Oregon's Quick Start May Belie Trouble Ahead

The Oregon football team is 2-0 after beating Houston and Montana. In two games, the Ducks have amassed 75 total points and 980 yards of offensive production while holding their opponents to a total of 38 points and 556 yards of offense. The Ducks are ranked nationally 5th in passing offense, 13th in total offense, 14th in scoring offense, 20th in total defense and 19th in rushing defense.

These marks suggest performance that is very consistent with the West Coast media ranking the Ducks fourth in the Pac-10 Conference in their preseason poll behind USC, California and Arizona State, all currently Top 25 teams.

Yep, it all looks rather cheery and many of the Oregon faithful are perhaps beginning to think that the struggles the Ducks witnessed last year in route to the team's first losing season in 11 years may truly be behind them.

Yet, there still exist those little seeds of doubt, those thoughts that are born from a false sense of security.

Consider first that the Ducks set a new team record and tied the Pac-10 Conference record for converting six field goals in a single game against Montana last Saturday. Montana, a Division I-AA team, has historically never beaten Oregon in seven attempts and although the Grizzlies shared the Big Sky Conference championship last year they also lost to Sam Houston State, Portland State, James Madison. Not exactly the Titans of football. Why is this significant? Because the Ducks were forced to take field goals instead of touchdowns during six separate trips to the red zone. Consider, with Oregon leading 12-0 in the first quarter, the Duck offense was stymied on the Montana 4-yardline turning the ball over on downs. Oregon's inability to convert touchdowns in the end zone doesn't appear to be an aberration as the Ducks were forced to also kick six field goals against Houston in its season opener converting five attempts. Houston, playing in the Conference USA finished last year with a 3-8 record.

In fact, one may argue that Oregon's red zone difficulties date back to last year when the team averaged only 25.6 points a game with only three games all year exceeding 28 points including 48 points against Idaho, 41 points against Washington State, and 31 points against Washington. Unfortunately, these three opponents went 3-9, 1-10, and 5-6 respectively on the year. Removing these three games and Oregon could only manage an average of 20.2 points a game. Ouch.

Next, let's talk kickoff coverage. Never mind that the term "touchback" in the Oregon vernacular is akin to an endangered species, the Ducks are simply spotting their opponents too much field position. Montana, for example began each of its drives on the Oregon 32-yard-line on average. Montana and Houston averaged 23 and 24 yards per kickoff return respectively against Oregon. After two games against inferior opponents relative to the Pac-Conference teams the Ducks will later face, Oregon is ranked 83rd in the nation in kick off return defense, the second worst standing in the conference behind only Oregon State. Again, this appears to be a problem stemming back to last season when the Ducks finished 79th in the nation allowing on average 21.5 yards per game. Boo.

And, while we're on the subject of spotting opponents extra yards, let's discuss penalties. Against Houston, the Ducks totaled 12 penalties for 105 yards. Against Montana, the total was six penalties for 49 yards. Yes, certainly an improvement, but the Ducks still are ranked 91st nationally in penalties averaging nine penalties per game equaling 77 yards. Again, this appears to be a problem extending from last year when the Ducks were ranked 112th in penalties averaging 8.64 per game and 79.7 yards. Yuk.

Next, consider Oregon's performance running the ball in its first two games. Against Houston, the Ducks racked up a respectable 206 yards of rushing. Look more closely and you'll see that the Oregon quarterbacks were responsible for 95 of the yards leaving just 101 yards of production to the Oregon running backs with last year's 1,000-yard gainer, Terrance Whitehead only clocking a total of 31 yards. Against Division I-AA Montana in Oregon's second game things only got worse with the Ducks only able to record 87 total yards rushing with Whitehead only improving to 36 yards for the game, averaging only 2.0 yards per carry. Going into the Montana game, many Oregon faithful were thinking the Ducks would put up large rushing numbers for the following reasons: they should be able to dominate the line of scrimmage against a lesser opponent; consequently, they should be able to dominate the clock and not reveal much of their playbook to Fresno State and USC coming down the pike; finally the Oregon running backs would get a chance to pad their rushing stats particularly given their running room gets more constrained during conference play. Instead, the Ducks were more often forced to pass and still they couldn't convert in the red zone. Yeeks.

Finally, consider Oregon's passing game. Yes, it is very prolific as the statistics noted above suggest. But, when it comes to passing efficiency the Ducks are currently ranked 53rd in the nation and 9th in Pac-10 Conference. And, you know what, one wonders whether those statistics worsen when looking exclusively at the red zone. This may be an indicator to the headiness of quarterback Kellen Clemens. Time will tell. Oregon coach Mike Bellotti did lament after the Montana game that the Oregon receivers dropped a large number of passes hitting them square in the hands. Quarterback headiness is not a very quantifiable commodity. Past Oregon greats Joey Harrington and Bill Musgrave had it to begin with. Danny O'Neill got it his senior season when he led Oregon to the Rose Bowl. Perhaps, Clemens will do the same.

Two positive things that are very different when comparing this year's Oregon team to last year's are turnover margin and talent.

Last year, Oregon ranked 76th in the nation with a turnover margin of -.18 percent with 23 turnovers gained and 25 turnovers lost. This year the Ducks' are ranked 30th with a turnover margin of 1.00 percent including five turnovers gained and three lost. If Oregon can continue a positive turnover margin ratio it should pay large dividends as the season evolves.

This year Oregon appears to be a faster, stronger and more talented team than last year. The 2005 Oregon team places on one field probably the most highly recruited players in school history. Starting with Clemens, quarterback Dennis Dixon, offensive tackle Aaron Klovis, receiver Demetrius Williams, receiver Cameron Colvin, nose tackle Haloti Ngata, and running back Jonathan Stewart to name a few. This Duck team probably fields no less than seven future NFL players on offense and three players on defense. If the Oregon offense does begin to click in terms of rushing and performance in the red zone, then look out.

The problem is the Ducks are out of time. No. 23 Fresno State will certainly give Oregon a game this next weekend. History suggests it. Oregon leads the series 3-2 but never have more than seven points decided the game. In fact, two of the most recent three games (1996-1997) have been decided in overtime, notably in Oregon's favor. The last game between the two teams was played at Oregon in 2002, and was also an Oregon win. Fresno State lives to beat BCS conference schools and boasts a winning percentage over them since head coach Pat Hill took the helm. Given that Oregon hasn't shown the propensity to run the ball well yet this year, look for Fresno State to rush fewer players and flood the receiving routes with defenders and on obvious third down and long situations expect the Bulldogs to blitz hard with success.

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