.