BOULDER – The last thing Colorado defensive coordinator Kent Baer needs from his players on Saturday is a failure to communicate. Not getting lined up correctly and quickly is not far behind.
When facing Oregon and its dizzying offense, knowing what to do and doing it swiftly is critical for a defense. The Ducks’ spread-it-out, speed-it-up philosophy leaves no time for indecision, which Baer and his coaches are stressing to the Buffs prior to Saturday’s matchup at Folsom Field (4 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
Counting CU, Baer has been a defensive coordinator at nine FBS schools, so preparing for warp-speed offenses isn’t new for him. But this one is different. Oh, yes.
“I’ve been around a long time; I’ve seen some SC teams over the years that were fast,” Baer said. “But the game has changed. The difference with these guys is that they spread you out so much and are so fast.”
Oregon has changed head coaches, but not its tempo. Mark Helfrich, the former CU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2006-2008), was named as Chip Kelly’s replacement in January when Kelly took his fast-paced style to the NFL (Philadelphia).
But little has changed under the affable Helfrich, the first Oregon native to head the school’s football program in 71 years. The No. 2-ranked Ducks are college football’s top rushing team (332.5 yards a game), are No. 3 in total offense (599.3) and No. 2 in scoring (59.8 points a game).
Slowing the Ducks is close to impossible, so this week finds Baer and his staff trying to put the Buffs in position to “play fastball with them,” he said. “You’ve got to communicate and get aligned. You’ve got to understand what they like to do out of certain backfield sets and formations, then communicate and get aligned in a hurry.
“You make a play on the ball, then you get ready and do it again. They’ll run the same play out of the same set two or three times. You’ve got to get aligned and communicate. You get aligned and you’ve got a chance to get yourself in the right spot.”
That thought is being stressed and re-stressed this week, said junior defensive end Juda Parker: “We were looking back at the games that Oregon has played this year and our coaches have been telling us if you’re not in the right spot they’ll gash you and it’ll probably be six points. We’re really focusing on being in the right gaps, staying in the right gaps and attaining leverage so we can make plays.”
But this might surprise some: While they are college football’s highest-ranked team playing “fastball,” the Ducks aren’t even atop the Pac-12 Conference in averaging the most plays per game. In fact, there are seven Pac-12 teams – including CU – that average more plays per game.
California is No. 1 nationally, averaging 98 plays per game, with UCLA and Washington at 86.3, Arizona at 83, Arizona State at 82.3, Oregon State at 81.2, CU at 77 and Oregon at 74 – or No. 60 on the overall list. Hoping to get his players accustomed to lining up fast and in the right places, Baer’s plan by the end of the week was to have his defense see 120-130 plays per practice.
But what puts the Ducks offense a cut above most of the other hurry-up outfits is superior personnel, starting with quarterback Marcus Mariota. He averages 324.5 yards a game in total offense and operates the spread offense as efficiently as any QB in the country. In four lopsided wins, Mariota has run for just under 300 yards (295) and passed for just over 1,000 (1,003). He’s thrown for nine touchdowns (no interceptions) and run for five more.
“You’re not a very good spread team if that guy can’t run,” Baer said. “It’s all part of it . . . Mariota creates another dimension to worry about. That’s why they’re a good spread team. That guy can run and he does a good job of throwing the ball.”
Oregon’s 332.5 ground yards a game have been compiled without a 100-yard per game rusher. But three players are averaging 73 or more ground yards a game: De’Anthony Thomas (84.5), Byron Marshall (81.5) and Mariota (73.8). However, an ankle injury suffered on last weekend’s opening kickoff against Cal is expected to sideline Thomas this Saturday.
Given the Ducks’ overall speed, the Buffs also are stressing sure tackling “in space,” which Baer’s players know is critical. Oregon’s speed, said senior inside linebacker Derrick Webb, “only puts pressure on the defense if you give them a lot of one-on-one situations. When they get us in space we’ve got to rally to the football. When you get speed like that in the open field it’s going to be tough for any defender . . .
“If you make the tackle in open field it’s a great tackle, but if you miss then there’s a lot of space to be made up. We’ve got to get more than one guy on each player when they get in space. They’ve got a lot of speed on the outside; they’ll try to get the ball in their playmakers’ hands . . . we’ve got to run to the football, swarm to the football.”
The Buffs are 0-1 in the Pac-12, coming off a 44-17 loss at Oregon State they believe is not representative of the defensive progress they claim to have made. Baer was emphatic about what needs to be done differently this week: “Make the plays – just make the plays. You watch that (Oregon State) tape, it’s 10-3 with two minutes to go in the first half. We dropped four interceptions, outright dropped four interceptions. You’ve got to make those plays. Good teams do. If you make plays it’s a whole different game. We had them (players) in the right spots, but you’ve got to make plays. That’s the bottom line.”
Parker echoed that: “That game was (decided) by three or four plays. We didn’t execute on some, they did. It came down to executing when you have that opportunity. That’s what we’re focusing on this week. When a team is fast and quick, it’s our coaches’ job to put us in the right spot. Then the players’ job is to make the plays. Even though they’re fast, we have to utilize our speed as well. We have to be in the right spot to make the plays when the plays come to us.”
As fast as the Ducks play, the Buffs know their first chance at making a play likely will be their only chance. To borrow a basketball term, if you're inefficient it's one and done.