First Down: Quick Hitters
Oregon @ Stanford – September 22
Last Meeting: Oregon 48, Stanford 10
Side-by-Side Stats: (Oregon/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 7/8
2006 Points Per Game: 29.5/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 182/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 5.0/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 241/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 59.3/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 7/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 26.5/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 149/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 4.3/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 173/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 55.0/60.3
2006 Record: 7-6/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (8-4, 6-3)/(3-9, 2-7)
2007 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 3rd/T-9th
Second Down: Offense
Can an older unit find the consistency they lacked last year?
10 starters figure to be upperclassmen, seven of whom started last year. The only departing starters are two All Pac-10 guys on the line (center Enoka Lucas and right guard Palauni Ma Sun, neither of whom was drafted) and receivers Jordan Kent and Dante Rosario (both were drafted on Day 2; they combined for 915 yards and five touchdowns last year). Stanford's defense actually lost more to the draft than this offense (Michael Okwo and Brandon Harrison), so Oregon should have the firepower.
And the running game figures to live up to expectations. Next to Yvenson Bernard, Jonathan Stewart is the best proven back in the league - he put up 1,029 ground yards on a 5.4 average last year. His line returns three, plus adds top junior college transfer Fenuki Tupou at left tackle. Center Max Unger is the only star, but this unit quietly paved the way for 182 ground yards per game on an incredible 5.0 yards per carry average and should put up similar numbers this year.
The receiving corps will be behind only Cal's and USC's, despite the two losses to the NFL. Brian Paysinger is a 6'2" senior who runs a 4.34, and junior Jaison Williams, a top national recruit in his class, led the unit with 984 yards and six touchdowns last year.
That leaves senior Dennis Dixon at quarterback, who is challenging Derek Anderson's interception reputation by the game. He threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12) last year, and he was throwing to two NFL draft picks, a top-ten receiving recruit out of high school, and a guy who runs a 4.34. He did complete 61 percent of his passes (to his team, no less) last season, but Oregon went from +13 turnovers in 2005 to -10 in 2006, a big reason for the falloff from 10-1 to 7-5. It appears contagious, as backup Brady Leaf threw four picks in limited action last season, too. Dixon has the physical gifts (6'4", a projected top NFL pick after this year), so whether it was growing pains adopting to new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's scheme or inexperience or youth or bad karma, the picks again figure to be the difference between a seven- and 10-win season for the Ducks.
Third Down: Defense
With USC (rightfully), Arizona and UCLA garnering more of the attention, this is the most underrated unit in the conference and one of the most overlooked defenses in the country. The line, the linebackers and the secondary should each be better than last year's version – and last year's team only allowed 322 yards per game. If their offense gains more yards and eats up more clock, like I expect, the defensive numbers could be better yet.
There are no five-star, can't-miss standouts on the defense. That is okay though; you need those gamebreakers more on offense. While top-notch talent certainly helps on defense, opposing offenses can scheme around it (top college corners can go weeks without seeing a ball thrown in their direction), so the strength of your weakest link, not your Vince Young, becomes paramount. And there are no holes across the board on this solid unit.
Teams actually ran the ball (452 times) significantly more than they passed (362 times) against the Ducks last year, a rarity in modern college football. The opponents did their scouting: last year's line lost first-round tackle Haloti Ngata, stud defensive end Devan Long, and saw several more linemen miss significant portions of the season due to injury. Unsurprisingly, the Ducks' 4.3 yards per carry allowed and 150 yards per game yielded were their worst marks in nearly 10 years. Stanford even got in the mix: its 100 yards on 35 carries were the best rushing numbers it put up against any Pac-10 foe last year.
This year, though, better health and two former junior college stars should improve the Ducks' rush defense significantly. The former JUCOs, senior Jeremy Gibbs and sophomore William Tukuafu, should both compete for starting minutes. Junior Nick Reed and senior David Faaeteete are the returning starters anchoring the unit, and big things are expected from freshman tackle Simi Fili, who benches 435 and squats 710.
UCLA's defensive line had similar injury struggles in 2005, and with better health in 2006 dropped its totals from 233 yards allowed per game and 5.4 yards per carry to 91 and 2.8. Oregon probably will not match one of the most impressive turnarounds in the nation, but improvement here is the key to achieving a 10-win season.
The linebacking unit is somewhat downplayed in Nick Aliotti's 4-2-5, which is probably a good thing as team MVP and top tackler Blair Phillips has graduated. Junior John Bacon, lightly recruited out of high school, steps into his position and is the question mark. Weakside linebacker A.J. Tuitele, a senior, has started 14 games over his Duck career and is consistent if a bit undersized at just 5'11". Senior strong safety Kwame Agyeman, a returning starter, also factors prominently into the run defense and made 43 tackles last year.
The secondary is the Ducks' strength and might be their best since 2000, when opponents only completed an unreal 43.6 percent of passes. Second-Team All Pac-10 free safety J.D. Nelson does depart but was not drafted. The returning talent more than makes up for his departure. Sophomore corners Walter Thurmond (All Pac-10 Honorable Mention) and Jairus Byrd (Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year) were forced into the limelight last year between injuries and a thin depth chart. They exceeded expectations and should give the Ducks the conference's best secondary for the next three years, save maybe for USC. Rover Patrick Chung has been All Pac-10 Honorable Mention two years running.
The secondary, like the line, got really unlucky in terms of injuries last year - witness the disappointing 7-6 final record. The good news for Oregon is that plenty of young Ducks got the chance to see the field, and that sets the framework for what should be the fourth-best (USC, UCLA and Arizona) and most improved defense in the conference.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
Oregon outgained Pac-10 opponents by 136 yards per game last season, so they were incredibly unlucky to end up just 4-5 in the conference. That mark was easily the conference's best (USC was just +84; Stanford was dead-last at -169) and suggests the Ducks should finish in the Pac-10's top-three.
I guess my projection of third then is a little on the pessimistic side, but there is no way they can be ranked ahead of USC and UCLA's schedule is way too kind not to put them second. If the Ducks can pull the mild upset in Westwood on November 24, then second in the conference is theirs, along with a likely BCS berth. (Oregon would likely be 10-2 with their only losses at Michigan and versus USC, who I am assuming will be undefeated and in the national title game.)
Oregon has lost their last four bowls, and looked absolutely dead in a 38-8 thrashing at the hands of BYU in last year's Las Vegas Bowl. Their last postseason win was a rout of Colorado in the 2001 Fiesta. Of course, they should have been in the national title that year but were bypassed for Nebraska.
Seems like a long time ago, but Oregon was the last team to win the conference before USC started their six-year run, back in 2001.
Oregon's visit to Stanford is their one relative breather in a tough four-week stretch (at Michigan, Fresno State, at Stanford, California). Interestingly, it is also the only game they will play on real grass between now and a Thursday night tussle at Arizona on November 15.
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