Injury? No problem. Adversity? No problem. Heightened expectations? Yet to be determined, but an answer coming soon.
This season's bar will be set next Saturday against a USC team up against the ropes. A second loss for the Trojans would all but seal their fate in pursuing an eighth consecutive Pac-10 Championship. Certainly it end their hopes for a BCS Title bid, while an Oregon victory would put them on the door step of a conference title and Rose Bowl berth, with an outside shot at a national title.
I know what you're thinking; isn't it a bit early to be discussing championships of any sort? Yes, but not with an Oregon win next weekend. I'm not usually the type prone to premature anointing, nor delusions of grandeur, but there's something different about this team. They play together, for each other and with a level of confidence unprecedented at the University of Oregon.
Before you tell me to bite my tongue, consider the evidence:
* Oregon is dominated week one by Boise State, loses its starting senior safety TJ Ward, and is embarrassed nationally by a post-game incident which transcended the world of sports. Result: Ducks rebound with victories over Purdue and then 18th ranked Utah.
* Oregon enters as a home underdog against then 6th ranked California, loses its team leader and preseason All-American Walter Thurmond III to injury on the opening kick-off, and starts the game with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli struggling and yet to throw a touchdown pass. Result: Oregon routs the Bears 42-3 behind Masoli's 253 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air. Willie Glasper plays in place of the injured Thurmond and is part of a Duck defense who dominated in every facet of the game.
* Oregon travels to UCLA to play the Bruins without starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and starting corner Willie Glasper, whose season ending knee injury left the Ducks with greenhorns at his position. Nate Costa is forced to start in place of Masoli and sophomore Anthony Gildon and true freshman Cliff Harris are left platooning at corner in place of the injured Glasper. Result: Oregon wins behind a solid running game and big plays via defense and special teams. The injury plagued defensive backfield holds up nicely while the unit as a whole keeps UCLA from scoring an offensive touchdown.
In addition, Head Coach Chip Kelly and his assistants have and continue to teach, inspire, and prepare their team at a level previously unseen. Certainly Mike Bellotti's accomplishments at Oregon speak for themselves, and his ability to sustain success over a fifteen year period is unparalleled, but what Chip Kelly and company have done since the "incident" week one has been nothing short of phenomenal. It would've been easy for this team to lose confidence after being beaten in Boise. It would've been easier to crumble against 6th ranked California when arguably their best player and team leader Walter Thurmond III left with an apparent season ending knee injury. It would've been predictable for players who experienced the aftermath of the Dennis Dixon injury to fold at the thought of traveling to UCLA minus their playmaker under center.
But they didn't, and that speaks to the coaches. Coaches like Mark Helfrich who's had to rework an offense due to the losses of LeGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Masoli. Jerry Azzinaro, who's done wonders with an undersized and relatively inexperienced defensive line. The much maligned Nick Aliotti, who seems to have been rejuvenated under Kelly's reign and seems to be having fun and enjoying this group, "The kids were fantastic," Aliotti said following the game against Cal. "My staff did a great job all week; we practice hard, we run hard, we have great chemistry, we have great attitude."
And that seems to be a sentiment which defines this whole team. They want to win and seem to enjoy the process along the way, "They're already talking about practice on Monday, so that's a good sign," said Oregon's offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich following last week's game at Washington.
And that is a good sign -- a sign that signifies heart, commitment and a degree of desire necessary to win big.
This Saturday's game against the Trojans offers an opportunity for one of those "big" wins and such a win would set the table for a "big" season. That's not to say that beating USC would assure the Ducks a conference or national title, but it would resuscitate the hopes of such which were presumably snuffed out nearly two months ago.
Is this team as talented as great Oregon teams of past? Are they as flashy, notable, and deep? Honestly, I think it's too early to say. The dirty little secret of this team is its youth. Nearly all of this team returns next year, including essentially the entire offense and the majority of the defense that is on the field now. So to say someone isn't a "great" player now, isn't to say they won't be in the near future.
It's easy to use "a lack of household names" as an excuse for not being great, but any good coach would argue the opposite. A great team produces great players and the mark of a great team is its willingness to work hard, play together, and win in spite of the odds. "You're going to have to go the distance against us," Chip Kelly said. "We're going to compete."
And that's what COULD make this team great, COULD make this team a conference champion, and COULD make you, I, and everyone else who buried them the night of September 3rd eat a lot of crow…and I'm hungry.
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