or the biggest game of the season, we got a hold of Patrick Malee of the Oregon Daily Emerald to get an inside take on the Ducks. You can find more work from Patrick and the Emerald’s sports staff by clicking here.
Everyone knows that Oregon is good. But is this year’s Duck team as good as last year’s national runner-up squad?
It’s hard to say; this year’s Oregon team has seemed to evolve game by game. The defense, especially, looks markedly improved since the beginning of the year, and seems to be inching closer and closer to the calibre of last year’s unit. But even so, I would say that the 2011 Oregon team has a slightly lower ceiling than 2010’s national runner-up. The blend of experience and youth isn’t quite as balanced, while the losses of playmakers like Casey Matthews, Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair and (basically) Cliff Harris have been difficult to overcome. Another National Title berth would be a major stretch.
In which game this season did Oregon look the best? The worst?
I’d say the Ducks looked their best in the Arizona State game. Against a quality opponent, they managed a 14-point comeback win even after losing Darron Thomas in the beginning of the third quarter. LaMichael James was already out with an elbow injury, and Oregon barely missed a beat despite the loss of arguably its two best players. The team’s depth really shined through that night. As for the worst, well, it has to be LSU, right? In their only loss of the season, the Ducks committed the two types of errors you absolutely have to avoid against high calibre opponents: turnovers and penalties. Three lost fumbles and an interception proved to be devastating, and costly penalties killed any momentum Oregon picked up on its offensive drives. Had they played with a bit more discipline, the Ducks could easily have come away victorious in Dallas.
How has quarterback Darron Thomas looked since returning from a midseason injury?
Darron Thomas’ play has, predictably, been up and down since returning from a knee injury. There have been flashes of brilliance (a 55-yard touchdown pass against Washington State) and silly mistakes (losing control of the ball in the middle of his throwing motion against Washington). Clearly, he’s still getting his sea legs under him, and I’m guessing that he’s still not quite 100 percent, despite his claims. It might take a few more weeks for him to look like his old self.
Running back LaMichael James certainly didn’t seem to have any problem putting up big numbers last week against Washington. Is he back to 100% health, or are there lingering effects from his October 6 elbow injury?
He looked good against Washington, no doubt, but the giant, cast-like brace on his right arm is enough to tell you that he’s still not entirely healed. He’s an exceptionally tough kid, though, and he’s proven that he can play with the brace. At this point, I’d surmise that the injury is more inconvenient than truly painful.
Who’s the most important player on the Oregon roster that most casual fans haven’t heard of?
That’s a good question. Taking a look at the stats, I’d have to say linebacker Dewitt Stuckey. He leads the team in tackles with 55, including five for a loss and three sacks. As a senior, this is his first season in the starting role at MIKE linebacker, and he’s been a revelation. Linebacker Josh Kaddu (a team-high six sacks) and defensive end Dion Jordan (9.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks) are also good candidates.
Stanford is very banged up. What about Oregon? What effect should Duck injuries have on Saturday’s game?
The Ducks are lucky, in that most of their key injuries seem to be clearing up. James and Thomas have both benefitted from a couple games to shake off the rust, and there aren’t any other major injuries that come to mind. Linebacker Michael Clay appeared to aggravate a left ankle injury last Saturday against Washington, but he returned to the game and figures to play this week. Receiver Justin Hoffman missed the Washington game, but has been practicing this week. Barring any unforeseen changes, the Ducks enter the Stanford game in relatively good health.
Where is the Oregon defense more vulnerable: in the running game or in pass defense?
They’re definitely more vulnerable in pass coverage. Oregon gives up just 3.7 yards per rush, and stifled Pac-12 leading rusher Chris Polk on Saturday to the tune of just 80 yards (3.3 per carry). The pass defense hasn’t been terrible, but the Ducks are certainly vulnerable. A youthful secondary has been inconsistent, and Cliff Harris’ absence hasn’t helped matters.
The road to Pasadena runs through Silicon Valley this season. Are the Ducks still bitter about their 2010 Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State, or is that game largely forgotten by now? In other words: what is the team’s emotional investment in Saturday’s match-up?
If you were to ask Chip Kelly, he would say that their emotional investment is the same as it is every week. That is to say, they’re treating this game like it’s the Super Bowl. In this case — unlike, say, the Nevada game — it kind of is like the Super Bowl. Win, and all of a sudden the Ducks are back in the discussion for a national title berth. Lose, and they’re not even in the Pac-12 Championship game. As for the Rose Bowl loss, I really don’t think they’re dwelling on that anymore. If anything, it’s the national championship loss against Auburn that still burns.
What is your final prediction for the game?
I’m going with Oregon 41, Stanford 38. But my confidence level in that pick couldn’t be much lower.
(Headline image courtesy of Erik R. Bishoff on Flikr)