Much as they did to open the 2003 season versus Mississippi State, in 2005 the Ducks will travel with every expectation for an opening road victory. As was the game in Starkville, this match-up with the University of Houston Cougars was brokered by ESPN for their opening week of football coverage. The game will be played on Thursday night (6:00 pm Pacific, 8:00 pm local) in the home of the NFL's Houston Texans, Reliant Stadium.
The Cougars didn't frighten many teams last season, finishing with a 3-8 record. With eight players returning on offense and seven defensive returnees, an improvement in that record is expected though optimism reigns only so far as most prognostications fall in the 6-5 to 7-4 area.
As did the Ducks, Houston used their spring practice sessions to implement a new game philosophy, though the Cougars changed schemes on the defensive side of the ball, moving to a 3-4 defensive alignment.
On the surface, this makes the opening contest with the Ducks that much more intriguing, a 3-4 defense is the tactically most appropriate alignment to defense a spread offense such as the "Duckwing" that Oregon installed this spring. If Oregon wants to turn the game into a track meet, Houston will have its fastest players on the field.
Then again, with Oregon's legacy offense expected to remain a significant portion of the playbook, it may be that the "Duckwing" spread offense will be seen only in limited doses the first time out. Faced with a 3-man front, Oregon could well find this game is to be won in the trenches, blowing Terrence Whitehead by the nose guard and tackle and into the secondary, then stretching the field deep with the play-action package.
As Houston defensive coordinator Alan Weddell tells CoogFans.com "If all our defensive players stay healthy … we look like we have very good depth at cornerback and linebacker … after our starters, we will field some inexperienced players at the safety and line positions. The lack of depth in the defensive line and positive projective depth at linebacker is one of the major reasons we are converting to the 3-4 defensive scheme."
That and the 354 points the 4-3 defense allowed last season.
The inexperience at D-line and safety seems to dictate Oregon game plan for the Cougars with some confidence Kellen Clemens can be protected and the safeties can be exploited with both the run and the pass. That should best be accomplished using the Duck's traditional two-back alignment. Game situation should then allow the newer elements of the offense to be introduced as opportunity appears rather than as a leap of faith into the unknown. This more measured approach could have a huge long-term benefit for the Ducks as it will allow the normal opening game jitters to not be compounded with less familiar alignments and play calls. As the non-conference schedule continues – the home opener versus Montana follows the Houston contest - additional game experience for the new sets and signals can be acquired at a pace for better absorption, retention and execution.
This the case, it is imperative the Ducks not allow another "Indiana" type performance. Just as that opening loss forced a painful recalibration of expectations for the duration of last season, this year's opener at Houston will either predicate a methodical implementation of this shift in offensive perspective or precipitate a chaos of questioning and concern. With only Montana offering an opportunity for remedy before Fresno State and USC come calling, there isn't much debate about which would be the preferred circumstance.
The Cougar defensive alignment will also require Kellen demonstrate his leadership in the huddle and in his game recognition. As defensive coordinator Alan Weddell explains, "…the 3-4 gives us the opportunity to zone blitz, 5 or 6 man blitz and full out 7 man blitzes. With the same initial look, we can look like maximum blitz and drop 8 quick athletes into coverage." If Kellen can consistently make the correct read and check into the appropriate play he should find the offensive unit will respond with a big day against the Cougars.
Again, the Cougar's Alan Weddell: "A team that is balanced (run and pass), that shows a lot of different formations and is not predictable poses the most problems (for our defense)."
Defensively, the Ducks will face an experienced offense in the Cougars. Junior quarterback Kevin Kolb (353-198-6, 2766 yards) is a returning starter as are running back Anthony Evans (153 carries, 788 yd, 4 TD's), wide receivers Vincent Marshall (61 receptions, 1040 yards, 5 TD's) and Donnie Avery (18 receptions, 293 yards, 2 TD's) along with four members of the offensive line. A softer overall schedule along with this experience should permit the Cougars to score more than the 230 points they put on the board last season, though the Ducks should hold them to one of their lower point totals of the 2005 season in what should be a comfortable road victory.
CAN'T TOP CONFERENCE CHAMPS
A couple of weeks ago I made a thinly veiled reference to the track team perhaps surpassing the women's basketball team as the most successful of the athletic programs this scholastic year. While the lady's softball team can yet make a splash in the NCAA playoffs, the Pac-10 championship claimed by the men's track team clearly is the pinnacle of this year. With a deeply talented group of athletes, the track team claimed their fifth Pac-10 championship with a strong showing in all disciplines. Kedar Inico (400, 45.61) and Eric Mitchum (110 hurdles, 13.59) claimed individual titles for the Ducks.
There are two opportunities remaining to catch the team at home. The NCAA West Regional meet will be held at Hayward Field on May 27th & 28th, and the Prefontaine Classic will be staged on June 4th. The NCAA championship meet will be held in Sacramento on June 8-11.
Till the next time…