Working on third down.

Going into the 2001 season, many observers felt the strength of the Oregon Duck football team was the offensive unit. The thought was, if the defensive unit could just hold out long enough and keep the opponents from scoring on every possession that the Duck offense could come in and score on their own possessions. Interestingly, it has been the Oregon offense that has struggled to date and the defense that has shinned.

Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti indicated this week that one aspect of the Oregon offense that the team is concentrating on improving is third-down conversions. After three games this season, the Ducks have been a very unimpressive seven for 38 in converting third downs or 18.0%. By comparison the combined conversion rate for Oregon's opponents have totaled 15 for 49 or 30.0%.

Exactly how will the improvement of third down conversions be accomplished? The running game is only averaging 107.3 yards per game as opposed to Oregon's opponents rushing for an average of 106 yards per game. Last year the Ducks averaged 149.3 yards per game. This year the Ducks are averaging 3.5 yards per carry while last year the Oregon runners averaged 3.8 yards per carry. The Ducks leading rusher for this season is Maurice Morris who is averaging 54 yards per game rushing but last year Morris ended the season with a 99 yard per game average and rushed for over 1,000 yards in the season. So far this year Morris has only amassed a total of 162 yards for three games.

Are the Oregon running backs not running as hard or is the offensive line not creating holes to run through? One play that might illustrate what has gone on so far in the season is a play in the fourth quarter against Utah when the Ducks were faced with third and inches. Oregon full back Matt Floberg was stacked up at the line of scrimmage, as the Oregon offensive line was unable to surge forward and allow the running back to gain the first down.

It would appear the burden for the Ducks and offensive line coach Neal Zoumboukos is to uncover a way for the Oregon offensive line to create opportunities for the running backs to pick up short yardage whenever necessary. Being able to capitalize on short yardage situations would certainly help the Ducks improve the third down conversion rate and also extend drives.

One injury note that could make Zoumboukos' task even more difficult is that offensive lineman Mike Belisle underwent surgery this week to repair ligament damage to his foot. Belisle is lost for the season and most likely the injury will also end his career at Oregon as he is expected to graduate next spring and is reportedly planning to move on from football. Another player, starting nickel back A.K. Keyes has decided to retire from football. Keyes has a congenital narrowing of the spinal column. Keyes was carried off the field last Saturday night in the USC game as a precaution when he lost feeling in his extremities after getting inadvertently kicked in the head while attempting to make a tackle. Keyes regained all feeling and movement but decided it was in his best interest to give up football.

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