EUGENE – This week’s music echoing from the Oregon practice fields had a different intonation.
The twang of dueling banjos.
Mark Helfrich made sure “Rocky Top” was on the play list to keep his team focused on Tennessee in every possible way.
The No. 2 Ducks (2-0) host the improving Volunteers (2-0) today in the final nonconference game of the season at Autzen Stadium.
Nationally, the focus will be on College Station where Texas A&M is looking to beat No. 1 Alabama for the second consecutive season. If Johnny Manziel were to get the best of the defending national champions once more, the headline-stealing quarterback would cut to the front of the line in the Heisman Trophy race again.
But the Ducks would move up to the top spot in the polls, assuming they aren’t the victim of a stunning SEC upset in Eugene.
Helfrich, of course, insists UO isn’t going to be the program scoreboard watching or peeking at the looming conference schedule.
“They’ve got a couple huge SEC games they need to get ready for,” Helfrich said of Tennessee in tongue-in-check fashion. “They need to be looking ahead more than they are.”
The Vols play at Florida next week and will face Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama consecutively in October. Through two games versus overmatched opponents Austin Peay (45-0) and Western Kentucky (52-20), Tennessee ranks 11th nationally in scoring offense (48.5 ppg) and is third in turnover margin (plus-7).
Helfrich said this is clearly a step up in competition for UO from last Saturday’s 59-10 victory at Virginia.
Up front, led by defensive tackle Daniel McCullers (6-8, 351) and offensive tackles Antonio Richardson (6-6, 327) and Ja’Wuan James (6-6, 318), the Vols will have a size advantage.
“Both sides of the ball they’re typical SEC. Big, huge up front on the offensive line, very physical, very athletic. Similar scheme to what we do offensively,” Helfrich said. “Defensively, same thing. Fast, physical, huge defensive line and fast on the back end. They’re by far, which is what you would expect, the most athletic team we’ve played to date. It really jumps out in special teams. They’ve dominated these past two games from a special teams standpoint. ...
“It’s a tremendous challenge.”
The Ducks also heard all about how stout Virginia’s defensive front was before piling up 557 yards of offense, including 350 on the ground.
On the first drive, Marcus Mariota silenced the crowd at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., with a 71-yard touchdown run on third-and-5 to set the tone. The sophomore quarterback ranks 21st nationally in rushing and leads the FBS in average yards per attempt (26.1).
De’Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner have already combined for 538 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns.
“They look pretty good,” UO running backs coach Gary Campbell said of the Vols' defense. “Obviously, a guy like (McCullers) that big can really plug up the middle.”
Tennessee will be without defensive tackle Maurice Couch, who was declared ineligible for this game by the program after a Yahoo! Sports investigative report alleged he has received improper benefits. The university is investigating the matter.
The Vols were able to create five turnovers during a six-play span to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 31-3 head start against Western Kentucky. The Ducks have not thrown an interception or lost a fumble to date.
However, Mariota currently ranks No. 10 in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency having completed only 53.1 percent of his throws with three touchdowns.
“I think (the media) has invented Marcus’ inconsistency. If you go back and look at that tape, he didn’t throw one bad ball,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said of the Virginia game when Mariota was 14-for-28 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns. “We dropped about five passes outside, we’re working on that this week. He had two or three he threw away and took a couple low-percentage shots down field. …
“Marcus has been more accurate all year than he has ever been.”