No. 9: Oregon
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 26, 2011
How do you rebound from failure? That question is being asked at Alabama, where the Crimson Tide are using last year’s Iron Bowl loss as prime motivation heading into 2011, and at Nebraska, where the Cornhuskers are attempting to do the same with a two-game losing streak to end a once-promising 2010 campaign. Nowhere, however, is the question being asked more earnestly than in Eugene, where the Ducks had their quest for perfection derailed by Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and company last Jan. 10. Losses like that — especially national title game losses — can push a team in one of two directions: up, as a source of motivation, or down, as the team fails to shake off the cobwebs while the loss lingers and lingers. The onus is on Chip Kelly and his staff to ensure that the Auburn loss does the former for Oregon, not the latter. But history is not entirely on Oregon’s side.
10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
L.S.U. (in Arlington, Tex.)
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 5
- Nov. 12
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 26
Last year’s prediction
And so I wrap up the Pac-10. Why is Oregon the favorite? Because of this offense, for starters, which despite losing its starting quarterback remains the most potent in the conference. Depth can be found all along the offense, though slightly less so at wide receiver. Now, as for Oregon’s national title hopes: I don’t think they’re very strong. I think the Ducks will drop one game, maybe two, though in my mind, they are the clear top dog in the Pac-10. What if U.S.C. was eligible for a Rose Bowl berth? Wouldn’t matter: Oregon’s the best team in the Pac-10, and will return to Pasadena for the second consecutive year. It will be a rematch of this past January should Ohio State not reach the national championship; if the Buckeyes do advance, it will be Oregon and Iowa, perhaps Wisconsin.
In a nutshell How to run an offense in 10 plays or less: it’s not about quantity but quality, espouses Chip Kelly, and it’s more about speed, speed, speed than time of possession. The latter category? Overrated. Oregon ended 2010 ranked 106th nationally in time spent with the ball, controlling its own fate offensively for less than 28 minutes per game. Make it count, says Kelly — and Oregon listens. In a perfect world, it seems, Oregon’s drives on offense would take one play, last 20 seconds, encompass 80 yards and end with a score. Good morning, good afternoon and good night. More often than not, however, the drives take — gasp — seven or eight plays, last three or four minutes and end with a touchdown. Not that others don’t try to do the same thing, or that others couldn’t do the same on occasion: it’s just that Oregon isn’t beholden to one star player, but rather excels because of a system and a philosophy that breeds confidence. That mentality drives this team, propelling the Ducks through the sort of in-game setbacks that might derail a weaker team. This all held true through 12 games. Then, in the 13th game, the Ducks came up short.
High point Stanford is the best win on paper. U.S.C. might have felt the best: the Trojans had swagger, barking and braying all week about how they could take down Oregon, and even hung with the Ducks before the inevitable second half collapse. Like Auburn, Oregon’s regular season was one long, continuous high point.
Low point Auburn 22, Oregon 19.
Tidbit Oregon’s 2010 offense, by the numbers. First nationally in total offense (530.7 yards per game), scoring (47.0 points per game) and first downs per game (26.6). Fourth in rushing (287.6 yards per game), 39th in passing (243.1 yards per game), 14th in pass efficiency (151.5), tied for 12th in passing touchdowns (31), fourth in sacks allowed (0.7 per game) and 29th in third down conversions (44.9 percent). Sixth in terms of plays of 10 or more yards (239), fifth in plays of 20 or more yards (82), tied for third in plays of 30 or more yards (41), tied for second in plays of 40 or more yards (21), tied for sixth in plays of 50 or more yards (13) and fourth in plays of 60 or more yards (nine). That’s all.
Tidbit (150-word preview edition) Today’s guest writer is loyal reader Eksynyt, whose correct answer to a quiz in the East Carolina preview, which you can find along the right sidebar, earned him the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of his favorite team. His team? The Oregon Duckss. Take it away, Eksynyt:
The key to Oregon getting back to the Natty is the lines on both sides of the ball. If they both come together by the time the Ducks play LSU, then there is every possibility that Oregon will get back to the National Championship, though we have seen through the years that it is extremely difficult to make it there two years in a row. Oregon’s rise to the national elite in college football in a 17 year span is truly remarkable, though I feel that no one will remember it if the Ducks are unable to win it all.
Tidbit (runner-up edition) So what does history tell us about teams coming off championship game losses during the B.C.S. era? Most notably, only one team, Florida State in 1999, bounced back from a loss — to Tennessee in 1998 — to take home the next year’s national title. Others have returned to the B.C.S. championship game, but the record has been spotty. I don’t count Tennessee in 1998 since the B.C.S. didn’t exist in 1997. Here’s a look since 1999:
1999, Florida State 12-0, won B.C.S. championship
2000, Virginia Tech 11-1, won Gator Bowl
2001, Florida State 8-4, won Gator Bowl
2002, Nebraska 7-7, lost Independence Bowl
2003 Miami (Fla.) 11-2, co-Big East champs
2004 Oklahoma 12-1, lost B.C.S. championship game
2005 Oklahoma 8-4, won Holiday Bowl
2006 U.S.C. 11-2, Pac-12 champs
2007 Ohio State 11-2, lost B.C.S. championship game
2008 Ohio State 10-3, lost Fiesta Bowl
2009 Oklahoma 8-5, won Sun Bowl
2010 Texas 5-7, missed bowl play
So there you go. Florida State set the tone for comebacks in 1999, but only two teams in the years since have returned to the B.C.S. title game, let alone won a national championship. Texas is the low point, but the Longhorns were in a different boat — new starters, poor coaching. Nebraska had to replace a Heisman winner in Eric Crouch.
Former players in the N.F.L.
34 DT Brandon Bair (Kansas City), RB LeGarrette Blount (Tampa Bay), S Jerome Boyd (Oakland), S Jairus Byrd (Buffalo), S Patrick Chung (New England), QB Kellen Clemens (Washington), WR D.J. Davis (Atlanta), TE Ed Dickson (Baltimore), QB Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh), QB A.J. Feeley (St. Louis), CB Talmadge Jackson (Baltimore), RB Jeremiah Johnson (Denver), CB Javes Lewis (Kansas City), WR Jeff Maehl (Houston), LB Casey Matthews (Philadelphia), RB Maurice Morris (Detroit), NT Haloti Ngata (Baltimore), DE Igor Olshansky (Dallas), LB Spencer Paysinger (New York Giants), DE Nick Reed (Chicago), TE Dante Rosario (Denver), LB Geoff Schwartz (Carolina), OT Adam Snyder (San Francisco), RB Jonathan Stewart (Carolina), OT Bo Thran (San Diego), CB Walter Thurmond (Seattle), DT Matt Toeaina (Chicago), DT Will Tukuafu (San Francisco), OT Fenuki Topou (Philadelphia), C Max Unger (Seattle), S T.J. Ward (Cleveland), WR Demetrius Williams (Cleveland).
Arbitrary top five list
College football rivalries west of Rockies
1. Civil War (Oregon and Oregon State).
2. Holy War (B.Y.U. and Utah).
3. The Big Game (California and Stanford).
4. Victory Bell (U.C.L.A. vs. U.S.C.).
5. Apple Cup (Washington and Washington State).
Chip Kelly (New Hampshire ’90), 22-4 after two seasons as the Oregon head coach. He inherited an enviable position: a program still in its prime with a deep, talented roster well suited to his offensive system. But with this position came high expectations, thanks to his predecessor’s level of success. Still, a large portion of Oregon’s success prior to last fall (29-10 from 2007-9) must be attributed to the job Kelly did with the offense, which rose from merely explosive to the most dangerous dual-threat attack in the country. Each of the past three years has seen Oregon set new school records in scoring, and the 2008 Ducks set new school marks in rushing touchdowns (47) and total touchdowns (71). The 2007 season, however, may have been Kelly’s best work; the Ducks went through four starting quarterbacks over their final four games but still managed to finish sixth nationally in rushing and lead the Pac-10 in scoring and total offense. The following year’s unit showed just what the offense is capable of with the proper personnel; ditto with 2009, ditto with 2010 — particularly last fall. Kelly’s experience prior to being hired at Oregon came at New Hampshire, of the F.C.S., where he began as running backs coach before moving to offensive coordinator in 1999. Like at Oregon, the results at his alma mater were spectacular. The Wildcats averaged at least 400 yards of total offense in seven of his eight seasons as coordinator (1999-2006) and scored more than 30 points per game in each of his final four years. Were eyebrows raised when Kelly was tabbed by Bellotti as his next offensive coordinator? Not by those aware of what Kelly had accomplished at New Hampshire, nor by those intrigued by how his offense would play on the F.B.S. level with top-tier athletes. The results, as stated, have been nothing short of stunning. Kelly has been superb since day one.
Players to watch
If not Texas A&M, then Oregon has the nation’s best backfield. Forget about the whole one-two combination thing: Oregon may have the nation’s best backfield merely with junior LaMichael James, who enters 2011 looking to improve upon what he achieved last fall, if that’s possible. All James did was the following: earn first-team all-America honors, land a trip to the Heisman ceremony, lead the nation in rushing (1,731 yards), score 24 touchdowns, rush for at least 100 yards nine times — despite missing the season opener — rush for at least 200 yards three times and, plain and simple, tear apart the opposition. Oregon has led the Pac-12 in rushing for five years in a row; don’t look for that to change in the least in 2011.
Can James really do better than he did last fall? He might, should he find a way to remain healthy. James wasn’t quite the same after injuring his ankle in a narrow win over California: while he remained productive over the final two games of the regular season, James wasn’t nearly as dangerous as he was in September and October. If James remains healthy, he’s clearly a threat for 2,000 yards and an easy pick for repeat appearances on the all-America list and for a trip to Manhattan in December. Picking up the slack when James tires is junior Kenjon Barner (589 yards, 6 scores), who will take center stage once James departs after this fall, as most have suggested he will. Want some more? True freshman De’Anthony Thomas will demand touches, if early results are any indication, and the Ducks have another talented true freshman at their disposal in Tra Carson.
Not to knock the junior in the least, but Oregon’s lone defeat came when the offense relied mainly on quarterback Darron Thomas — after attempting no more than 33 attempts in each game during the regular season, Thomas put the ball up 40 times in Oregon’s loss to Auburn. In a perfect world, Thomas would do the following: feed off the running game, attempt between 25 and 32 passes, not make mistakes and take advantage of the number of opportunities in the running game. He did all that and more as a first-year starter, ending the year with 2,863 yards passing with 30 scores against 9 picks with another 486 yards on the ground. A bit lost in the shuffle with all his surrounding talent, Thomas was one of the great stories of the Pac-10 season. And he’ll be better in 2011.
Remember when Thomas was a bit of a surprise starter heading into last fall? I do. And any issues about Oregon’s situation under center were answered quickly and firmly by the time the Ducks took down Stanford on Oct. 4, a game that saw Thomas complete 20 of 29 attempts for 238 yards and 3 scores while adding another 117 yards on the ground. That’s what Thomas is capable of achieving on a weekly basis if given the opportunity. More than any other member of this team, Thomas seems like someone who will ultimately benefit from the bowl loss to the Tigers: he played very well as a youngster in a very tough spot, and you can’t put a value on that sort of experience. It’ll come in handy in the season opener.
The top three at receiver are set in stone: senior Lavasier Tuinei (36 catches for 396 yards), sophomore Josh Huff (19 for 303) and junior Justin Hoffman. The Ducks entered and will leave August with that threesome in place, though you should look for Barner and De’Anthony Thomas to get some snaps at receiver on occasion. Tuinei will probably be the most productive receiver in terms of receptions, but Huff’s potential is absolutely off the charts. He flashed his talent at times last fall, showcasing big-play ability, but look for several highlight reel moments with increased playing time. JUCO transfer Rahsaan Vaughn will be one of the first receivers off the bench, with Nick Cole, Daryle Hawkins and former walk-on Ben Butterfield also in the mix along the second grouping. It’ll be tough to replace a Jeff Maehl, but the Ducks do have talent to work with.
And there’s always senior tight end David Paulson (24 for 418), who should occupy a more substantial role as Thomas’s third-down security blanket without Maehl on the outside. Paulson, a second-team all-conference pick in 2010, has the potential for a huge final season: think double the catches and substantially more yards receiving, perhaps putting him in line for national award consideration come December. His understudy in 2011 will be freshman Colt Lyera, a local product with an immense skill set. He’ll share time with a few other backup options before taking on a key role in 2012.
Hey, you need to understand that Oregon’s not just about this offense; the defense was nearly as stingy as the offense was prolific, and after finishing 2010 with its best performance of the year the defense is itching for a crack at L.S.U. on Sept. 3. What makes the Oregon defense special? Part of the program’s recent success can be tied into a consistent message from a veteran coaching staff, but last year’s group was defined by its superb depth, which will be tested a bit in the quest to replace six starters lost to graduation.
The losses are felt most painfully along the defensive line, which like its offensive counterpart must replace three senior contributors. And the defense will continue to use as much of the 4-3 as the 3-4, placing further emphasis on locating a new starting lineup. But any concerns are assuaged upon taking a glance at the two-deep, which is heavy on experience — not a lot of starting experience, but still — deep on talent, long on versatility and loaded with young talent. Seniors will again hold starting roles: Terrell Turner (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Brandon Hanna (18 tackles, 2 sacks) will replace Kenny Rowe and Brandon Bair at end after landing major snaps as reserves in 2010.
Depth at end comes in junior Dion Jordan (33 tackles, 2 sacks), who will receive greater national attention once he claims the role of Oregon’s top pass rusher. Redshirt freshman Tony Washington will also be in the mix, should he remain healthy. There are a few injury concerns inside as well. Sophomores Wade Kelikipi and Ricky Heimuli should start eventually, but until both return to 100 percent capacity it’ll be Taylor Hart and Isaac Remington in the starting lineup. That does give the indication that depth isn’t a concern; it becomes even less of a concern when you see JUCO transfer Jared Ebert pushing that quartet for snaps. Once again, Oregon should be able to put forth a line rotation that goes eight or nine deep.
There are weapons missing at linebacker. One is Casey Matthews, who always seemed to make plays, but the Ducks will also sorely miss Spencer Paysinger — the two finished first and third, respectively, in tackles. The lone returning starter is senior strong side linebacker Josh Kaddu (32 tackles, 6.5 for loss), who started all of last season and most of 2009 before being lost to injury. Who joins him in the starting lineup? Michael Clay’s an easy choice to replace Paysinger on the weak side after being the group’s top reserve last fall. But there’s a pretty significant hole in the middle, one that could be filled by Kiko Alonso should he be reinstated to the team following an early summer suspension. Until then, Oregon will call on Dewitt Stuckey and hope for the best. Linebacker looks like the biggest weakness on the team.
And the secondary? Oregon knows exactly what its going to get here: stoppers. And interceptions, 21 of them a year ago, tied for sixth in the nation. But the Ducks won’t have potential all-American cornerback Cliff Harris for the season opener against L.S.U., which is a concern for that particular game. Redshirt freshman Terrance Mitchell has cemented a starting role for that game, opposite returning starter Anthony Gildon, a senior. One note about Harris: he’s well worth the price of admission. Nothing has changed in the least at safety, where both John Boyette (78 tackles, 5 picks) and Eddie Pleasant (65 tackles) are back in the fold. Harris will be missed for a week, but once he returns Oregon should again have one of the nation’s best backfields.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line It’s not quite rebuilding, but the Ducks head into 2011 without three key linemen in Bo Thran, C.E. Kaiser and Jordan Holmes. Oregon has been in this boat before, most notably in 2009, when the line was rebuilt over the summer and struggled in the early going before finding its rhythm down the stretch. It won’t be that bad in 2011, not when the Ducks return three figures with starting experience: left tackle Darion Weems, right tackle Mark Asper and left guard Carson York, one of the Pac-12’s best. That’s a nice solid base upon which to build an offensive line, particularly on the left side of the line. And there is more than adequate depth at Oregon’s disposal as it looks to find two new starters and a handful of reserves. As of today, the two new starters are a bit of a surprise. Redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu will get first crack at center after a strong spring and early fall camp. Grasu wasn’t really pushed by sophomore Karrington Armstrong or former missionary Hamani Stevens; for the latter, it may be a year before he regains the form that made him a top recruit in 2008. Former walk-on Ramsen Golpashin stands ahead of Everett Benyard at right guard, though I wonder why the Ducks don’t audition junior Nick Cody in that spot — he may end up instead behind Asper at right tackle. But Cody can provide great depth as a swing lineman at both spots on the right side. One thing in Golpashin’s favor is his experience in the system, as he’s entering his fourth year in Kelly’s fast-paced offense. He, and along with York, could help Grasu ease into his new starting role.
Game(s) to watch
Man, that L.S.U. game is going to be something. I doff my hat at both the Ducks and Tigers for not being scared of taking on a national title contender in September, let alone the first weekend of September. That game means everything, though the game with Stanford remains crucial whether the Ducks win or lose to the Tigers. And don’t sleep on the Civil War, which remains one of the five best rivalry games in college football.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell So I don’t think Oregon is going to earn a second straight berth in the B.C.S. National Championship Game. Nor do I even think the Ducks are going to repeat as Pac-12 champs, though the gap between the Ducks and Stanford is so razor-thin as to leave me playing only a hunch, not any real sense of separation between the pair. I do think Oregon will lose the season opener to L.S.U., which for all intents and purposes ends its national title hopes. It’s unfortunate, but no one-loss team outside the SEC is going to play for a national title. And so I’ve played my negative card; let’s look at the overwhelming positives. The offense is absolutely superb — beyond superb, somewhere around superb to the second power. After playing at an all-conference level as a first-year starter last fall, you’re going to see an even better Darron Thomas in 2011. James is one of the nation’s best regardless of position. The receiver corps has a blossoming star in Huff, a great intermediate option in Paulson and a proven target in Tuinei. Defensively, Oregon can again tout strong depth along the line, both at end and at tackle, and once Huff returns the secondary will be the best in the Pac-12. So really, why here? Because I think this team is due to take a subtle step back. Part of this is thanks to some uncertainty along the offensive line. Another concern is a linebacker corps that lost two productive senior leaders. Basically, I think Oregon is just a little worse than it was in 2010 — enough of a drop to go from 12-0 to 10-2, if not 11-1 and atop the Pac-12. I’m giving Stanford the edge, but it’s an awfully tight race.
Dream season Forget those concerns: Oregon’s back in the B.C.S. title game, this time at 13-0 thanks to the Pac-12′s new championship game.
Nightmare season The little things add up for Kelly and the Ducks, who slide to 9-3, two games behind Stanford in the Pac-12 North.
In case you were wondering
Where do Oregon fans congregate? Those looking for message board chatter and a helpful dose of recruiting can find both in spades at Ducks Sports Authority and eDuck. For a blog’s take, check out Addicted to Quack and The U.O. Sports Dude. Additional coverage can be found at the Web sites of The Eugene Register-Guard and The Oregonian. And Duck Sports Now has all the links you’ll find above in one convenient place.
Through 112 teams 354,906.
Who is No. 8? The last time tomorrow’s program was outscored over the span of a season was the last time the program posted a losing season, not surprisingly. That same year also marked the last time during baseball’s two-division era that a batter led the league in hitting despite playing for a last-place team.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Carson York, Chip Kelly, Darron Thomas, De'Anthony Thomas, Josh Harris, Josh Huff, Josh Kaddu, Kejon Barner, LaMichael James, Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon, Pac-12, Ricky Heimuli, Terrell Turner
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