We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team blogs to chat with during game weeks. The first ever in history Opponent Blogger Q&A College Football Playoff series edition features a conversation with Sean Larson of Addicted To Quack, SB Nation's Oregon blog. We talk about a Heisman winner, the loss of an excellent corner, and what it will take for the Ducks to advance to the first-ever College Football Playoff final.
TN: First of all, what were your expectations for the 2014 Oregon team? Do the Ducks need to win a game or two in the playoff for the season to be a success, in your eyes?
ATQ: Expectations were high. 2013 was a really disappointing year, missing the BCS for the first time since the 2008 season was a hard pill to swallow. I'd be lying if I said any of the fans were excited for the Alamo Bowl. That just makes you realize how good you have it as a fan base when a trip to a quality bowl game is deemed a failure by most. Those are just the standards that have been set in Eugene now. For this season to be a "success" they need to win the national championship. If they hadn't been to the BCS title game in 2011, I'd be content with just a trip to the national title game. But we've been there before. We need to win the big one and I don't care who it's against. Both Ohio State and Alabama are elite programs that would make for one hell of a matchup. If you ask most fans who they would rather play, it'd probably be Alabama. Oregon needs to shake off the narrative of how they cant beat the SEC (Tennessee doesn't count, and the LSU and Auburn losses still sting). Marcus Mariota needs that national championship so he can ride off into the sunset to the NFL.
TN: Marcus Mariota is a deserving Heisman winner and fantastic player. What are his strengths in this Oregon offense, and what problems might a match-up with the FSU defense pose for him?
ATQ: He's really stepped up into the leadership role required at his position. He was very shy when he took over back in 2012 and had a hard time being vocal. Since then, he's matured a lot. I think his biggest talent is making guys around him better football players. When the Ducks began their season, their most experienced returning wide receiver was Keanon Lowe, who had 18 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. Last year, it was pretty much Josh Huff and then everyone else. Huff and Bralon Addison (who the Ducks lost before the season due to a torn ACL) combined for 19 of Oregon's 32 touchdown receptions. This year, Mariota was able to spread the ball out, getting everyone involved. Devon Allen led the team with seven touchdown catches. Allen had just come off a national championship in the 110 meter hurdles at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Byron Marshall, a running back by design who was turned into a slot receiver due to a crowded backfield, was tied for third on the team with five touchdown catches. The dangers thing about Mariota is that he can find a new weapon at anytime he pleases. It could be someone new on any given day, there's not just one main guy who can beat you. Marshall actually led the team with 814 receiving yards, something no one predicted coming into the year. Mariota can also beat you with his legs too. He's incredibly mobile and he's smart about it too, he's gotten a lot better with sliding. He reminds me of a taller version of Russell Wilson. Mariota was actually second on the team with 117 carries for 669 yards and 14 touchdowns. If Mariota was on Florida State, he would've led the team in touchdown runs. Bias set aside, he's hands down the most dangerous player on the field in the nation.
TN: The Ducks' offense has risen to #2 in the nation by F/+, and has improved since its early October loss to Arizona. What has contributed to this improvement? What are Oregon's keys to success against the Seminoles?
ATQ: In the loss to Arizona, the Wildcats moved the ball with ease to start the second half, racking up three straight touchdowns, all on drives 80 yards or longer. Oregon's offense was really out of sync that night. Arizona pressured Mariota, sacking him three times and forced him to fumble with the game on the line. But to be honest, I don't know how much really changed since then. I think it was just one of those bumps in the road you don't see coming. Between that loss and the close call to Washington State the week before, I think the team was just trying to find their footing and their identity while dealing with so many injuries. Mariota really learned how to work with his offense and spread the ball around. It seemed like every week, there was a new hero stepping up. That'll be what I want to see against the Seminoles. We all know Mariota will be ready, but who is really going to shine? I think Royce Freeman will be playing a key role in this one. He's been such an essential part to this offense, especially in the second half of the year. Freeman has rushed for over 100 yards in six of Oregon's last eight games, and the other two games he ran for 98 and 99 yards. He can also be a scoring machine, rushing for at least two touchdowns six different times this year, including when he had four rushing touchdowns against Washington. If he can get going, that'll go a long way towards Oregon coming out on top.
TN: We were sorry to hear about the injury to Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. What does his loss mean for the Oregon defense? What adjustments will they have to make?
ATQ: It's a huge hit to the defense for sure. And not just that, but it's also a big blow in the sense that Ekpre-Olomu is a leader on the field and a guy teammates look up to. It's essentially the defensive version of losing Marcus Mariota. Apparently, it just happened during a simple drill, just one of those freak injuries. Stepping in for Ekpre-Olomu will be redshirt freshman Chris Seisay. After Troy Hill went down early in the season against Michigan State, Seisay got the start against Wyoming. This year, Seisay has made 20 tackles (15 solo) with three pass breakups, three passes defended and a forced fumble. Ekpre-Olomu had 63 tackles, 11 passes defended, nine pass breakups, two interceptions and a forced fumble this year. So obviously Seisay has some big shoes to fill, and he knows Florida State will be gunning for him. But if there's a silver lining, the Ducks have mastered the "next man in" mentality this season with all the injuries they've dealt with. This team is full of unsung heroes, and I wouldn't be surprised if Seisay stepped up and came away with a huge turnover to swing the momentum in the game.
TN: The Ducks' defense has performed 13th-best in the country to date. In which match-ups on this side of the ball are you confident against the FSU offense? Which concern you?
ATQ: It's actually not Jameis Winston who concerns me, it's Dalvin Cook. Oregon hasn't always been consistent in stopping the run. Against California, the Ducks gave up four rushing touchdowns. Against UCLA, the Ducks gave up an average of 6.07 yards per carry. But in the big games, like Stanford, Utah and Arizona, Oregon turned in some of their better performances of the year stopping the run. So I'll be curious as to which side we see from the Ducks. Because if Cook continues his recent hot streak, Oregon could be in trouble.
I'm actually surprisingly confident about Oregon's secondary and facing Jameis Winston. Yes, the loss of Ekpre-Olomu was a huge blow, but the Ducks have mastered the "next man in" mentality, and Winston has shown issues with accuracy at times this year. I see Oregon coming up with a huge interception that could potentially shift the momentum in this game.
TN: The Oregon special teams check in at 12th in the country to date. How confident will you be if this game comes down to the kicking game?
ATQ: If you had asked me this question during the past few years, I would've said with full confidence that Oregon would be doomed if the game came down to a field goal. Alejandro Maldonado, Oregon's previous kicker, struggled with the big-time kicks. Being a kicker is tough. You have one job, but things that are out of your control put you in these high pressure situations. Unfortunately, Maldonado could never step up when it mattered most. One of my worst memories as a student at Oregon was watching his kick against USC in 2011 sail way off the mark. Any last hope of a bid to the national title game went out the window, and it sucked the life out of all of us that night. Same thing happened against Stanford in 2012. Maldonado missed a 41-yard field goal attempt in overtime, allowing Stanford to kick a field goal to cap off the upset. That hiccup wound up being the only thing preventing Oregon from a trip to the national championship. But enough about the past.
This year, I really like what I've seen from Aidan Schneider. He has some decent range for a college kicker (season long of 42 yards) and was 4-for-4 from 30-39 yards. The Ducks don't kick much (only 18 total field goal attempts between Schneider and Matt Wogan), but I'd be fully confident in Schneider nailing a field goal with the game on the line. I could never say the same about Maldonado.
TN: Are there any unmentioned key players that ‘Noles fans should have their eyes on in this game?
ATQ: Our entire receiving corps is really a group of unsung heroes that are fortunate to have a quarterback like Marcus Mariota. One of my favorite things to watch has been the transition from the track to the football field for Devon Allen. This is Allen's first year on the field with the Ducks, and he's stepped up in a big way, leading the team with seven touchdown catches. I call him an unmentioned player, because to be quite honest, most of Oregon's offense slips under the radar in comparison to Mariota and all the hype he gets. Allen has that incredible track speed that he can beat you with. Against Michigan State, Allen had only three catches, but two of them went for touchdowns. He's really an exciting kid to watch.
TN: Finally, how do you see this game playing out? Will the Ducks cover the 9-point spread and advance to the title game in Texas?
ATQ: This has all the makings to be one of the greatest games in the history of the Rose Bowl. It's a matchup of the last two Heisman winners, something college football fans could normally only dream of. It's a collision between one of the hottest, if not the hottest team in the nation in Oregon, and a Florida State program that hasn't lost since 2012. I see it playing out similar to how the 2012 Rose Bowl went between Oregon and Wisconsin. It'll go back and forth until a turnover in the 4th quarter swings the momentum. Jameis Winston's accuracy has been shaky this year, so I see a late interception much like Kiko Alonso's in 2012. When Alonso picked off Russell Wilson late in the 3rd quarter with the Badgers driving and leading by three. The interception fired up Oregon and played a key role in their victory. From a betting standpoint and the spread, I'd take Florida State. Yes, the Seminoles have been in some close games that should've been blowouts, but Winston knows how to win the big ones. I see Oregon winning this game by three points to advance to the title game.
Thanks to Sean for his insight! Our answers to ATQ's questions will be up simultaneously with the publishing of this piece on Addicted To Quack.