UCLA-Oregon Preview: Mark Helfrich's High-Flying Ducks and Oregon's Special Teams Unit

Steve Dykes

With last weekend's disappointment in Palo Alto leaving a sour taste in everyone's mouth, the Bruins will have an opportunity to rebound in Eugene, taking on the #2-ranked Ducks. Oregon, however, will be out to prove a point, having watched Florida State leapfrog them in the first release of this year's BCS standings. With both teams coming in eager to prove a huge point in front of a national television audience, we preview the Ducks, beginning with a look at their head coach and their special teams.

New head coach, same high-flying Oregon Ducks. Chip Kelly jumped ship in Eugene to take the reins in Philadelphia (I'm willing to bet he's wishing Marcus Mariota was still his QB, rather than the overrated Barr-tackling dummy from Southern Cal) and his former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich is now the man in charge in Eugene (well, second to Uncle Phil and his Nike money, of course). And despite the change at the top, the Ducks have picked up right where they left off, scoring tons of points and posting jaw-dropping offensive numbers.

In fact, it seems like Helfrich has these Ducks putting up even more points than Chip Kelly had them churning out last season, which seems impossible. So far this season, the Ducks are putting up a eye-popping 57.6 points per game, while posting 643.1 yards per game in total offense (332.4 yards per game on the ground, 310.7 yards per game in the air). Last year under Kelly, the Ducks put up only 49.6 points per game on 537.4 yards of total offense per game. Even more interesting, under Helfrich, the Ducks seem to be a much more balanced offense, putting up 332.4 rushing yards per game and 310.7 yards in the air per game. Kelly, on the other hand, had the Ducks heavily reliant on the running game, with the Ducks averaging 315.2 yards per game on the ground and 222.2 yards per game in the air. Whether that's because Helfrich is opening up the playbook or because Mariota is another year older, more experienced, and just more comfortable throwing in Oregon's offense, it seems the Ducks are even more imposing that in years past and will look to carve up our defense.

Helfrich, a native to Oregon, is widely considered to be a solid QB coach, having developed Bart Hendricks at Boise State, Andrew Walter at Arizona State, and Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and Marcus Mariota at Oregon. Just like Tedford did at Fresno State (Trent Dilfer, David Carr), Oregon (Akili Smith, A.J. Feely, Joey Harrington), and Berkeley (Kyle Boller, Nate Longshore, Aaron Rodgers), Helfrich has been getting maximum production from QBs who have yet to make any impact at the next level (Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and Marcus Mariota), which speaks highly of his ability to get QBs ready, something our very own Bruins with Brett Hundley needs, instead of a glorified graduate assistant that happens to be related to someone important on the coaching staff.

In short, expect not only the same Ducks offense we saw under Chip Kelly, but much-improved QB play from one of the nation's best college QBs, and a more balanced (but still high-scoring) offensive assault on UCLA's defense. While Bellotti may have set the stage, and Kelly set up the system, it looks like it could be Helfrich, who could be the one to finally get the Ducks to the promised land. But, to get there, he'll need a perfect season, so he'll have to go through our Bruins first. The question is whether Mora, Hundley, and the rest are ready to step up and meet the challenge in Eugene.

Turning to the special teams for the Ducks, they've had some changes in their kicking game, with senior punter Jackson Rice (51 punts, 40.0 yards per punt, 14 inside the 20, only 4 touchbacks) having graduated at the end of the 2012 season. That leaves the Ducks with only true freshman Ian Wheeler as the only punter on the roster. Rather than give the ball to the true freshman, the Ducks have instead turned to senior kicker Alejandro Maldonado to handle punting in addition to his FG duties, with true freshman kicker Matt Wogan taking over kick-off duties (and with the Ducks' high-powered offense, there is a lot of kick-offs - 67 so far this year). Maldonado has filled in just as well as Jackson in his new job, averaging 39.9 yards per punt, and putting 8 out of his 23 total punts inside the 20 yard line. It probably helps that the Ducks don't settle for field goals very often, with Maldonado having plenty of time to rest his leg: he's only attempted 4 field goals the entire season, making 3 of them (with a long of 34). In other words, don't expect to see him a lot.

As for the return game, leading return man (and all-around playmaker) De'Anthony Thomas is looking to return from injury this Saturday against our Bruins, telling The Oregonian that he's "hungry" to get back at it. Last year, the shifty Black Mamba returned 13 punts for 222 yards (averaging 17.1 yards per return) and taking one back for a 73-yard TD return. For kicks, he fielded 16 kicks for 389 yards (averaging 24.3 yards per return) with a long of 94 for a TD. With the Mamba taking more of a prominent role in the offense following the departure of RB Kenjon Barner for the NFL, Thomas has surrendered punt returning duties to sophomore WR Bralon Addison, who is making replacing Thomas look easy, returning 10 punts for 223 yards (22.3 yards per return) with 2 return TDs already. Thomas, who injured his ankle during a kick-off return against Cal four weeks ago, was averaging 23.2 yards per kick return; senior WR Josh Huff has filled in for the Ducks in returning kicks in Thomas' absence, returning 7 kicks for 192 yards (27.4 yards per return).

So, while it's already difficult enough to stop the Oregon offense, their special teams unit has shown the ability to break the big play, especially Addison who has twice shown his ability to break the long punt return for a score. So far, Coach Ulbrich's special teams unit has placed outstanding, especially in kick coverage: this week is going to put that record to the test, as this will be the best group of return men the Bruins will face all season.

Our Bruins will hit the road again this weekend, heading to the very-difficult Autzen Stadium to face a hostile crowd and the high-powered Ducks. But the pressure will be on Oregon to win and win big to take the #2 spot in the BCS standings from Florida State. While the loss to Stanford stings, the Bruins still control their destiny in the race for the conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl: this weekend's game will show us whether Mora's team has the mental resilience to bounce back after a tough loss.

GO BRUINS

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