I keep reading statements such as, "they've been outscored in the second half over the last 10 consecutive games," or "the play calling is predictable and unimaginative," or, "the defensive secondary is just as bad as last year," or "they will be blown out if they play like this against Michigan, or, one of my favorites, "the Ducks have been totally out-coached."
I'd be the first to say that there certainly is a lot of room for improvement, but then again, the Ducks are 2-0. And, like it or not, the measure of performance for college football is ultimately based on the win-loss record. Also, I think that a lot depends upon what your preseason expectations were for the Ducks. Quite frankly, most of the media believed Oregon to be a mid-conference team at best. Even, the Oregon faithful were predicting little more than a winning season with a dark horse chance at the conference championship. A 2-0 record with a road win over the Mississippi State and a lackadaisical win over Nevada in the Oregon home opener don't seem to be too far out of line with those expectations to me.
The truth is I see a lot of reasons to upgrade my preseason expectations for the Ducks.
First of all, the Ducks are extremely young. Only three seniors start on offense with four seniors starting on defense. The Ducks have played 10 underclassmen and four newcomers (transfers) on the offensive and defensive platoons, the most I've ever seen played at Oregon so early in the season. Unfortunately, youth was somewhat forced on the Ducks in 2003. Tight end George Wrighster and tailback Onterrio Smith both jumped to the NFL prior to completing their eligibility. Veterans such as guard Joey Forster, receiver Keith Allen, linebacker David Martin, and tight end Josh Rogers, have not been able to play due to injury. Then sprinkle in senior defensive end Quinn Dorsey's four-game suspension and the injury to the most promising newcomer from last year, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and you have a lot of key players missing. I suspect that if the Ducks had suffered from these same circumstances ten years ago or even five years ago, they wouldn't have started their season 2-0. From a purely academic perspective, the Ducks have shown that they can win despite these personnel losses, that they have depth, that their well for talent is much deeper than its been in the past. And, I think that bodes well for the program. The youth will turn into experience and that experience should pay dividends as the team migrates to conference play this fall and to future seasons. I also believe that the youth present on the Oregon team has contributed significantly to the large number of penalties the team has incurred over the last two games. Keep in mind that had the Ducks not committed nine penalties against Nevada and 13 penalties against Mississippi State, it's likely they would have won by far greater margins and much of the grousing we have been hearing would be made moot. Oregon's youth has undoubtedly contributed to what the coaches have termed "inconsistent" play in the first two games. As the Ducks rotate in four different tailbacks, eight or more defensive backs, and six or more linebackers they should be able to determine the best combinations and matriculate to a more stable rotation. This stability should result in improved consistency. A further benefit of building experience into the depth chart is, should the injury bug bite again, the Ducks won't necessarily fall off the earth.
Next, I don't think that Oregon has revealed all of its playbook. I make this conclusion from my own experience following the Bellotti-coached Ducks over the years and from reports I have received from closed practices. Whether the Oregon coaches have curtailed the playbook in the first two games due to the limitations presented by youth, as cited above, or whether it was part of the basic strategy for the season, Oregon is 2-0 and really hasn't shown a lot. Sure, some folks might call this predictable and unimaginative, but it could also be called shrewd, very shrewd. Regardless, I suspect Michigan and some of Oregon's chief conference rivals are in for more than a few surprises.
Next, with all the different personnel Oregon is playing, I have been positively surprised by how well they all can play. Maybe not on every down, but the talent is definitely peaking through the clouds. Had you told me following the Mississippi State and Nevada games that the Oregon quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife would complete 24 of 45 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns and no interceptions and 11 of 12 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions, respectively, and rank third in the nation collectively for passing efficiency, you would have exceeded my expectations going into the season. By a bunch. Quarterback controversy? What controversy? They both have played very well and given their performances to date, I'd say Oregon boasts the best "back-up" quarterback in the nation. Move to tailback, it would appear that the Ducks have four very capable players. Who would have suspected that the fourth-string back that the Ducks inserted late into the game against Nevada would end up with the best yards-per-carry average? Yes, junior Kenny Washington led the team with an average of 6.3 yards per carry. Only injured transfer Chris Vincent boasts a better average at 7.0 yards per carry earned against Mississippi State. Let's talk defensive line. With the emergence of junior transfer Chris Solomona and sophomore Devan Long at the defensive end positions, the Ducks have the luxury of not playing natural tackles such as junior Igor Olshansky on the ends. And, even after the loss of Ngata, the Ducks still boast three tackles in Olshansky, senior Junior Siavii and junior Robbie Valenzuela, who could probably start for most other conference teams. Dorsey should be icing on the cake when he returns for the Washington State game September 27. Oh oh, defensive backs, the Achilles heel for Oregon last year. Yes, pass coverage is still and issue, but I suspect not as much as it was last year. The Ducks currently rank 49th nationally in pass efficiency defense ahead of UCLA, Arizona, California and Arizona State and 96th in pass defense. Yes, the Ducks must improve significantly here if they are serious about improving their record from last year, but I like the pool of players the Oregon coaches have to choose from. There appears to be a real emergence of junior rover Stephen Clayton, sophomore cornerback Justin Phinisee and junior transfer cornerback Rodney Woods. These guys will only get better. Isn't it convenient that they are getting their licks in and earning their stripes now against the likes of Nevada?
Next, Oregon's coaching. I think that history has confirmed that Bellotti and company get the most out of what they bring into their system. Why else have Oregon teams over the last nine years overachieved according to the national recruiting services? Oregon's recruiting rankings have been among the most incongruent measured against actual performances achieved by Division 1 teams. The fact is, Bellotti is the winningest active coach in the Pac-10 Conference based on conference winning percentage (62.5%) and ranks 15th all time. With the exception of last year, Bellotti's teams have always been very strong in the second half of the season, achieving a cumulative record of 30-12 over seven seasons. Sure, the Ducks may get out-coached on occasion, but evidence suggests that such circumstances are clearly the exception to the rule.
As I mentioned earlier, whether you judge the Ducks to be better than expected or worst than expected over the first two games is dependent upon the expectations you set for the team in the preseason. For my part, I thought the Ducks would achieve a winning season and a bowl bid. I also gave them a 50-50 chance of losing at Mississippi State. At this point, I believe them to be better than I originally expected or at least have the potential to be better even with all their early season inconsistencies. I like the youth of the team and the available talent and depth. Mixed with the historically superb Oregon coaching staff and system, this team should settle down and get better. Perhaps they won't go 10-1 and garner a BCS bowl bid, but certainly we could expect an improvement over last year, particularly in the second half of the season.
‘Tis the Winter of Our Discontent
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