Friday, August 6, 2010

Setting Up a Fright Night Rematch

Asked about their number seven ranking and the impressive offensive and defensive output in the season's first three games, Chip Kelly cuts off the follow-up questions with his trademark glare. "The ranking doesn't mean anything to us. All we know is that we're 0-0 in the conference and we have Arizona State this week." Asked about LaMichael James, who limped off the field in the third quarter against Tennessee after tweaking an ankle, he replied brusquely, "He's day to day." The Chipster is in midseason form.

But on Saturday, the Ducks are not. For the second straight week the offense has a balky start. James starts, but seems a step slower on the ankle and less explosive. He and Costa mishandle a mesh and the Sun Devils get an early possession in plus territory, score on an 18-yard run by Cameron Marshall for early 7-0 lead. On the ensuing possession the Ducks get a block-in-the-back penalty on the kickoff, Vontaze Burfict sacks Costa on third and four, and Jackson Rice has to punt from his own end zone and shanks it, ASU taking the ball at the Duck 37. They get inside the red zone before Spencer Paysinger dumps Marshall on a third down sweep and have to settle for a field goal, but ASU leads 10-0, and for the second straight week the Ducks look less than national caliber in the early going.

But Costa and the Ducks stay cool. The kick is in and out of the end zone, but on first down Jeff Maehl takes a crossing route 23 yards to the 43, and Lavasier Tuinei fights for 12 tough yards with a bubble screen. They hurry to the line of scrimmage and Costa hits Paulsen in the seam, a nice touch pass over Burfict, who bit initially on a fake to James and now the Ducks are in the red zone, scoring quickly on a fly sweep to Barner. As the quarter winds down it's 10-7 Arizona, but not for long. The aggressive, fly-to-the-football Oregon defense forces a three and out, and Barner takes the ensuing punt 67 yards for a score.

From there the game settles down, with the Tempe humidity taking a toll on both squads. The Oregon offense looks a little sluggish, and ASU crowd keeps them in the game as it slogs on, each team managing a touchdown and field goal more through three quarters. There's a murmur of alarm in the visiting rooters' section as James is on the bench with a big bag of ice wrapped around the ankle. Duck players hold up the customary four fingers as FSN goes to commercial, nursing a tenuous 20-17 lead on the road, a game much closer than it was supposed to be.

Erickson, the old desert fox and program deserter, pulls out all the stops in the final quarter, a halfback pass, a double flanker reverse, an onside kick after a tying field goal early in the period, but it doesn't matter. The superior depth and talent on the Oregon roster asserts itself. The Oregon offensive line opens some huge holes for Barner, Seastrunk and Alston, Costa mixes it up with a few crisp passes to his wideouts and one big gainer on a wheel route to Barner. Cliff Harris seals it with an interception inside four minutes to go, and the Oregon line and the trio of backup backs run out the clock from there. Oregon 34-Arizona State 20

Stanford comes into town with a chip on their shoulder and a jutted-out Harbaugh jaw. Ranked just 24th despite a 4-0 record, Harbaugh deflects all questions about the Oregon offense or the Cardinal's apparent lack of a running game in their first four games. Should Stanford now be considered a typical pass-first, finesse PAC-10 team? Can the Cardinal compete with the Oregon offense without Toby Gerhart as an equalizer? "We'll see what happens on Saturday," Harbaugh says, while on the same PAC-10 writers conference call Chip Kelly is asked if he's satisfied with the progress of his team, particulary in the wake of back-to-back sluggish starts. "We're never satisfied," he answers. "Satisfied is for the end of the year when we look up and see where we are. All I know is we have practice tomorrow and Wednesday and we have Stanford on Saturday. We have three more chances to get better and so do they." Another reporter asks about LaMichael James and his ankle. "He's day-to-day."

Game day comes and in a rare twist of fate, it rains in Autzen stadium. The first heavy rain of the fall ensues, and under the lights in coolish weather Andrew Luck has difficulty with the wet ball, and well as Brandon Bair, Michael Clay, Kenny Rowe and Eddie Pleasant in his face. Thoroughly disrupted and unsettled, Luck turns in the worst performance of his career with four picks and five sacks, 13-33 passing for 147 yards. This one is settled early. With LaMichael James getting a much-needed week off to heal his tender ankle, the Ducks capitalize on a huge advantage in turnovers and field position and lead 38-7 halfway through the third quarter when Thomas takes over. Knowing it's likely to be his last extended action in Autzen before next year, Thomas pads his resume for his battle with Jerrard Randall and Brian Bennett, running for 110 yards and passing for a 120, leading three more scoring drives in a 59-14 win. Harbaugh is fuming, and fails to make it all the way to Kelly for the customary post-game handshake, getting lost in a crush of jubilant Duck fans. Oregon is 5-0 now, with lowly Washington State and underachieving UCLA ahead of them, and Don Essig had announced in the fourth quarter that Alabama, Ohio State, and Texas all lost today. On Monday the Ducks will be in the top five, and when a reporter asks Kelly about the added expectations and pressure he gets the customary trademark glare.

The Washington State game is a walk, and despite Rick Neuheisal's attempts to stir things up with incendiary quotes the Ducks are flawless and surgical at home against the Bruins, winning 42-17.

Which brings us to the point of the season I can't presume to predict. Predictions are made for the fun of it anyway. I stopped taking anything for granted in football after Indiana in 2004. I'm a nervous, towel-chewing wreck in every game, fear the worst against everyone, and am never satisfied or relaxed until the Ducks lead by three touchdowns with a minute to play. Even them I'm screaming at the TV for them to cover the tight end.

There's a reasonably good chance the Ducks will be 7-0 on October 30. Details will vary. Upsets could ensue. But the most likely scenario has them managing the game and improving weekly to reach the Coliseum on a fright night rematch with an undefeated record.

They then face critical PAC-10 games, the crux of the season: at USC, home versus Jake Locker and Washington, at Cal, where they've played badly for a decade, far longer than this group of Ducks have been around, home versus Arizona, and in Reser Stadium for the Civil War.

What happens in those games? Well it depends on several critical questions, unanswerable now. Will they stay healthy? Will the winner of the quarterback derby establish himself, grow under fire, and make the fans forget not only Jeremiah Masoli but the guy signalling in plays? The most popular guy on a struggling team is the number two quarterback. By game seven, the Duck starter has to quiet the doubters and prove he's ready for a stretch run. And what a stretch run it is. Any one of those last five opponents could win the conference. Question two: will the Duck defense achieve its potential, meaning the starters that emerge at defensive tackle and in the secondary prove themselves ready to face the conference's best athletes? With the depth of speed and talent they have this season, Nick Aliotti's defense has the potential to be a dominating, intimidating unit, a unit that dictates the tempo of games and makes the offense look good with extra possessions and short fields. This year's team, on paper, could reach the goal of ten scores from the defense and special teams, a huge asset with a question mark at quarterback. National Championship teams generally have a dominating defense. Several have had mediocre quarterbacks.

Costa and Thomas will be more than mediocre, but the Duck defense has the potential to make them look better, and provide them a cushion during their inevitable growing pains. We'll know in a few weeks.

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