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Kurt Kragthorpe and Kyle Goon
Kurt Kragthorpe and Kyle Goon cover the Pac-12 for The Salt Lake Tribune.

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Wisconsin's Nick Toon, left, scores a touchdown as Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu defends during the second half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Pac-12 football preview: Oregon hopes to stay in top gear for a full season

With No. 3 Oregon, there is always the assumption that, if you wait long enough, there will come a time when the Ducks’ high-octane offense will stall.

Because that’s what’s happened.

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In 2010, it happened during the BCS Championship game, against Auburn, when they scored 19 points.

In 2011, it was Game One, against No. 4 LSU, when they scored just 13 through the first three quarters.

In 2012, Stanford held them to 14.

Last year, it was the Cardinal, again. Oregon was scoreless through three until a hobbling Marcus Mariota led them to 20 points in the fourth quarter.

No team is going to score 50 points every game, but Oregon tends to lose when they don’t. And that’s somewhat hard to explain when you consider the steps forward their defense has taken in recent years. Last year, they allowed just 20.5 points per game — 13th in the nation, despite serving up a healthy portion of possessions to their opponents.

Specific to last season, a knee injury took away Mariota as an elite rusher, and Oregon’s offense became more one-dimensional.

But maybe, over the course of the last few years, there’s something larger at play. Maybe, when you’re used to scoring 50 by halftime, it kind of freaks you out when you don’t.

If that’s the case, Mark Helfrich’s team is experienced enough now to know that they don’t have to score 50 in every game to win.

And with nine starters back on offense, they might score 50 every game, anyhow.

2013 IN REVIEW » 11-2, 7-2 Pac-12

RETURNING STARTERS » 14 total (9 offense, 5 defense)

TOP RETURNING PLAYER » All eyes are on Marcus Mariota and the offense, and rightly so. Mariota is one of the favorites to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, and if he returns to the pre-knee injury form that had the Ducks averaging 58 points per game in 2014, he’ll have earned it. Oregon’s defense was no slouch last year either, though, and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles over the past two seasons. A strong senior season will dispel any doubts caused by his stature (5-foot-10) and make him another first-day Duck.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK » Can they shed the "soft" label? With Oregon, somehow, every loss seems to come against a bigger team that wins the battle in the trenches. They still have just one player — Hamani Stevens — above three bills on the offensive line. Whether or not that "soft" storyline is somewhat manufactured, that’s what they’re going to hear if their perfect season unravels against Stanford or a burlier SEC team in the playoff.

SCHEDULE OUTLOOK » Oregon gets an early test, with No. 8 Michigan State visiting Eugene. Then they get a month to rev up (and avenge last year’s embarrassing loss to Arizona) before a four-week stretch that includes No. 7 UCLA, No. 25 Washington, and No. 11 Stanford. The good news for the Ducks: Of their four games against ranked teams, all but UCLA will be played in Autzen.

— Matthew Piper

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper

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