Oregon's junior quarterback shrugged off a slow start to the season (as did the Ducks) and then just kept shrugging off would-be tacklers. Nobody in the country runs the read-option spread offense better than Masoli . and he's a load to bring down when he gets into the open field.
Pac-10 champ Oregon -- which figures to be the league favorite in 2010, in part because of the return of Masoli -- will test a sure-tackling Ohio State defense in the Rose Bowl. The game could be a precursor to more big things, next season, including individual awards.
"I don't care," said coach Chip Kelly. "And I don't think he cares about any of that stuff.
In any case, it could be a showcase for Masoli. The one collective knock on Big Ten teams has been that they don't have the same kind of overall speed -- usually in the defensive front -- to handle elite teams from the SEC or Pac-10.
"He's scary," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said of Masoli.
"We're going to have to have everything covered, from the dive to the quarterback to the play-action pass to the deep pass," Tressel said. "The quickness of his release I can tell from TV is extraordinary. It's going to be a great challenge.
Masoli has passed for 15 touchdowns and rushed for 12. His power running will be in contrast to the speed and grace of Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor. Funny how recruiting works. While Pryor, a sophomore, was tabbed as a major star in recruiting circles, Masoli was an afterthought, joining Oregon from junior college after 2008 spring ball.
Right now, though, it's hard to tell them apart as 2010 Heisman candidates.
--Few teams had a regular season as interesting as Oregon did. It began with a discombobulated loss at Boise State, a post-game punch, and subsequent predictions of gloom. It ended with a wild victory in the most important Civil War ever.
In between, the Ducks got progressively better.
First-year coach Chip Kelly ended up looking like a genius for his handling of LeGarrette Blount, indefinitely suspending the star running back but leaving open the door to redemption. Blount worked his way back to active duty by achieving behavioral and academic goals, and he reappeared with a key cameo in the regular-season finale against Oregon State.
Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli struggled early in the season but by the end, no one could have done a better job running Kelly's read-option offense. Redshirt freshman running back LaMichael James was a revelation with six rushing games of more than 150 yards.
--Oregon finished alone in first place at 8-1 in the league and 10-2 overall. The reward is the team's first Rose Bowl since the 1994 season; the Ducks also won the league in the 2001 season, but that was when the Rose Bowl hosted the BCS national championship game.
"We were at the bottom of the bottom," Oregon tight end Ed Dickson told the Eugene Register-Guard, referring to the start of the season. "And we're at the top of the top right now.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Oregon might be able to be held down for parts of game, but eventually they will create mismatches and big plays through its read-option offense, masterfully led by QB Jeremiah Masoli, who turns into a linebacker in the open field, delivering blows to smaller defensive backs. The running game ranks sixth in the country at 236.08 yards per game and added a power element with the return of LeGarrette Blount in the regular-season finale. The Ducks scored at least 37 points in all eight conference games in which Masoli played.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Oregon isn't a shut-down unit, but the Ducks have plenty of speed, which figures to come in handy against Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor. Pryor, who is the Buckeye's second-leading rusher with 707 yards, considered the Ducks out of high school, having then in his final four. With Pryor and the running back combination of Dan Herron and Brandon Saine, the Buckeyes are 19th nationally in rushing at 198.92 yards per game, mostly trying to limit risk in the passing game. The Ducks held a good Oregon State running game to 83 yards in their last game, so they have a chance to stop Ohio State.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli vs. Ohio State S Kurt Coleman -- Coleman is the leader of the secondary, with two interceptions against Michigan to give him five for the season. Masoli is a better passer than most running quarterbacks (Terrelle Pryor, for example), so Coleman will have to be on his guard against that while also being physical enough to handle one-on-one collisions when Masoli keeps.
OTHER KEY MATCHUPS: Oregon RB LaMichael James vs. Ohio State LB Ross Homan -- James is a waterbug who excels at cut-back runs in the Ducks' read-option, rushing for 123.0 yards per game, eighth-best in the country. Homan leads Ohio State with 96 tackles and is adept at plugging those cut-back lanes that lead to so many big plays for Oregon.
Oregon WR Jeff Maehl vs. Ohio State CBs Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence -- Maehl is Oregon's chief threat on the outside, catching 52 passes for 686 yards and six touchdowns. He was on especially good late in the season, with 114 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona, and 138 yards and a score against Oregon State. Chekwa and Torrence tend to not give up big plays.
Oregon LB Casey Matthews -- He has 72 tackles and is a versatile player in the defense, heavily involved in zone blitz plays. His athleticism will be tested by Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor and RB Brandon Saine, the Buckeyes' two fastest players.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's been through a lot. I'm just proud. Really proud." -- Oregon coach Chip Kelly, on the return to the field of RB LeGarrette Blount for the Oregon State game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN: vs. Ohio State, Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, Pasadena, Calif. -- It only took 52 years, but this will be a rematch of the 1958 Rose Bowl, won by Ohio State 10-7. Chances are that will be the score of this year's game midway through the first quarter. The Pac-10 has won the past five Rose Bowl matchups against the Big Ten, whose last victory came in the 2000 game, when Wisconsin beat Stanford 17-9.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jeremiah Masoli -- Ohio State hasn't seen somebody quite like Masoli, a powerful runner and more-than-capable passer. One concern is ball security. He has three interceptions in the last three games, and he fumbled three times in the past two games (although Oregon recovered each time).
RB LaMichael James -- He's a blur through the hole or around the corner, and he has 1,476 rushing yards, second on the school's all-time list, trailing Jonathan Stewart (1,722 in 2007). He had 18 runs of 20-plus yards this season.
CB Cliff Harris -- Athletic true freshman came out of his redshirt midway through the season after injuries to Walter Thurmond and Willie Glasper. Despite playing in only seven games, he led the team with seven passed broken up.
DE Kenny Rowe -- He is the team's top pass rusher, with 8.5 sacks, and was part of a couple late in the game against Oregon State. Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor is a moving target, however, and Rowe can't go crashing up field and give Pryor a running lane.
--Senior CB Willie Glasper is out for the season because of a non-contact knee injury suffered in practice Oct. 6.
--Senior CB Walter Thurmond III is out for the season because of a knee injury suffered in September.
--LB Bryson Littlejohn, a valuable special teams player, did not play against Oregon State because of a foot injury.