2005 Look Ahead: Oregon

Oregon finished the 2004 season with a 5-6 record, ending a streak of seven straight bowl bids. Critics are quick to call the end of the Mike Bellotti boon years in Eugene, but this could be a banner season for the Ducks. The offense is loaded with talent that might rival USC, while the defense is led by the incomparable Haloti Ngata. Oregon visits Stanford for the Cardinal's conference opener, a big test in Game #3.

Oregon Ducks (1-0)

First Down: Quick Hitters

Oregon @ Stanford – October 1

Last Meeting: Oregon 16, Stanford 13 ('04)

Side-by-Side Stats: (Oregon/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 7/10
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game: 159/81
2004 Passing Yards Per Game: 238/246
Returning Defensive Starters: 7/5
2004 Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed: 122/143
2004 Passing Yards Per Game Allowed: 217/249
2004 Record: 5-6/4-7
Vegas' Predicted 2005 Record: 7-4/4-7

Second Down: Offense

The Ducks, under new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, unveiled their spread offense last night against Houston.  Spearheading the offense, senior quarterback Kellen Clemens showcased his dual pass-run threat, passing for 348 yards and leading the team with 80 yards on the ground.  Clemens has completed nearly 60% of his passes with a superb touchdown-to-interception ratio of over 2.0 in his years in Eugene, and Oregon is relying on a similarly efficient season from the senior to achieve its team goals.

A plethora of talent at the skill positions surrounds Clemens on the offense.  True freshman Jonathan Stewart, the number one running back recruit in the Class of 2005, is clearly the feature back of the future, but this season, senior Terrence Whitehead figures to see the majority of carries.  Whitehead gained 1,164 yards last year, second to only J.J. Arrington in the conference.  This year, with Oregon frequently spreading opposing defenses with three- and four-wide sets, Whitehead may have even more open field to make his moves.  The Duck backs combined for 206 yards against Houston.

Senior Demetrius Williams, top JUCO transfer junior James Finley, sophomore Cameron Colvin and 2004 Second Team All Pac-10 senior tight end Tim Day headline a receiving crew that is complemented by Whitehead's great hands out of the backfield.  With the quarterback, running back and five of the top six receivers from last year all returning, this collection of skill position talent ranks second only to USC's in the conference.

The one Achilles heel the offense may face is an offensive line that is incorporating three new starters after losing two All Pac-10 performers from last season.  The Ducks did suffer heavily from injuries on the line last season  and allowed a Pac-10 worst 41 sacks; even with the new starters, better health (and all the continuity at every other position on the offense) may spur this line to a stronger performance than in years past.

Third Down: Defense

The line is a proven commodity on this defense.  The only questions are whether the secondary can play to its potential and whether the linebackers can carry their weight.

Junior defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the top defensive line prospect in the entire country in his class, was Second Team All Pac-10 last season, and should be a shoo-in for first team honors this year now that Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody have left USC.  Benefiting from the attention focused on Ngata is senior defensive end Devan Long, who has quietly racked up 18 sacks the past two seasons.  While the other two line starters are new, with Ngata and Long at their sides, this line will again be stout, as it showed against Houston in picking up two sacks and allowing only 100 yards on the ground.

The linebackers are the primary area of concern on this team.  Because Houston, like Oregon, was usually running four or five wide receiver sets, fans couldn't see much of their play last night to assuage their fears.  Senior Anthony Trucks is a proven star, coming off a 6.5 sack season in 2004, but the other two starters have big shoes to fill, as departing players Jerry Matson and Ramone Reed were two of the team's top-three tacklers in 2004, and Matson was also Honorable Mention All-Pac-10.  Head coach Mike Bellotti did bolster this unit by adding three JUCO linebackers in the off-season, and how well this new linebacking corps performs may go a long way in determining the Ducks' fate.

On paper, the secondary should be a strength, as every single starter returns from last season, including senior rover Justin Phinisee and senior cornerback Aaron Gipson, both Honorable Mention All Pac-10 last season.  However, when the Ducks allowed Houston 312 yards and two scores through the air last night, it was hardly their first instance of playing to the level of the opposition.  In fact, the four teams that threw for the most yards last season on the Ducks were Oregon State, Cal, Stanford and Washington State.  Of those four teams, only Cal consistently demonstrated offensive proficiency against any other opponents last season.  If the Ducks' secondary can play to its potential, this team could theoretically run the table in a conference so dedicated to the pass.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

- Oregon 38, Houston 24: The contest, which kicked off the college football season last night, didn't start off the way Oregon had envisioned.  In the words of Bellotti, the Ducks "sleepwalked" through the first half and trailed 21-17 at the break.  Coming out of the locker room, Oregon piled on 21 consecutive points to ice the game and cruised to the 14-point final margin.

- What can we take from the Houston game?  Precious little, in my opinion.  The Ducks showed that their offense is solid by racking up 554 yards primarily through the air, confirming the preseason expectations on both fronts.  The pass defense was the one area of the team that did "sleepwalk" through the first half, getting absolutely burned on two long touchdown passes in the first quarter, once on pure speed and once on what appeared to be a blown coverage.  However, after allowing Houston 21 points and a large chunk of their 400-plus yards in the first quarter alone, that defense stiffened, allowing just a field goal over the final three periods.  While the aerial defense looked to be a concern (again) playing to the level of the opposition, there's no way it's 312-yards-per-game bad.  Similarly, while the offense looked good, there's no way it's that good.

- One reason I said the Ducks could theoretically run the table with a strong performance out of their secondary is a schedule that brings both USC and Cal to Eugene.  With UCLA rotating off the schedule, Oregon's Pac-10 road slate consists of Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Washington State, perhaps the easiest road schedule any Pac-10 team faces in 2005.

- Stanford will have two notable schedule advantages when the Ducks come calling October 1.  First, the Cardinal will be coming off a bye, giving them an extra week of rest and preparation for Oregon.  Equally as important, USC visits Oregon the previous week.  After doing battle with the Trojans, it may be hard for the Ducks to get fired up for a trip to Palo Alto the next week.

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