The home opener perhaps won't offer the first glimpse of the reconfigured offense… as mentioned in last week's preview, the degree to which the "Duckwing" does get put on display in Houston may be diminished by the Cougars use of a 3-4 defense and the strategic advantage Oregon's legacy offense can offer against that formation.
But the home opener is clearly positioned as the belle of the ball, the coming out party and the game that rips the covers completely off everything the Ducks hope to implement. Within the parameters that down, distance and score allow, everything in the new scheme will see game action that day. Within those same parameters, personnel packages will be fluid as everyone gets a snap for their part of the playbook.
If that is in fact what we see, it will have been the ideal home opener for the 2005 Ducks. The extent to which the Ducks are able to achieve that ideal will be a direct consequence of Montana's ability to negate Oregon's speed.
They won't. Or at least, they won't very well. Though Montana will enter the season with a #4 national ranking and should enjoy a successful run through the Big-Sky conference and play deep into the D-1A play-offs, the Grizzlies won't find September 10th to be a fond remembrance, perhaps to the point of distaste. Not that the Grizzlies aren't a quality team, at the D-1A level they clearly are every bit that. But the intent of this exercise is to compel the Duck offense to experience the timing and execution of the new package and to allow an immediate reward of a collective success – a very volatile and sustainable chemistry if the day goes as planned.
The Duckwing offense is a bold statement of a conviction the defense cannot defend your running attack while covering multiple receivers all over the field. Every offensive scheme hopes to make that claim – but more in a "one or the other" tone. The Duckwing screams "BOTH!!"
When the defense is a quality opponent - pretty much the remaining schedule after this shellacking - that statement is open to entertaining debate. Adding "concern" to the debate by stumbling out of this game wouldn't do much for the dispositions of any of the interested parties. My sense is the team recognizes there is an abundance of talent present in this group; its personality may yet to be defined but they are determined to play to their ability.
To compound the issue for the visitors, last season's starting quarterback, Colorado transfer Craig Ochs, graduated and spring drills provided little help in identifying a successor. Redshirt freshman Cole Bergquist was the starter for the Grizzlies' spring game, finishing the day 7-11-1 for 42 yards. Touted transfer (Bowling Green) Jason Washington, a junior, wasn't as productive, posting a line of 6-15-2 for 32 yards. Head coach Bobby Hauck clearly was not prepared to name either player as his starter, telling The Missoulian he would do so "by September 3rd."
The wide receiver position was also hit by graduation, only Jon Talamge, a 6'4", 200-pound senior returns. Eric Allen, a 6'3", 205-pound sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State is being counted on to provide immediate help. Former Duck Willie Walden graduated as well, leaving Ja'Ton Simpson (6'5", 244), a senior, as the likely starting tight end.
Three running backs do return, led by All Big-Sky conference selection junior Lex Hilliard, 6'0", 225 pounds, who gained 972 yards on 190 carries for 17 TD's in 2004. Senior J.R. Waller, 5'9", 197 pounds out of Portland's Benson High – who ran for 262 yards on 47 carries - and junior Brady Green, (5'9", 195)- 40 carries for 250 yards - provide the depth in the backfield.
The pre-season ranking is built on the defensive side of the ball where a pair of All-Americans at defensive end return. Junior Mike Murphy (6'3", 240) led the team with 12 sacks though shoulder surgery kept him sidelined this spring. Along with senior Lance Spencer (6'2", 255), the pair anchor a solid defensive line. Alan Saenz (6'2", 292), also a senior, is likely to open at tackle. Another position hit by graduation was linebacker, Shane MacIntyre (6'3', 222, Sr.) who led the team with 94 tackles, is the only returning starter. All four starters in the secondary are back.
The net sum of the four paragraphs immediately preceding this one is Montana will visit Autzen with an offense inexperienced in nearly every key area and a defense, though decent, that will be on the field for the vast majority of the plays.
As long as the Ducks are able to keep their focus on the task at hand – get a full run-through of the playbook in a game situation and not be distracted with thoughts of the next two opponents coming to call - this game will not be close. "Enjoy the paycheck, nice to have you in the neighborhood, stop in again next time you're out this way."
Should the focus wander beyond that task at hand, insecurity could implode into fumbles, penalties and an epidemic of anxiety as both the team and the season ticket holding coaches in Sec. 28 look next to Fresno State, then USC on the schedule.
One wouldn't think a home opener versus a D-1A opponent hastily slapped together during the off-season when Indiana decided to take their house money and run could have such dramatic overtones would you? That's what a 5-6 finish the year before will do to a team.
Till the next time…