Steve Summers: Center Hroniss Grasu was replaced by Notre Dame graduate transfer Matt Hegarty. Jake Fisher’s tackle slot is now occupied by senior Tyler Johnstone, previously a starter who sat out last season due to injury. DE Arik Armstead left for the NFL but his fellow starter DeForest Buckner stayed and has become the clear leader of the defensive line.
Defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Erick Dargin and Troy Hill graduated. Freshman Aarion Springs, sophomore Charles Nelson [Ed: a seriously game-breaking wide receiver and return man in 2014] and redshirt sophomore Tyree Robinson make up the secondary alongside safety Reggie Daniels. I would give an “A-plus” to Buckner, who leads the conference in sacks and is a surefire first round pick next spring. I would give an “A” to Johnstone, who was always considered the best football player on the offensive line, even when Fisher was at Oregon. I predict Johnstone will also be a first round NFL draft pick.
I don’t think Hegarty is as good as Grasu. Of the group of defensive backs, I give an A to Nelson who is simply a playmaker. He would be the team’s leading tackler but was strictly on the offensive side until the third game of the year. Nelson was moved to cornerback last game after initially playing safety. He is also the return man for kickoffs and had a 100-yard return against Arizona State.
Ryan Thorburn: Oregon graduated All-Americans in Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu. Armstead was a first-round NFL draft pick (San Francisco 49ers), while Fisher was a second-round pick (Cincinnati Bengals). Two more key members of the secondary, safety Erick Dargan and cornerback Troy Hill, played at a high level as seniors.
Tyler Johnstone, who missed the 2014 season with a torn ACL, has returned to his left tackle spot and played at a high level. Notre Dame graduate transfer Matt Hegarty has done a good job replacing Grasu at center and working with three different quarterbacks this season.
Ekpre-Olomu's replacement, Chris Seisay, has been out of the lineup since the Michigan State game with a foot injury. The only returning starter, safety Reggie Daniels, has also missed some time. Oregon has moved Charles Nelson from wide receiver to safety, and Tyree Robinson from safety to cornerback, which has helped. But the Ducks still rank 126th in passing defense (319.2 ypg) out of 128 FBS teams entering Saturday's game.
SS: I don’t know if the Michigan State game revealed too much other than problems in the secondary. The Utah game however exposed the secondary, the linebackers the offensive and defensive line. In the Utah game the Ducks look fatigued and out of shape. It was the worst game ever played by the Ducks at Autzen Stadium. There were so many holes, it really is hard to pinpoint any one cause, but I felt conditioning and failure to execute on both offense and defense were the principal causes.
One other notable problem was that Adams was suffering from a broken finger and was unable to grasp the ball and was forced to the sidelines. His replacement, Jeff Lockie may not be a Pac-12 level quarterback and in all fairness to him, the Oregon offensive line on that day would have made Marcus Mariota look like he wasn’t a Pac-12 level quarterback, either.
The Washington State game may have been what eventually caused defensive backs coach John Neal to be moved from the sidelines to the coaches’ box in order to direct the Duck defense. During the WSU game, Neal, was on the sidelines while defensive coordinator Don Pellum called the scheme. Oregon could not hold a 10-point lead with just five minutes in the game and lost in double overtime.
After Oregon gave up nearly 750 yards of total offense to Arizona State, Neal was moved upstairs. As a result, the Ducks were put in much better position to make defensive plays against California.
RT: Michigan State exposed that Adams was not healthy. The Eastern Washington graduate transfer played with a broken index finger and was off-target on a potential season-changing touchdown pass late in the 31-28 defeat. The Utes and Cougars exposed Oregon's inexperienced secondary and put second-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum on the hot seat.
TB: From afar, the Oregon fan base seems populated by a lot of folks who seem oblivious to the program’s mostly humble (until the mid-‘90s) history. Is this an over-generalization? Talk about the traditions in Eugene most people don’t know about: Beyond the flashy uniforms and five-star facilities, what makes this program unique?
SS: When a team wins like Oregon has done, it draws lots of fans who aren’t necessarily otherwise affiliated with the school. The Ducks not only won over the last several years, but did so in a dominating fashion with few games ever being closer than double-digit leads. So anything that happened in the early ‘80s or ‘70s is ancient history for most Oregon fans.
As far as traditions, it is really hard to come up with any. In 1987 when Bill Musgrave came to Oregon, the Ducks hadn’t been to a bowl game since the 1964 Sun Bowl [Ed: Oregon broke that streak and saved the Independence Bowl, all at once, in 1989.]
I think the new Oregon tradition was started by Mike Bellotti. He asked why the Ducks weren’t thinking in terms of competing for national championships. The Ducks finished second nationally during Harrington’s senior year. Bellotti then started making a transition in several areas including recruiting, where the Ducks expanded the area they recruited in order to bring in better quality of players. Bellotti figured if the go to Texas, Florida and Georgia to get a couple of good players from each area, along with the players they could land in Northern and Southern California that they would be able to come up with good recruiting classes. They also took care to make sure the players they recruited could enroll in school. Bellotti would say that they might not get the very best players in those extended areas, but they could land enough good ones to make it worthwhile.
When Chip Kelly came to Oregon, he asked, “Who says we can’t get the very best?” The Chip Kelly era expanded on what Bellotti started and we saw some obviously incredible results. Mark Helfrich has tried to continue on with what Kelly did and got his team to the NCAA Championship game. Helfrich also went along with making a move as to who calls the defensive plays. Time will tell how that works out.
RT: I mostly see Twitter reactions, which seem to indicate younger fans expect the Ducks to win the Pac-12 and be in the College Football Playoff every season. There are older generations who have a greater appreciation for the program's recent success after suffering through decades of losing football.
I think the stability on the coaching staff is unique. Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich were the offensive coordinators before ascending to head coach. Pellum and assistants Steve Greatwood (offensive line), Tom Osborne (special teams/tight ends), Gary Campbell (running backs) and John Neal (secondary) have been in the program for a long time.
TB: I know Chip Kelly's three-peat conference champions (2009-2011) had their fair share of game-changing defenders. That said, the Oregon team I saw against Ohio State resembled the squad that Stanford beat up in 2012 and 2013. Would you say the Ducks are making an effort to develop a more punishing style on defense?
SS: I think the jury is still out, but I have to think moving John Neal to call the defensive plays is an indicator that something is going to change from the Nick Aliotti philosophy of bend but don’t break. Perhaps Helfrich saw the writing on the wall, give up 750 yards of offense, lose three or more games and changes have to occur. We’ll have to see of course what happens in the Stanford game, but I felt a surge of change had taken place last week against Cal.
Now maybe Cal is simply a very bad football team. After all, they gave up 777 yards to the Ducks, but the Ducks put themselves into a position to be successful on defense and it paid off.
RT: This year the Ducks are just trying to figure out how to stop anyone on defense. Last week was a bit of a step forward holding Cal to 28 points and limiting Jared Goff to 18 of 41 passing with two touchdowns and an interception. Oregon ranks 116th in scoring defense (37.2 ppg) and 118th in total defense (489.7 ypg).
TB: How would you rate Oregon’s chances against Stanford’s strengths like its offensive line and tight ends? What do you envision them doing to stop Christian McCaffrey? Do you see Stanford’s defensive liabilities – a thin front seven that doesn’t produce many sacks – falling right into what Oregon likes to do on offense?
SS: Three weeks ago I would have said it would be impossible for Oregon to beat Stanford. Now, the Ducks have a 3-game win streak, led by Vernon Adams, and I think that Adams is out to prove in every game he plays that has always been a Division I quarterback and loves to win.
As I said before, they call him Big Play VA. He may not break off 80-yard TD runs like Marcus Mariota did, but Adams is something extra special.
Can the Ducks beat Stanford? Oregon is still at the bottom of the Pac-12 in the major defensive categories, but if what I’m right about the significance of moving John Neal to making the defensive calls, and if Big Play VA can make some plays and if Oregon can beat Stanford, USC and Oregon State and if Cal can beat Stanford and if Washington can beat Wazzu… You get the picture.
RT: I think the circumstances and timing of the game work out quite well for Oregon. The defense's weakness is stopping spread offenses. DeForest Buckner and the front seven will enjoy knowing what's coming – a lot of McCaffrey – and trying to stop it better than they did in 2013 when Tyler Gaffney was the featured back.
Oregon's offense is on a roll now that Adams is healthy, Darren Carrington's suspension is over and there are three other talented running backs rotating behind Royce Freeman. The Ducks might not pull off the upset, but they seem to be a confident underdog this week.
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