Oregon Preview

UCLA tries to get back up on the horse and pull of a win against favored Oregon in Eugene Saturday. The implications for the game are well documented: It could very well could decide UCLA's season...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Eugene to take on Oregon Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The game will be televised on a regional basis by ABC, with Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts calling the action.

-- Oregon is 5-4 and 4-2 in the Pac-10. UCLA is 5-4 and 3-3, and fighting to get to that six-win mark that would make it bowl eligible.

-- UCLA leads the series overall 37-21, but Oregon has won the last four contests. It's the longest stretch of success over the Bruins in the series that goes back to 1928. The Ducks won last year's game at the Rose Bowl, 31-13.

-- Oregon started off the season slowly, but with some bad breaks. It lost to Indiana, 30-24; lost to Oklahoma 31-7; beat Idaho 48-10, and then lost to Arizona State, 28-13.  It then won four in a row, against Washington State (41-38), Arizona (28-14), Stanford (16-13) and Washington 31-6 before it lost last week against Cal, 28-27.

-- In that game last week, Oregon lead the #4-ranked Bears for a good portion of the game. At one point in the second quarter they held a 27-14 lead.

-- Oregon is coached by Mike Bellotti, who is now the dean of the Pac-10, in his tenth year as the Duck head coach. He is 80-38 at Oregon overall.  He's known for innovative offenses, and being able to put together winning teams with just average recruiting success.

-- UCLA is trying to avoid its second straight losing season. The Bruins haven't had two losing seasons in a row since 1990.  Before that, you have to go back to 1964 to find two consecutive losing seasons for the UCLA football program.

-- Oregon's Autzen Stadium is one of the most difficult places to play in the conference. The stands are very close to the field, and the noise from the often-times raucous capacity crowd of 54,000 can be difficult to deal with for visiting teams.

-- UCLA beat the Ducks in Eugene in 1997, a year when the Bruins went 10-2.  They also beat them at Autzen in 1996.

-- UCLA wide receiver Craig Bragg became UCLA's all-time receptions leader, after catching five passes last week against Washington State to bring his career total to 180.  He needs 388 receiving yards to rank #1 on that career chart.

-- Oregon is 21-8 in November over the ten years Bellotti has been the head coach at Oregon.  In November in Autzen Stadium, Bellotti is 13-1.

-- Oregon is a young and inexperienced team. 12 players made their first college start so far this season for the Ducks, while two more had only started one game.

OREGON'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

All indications here are not good for UCLA.

Oregon's offense has continued to improve throughout the season, due to basic improvement and getting some key players back from injury.

The Ducks are third in the Pac-10 in overall offense, with a surprisingly well-balanced unit. Traditionally Oregon is more pass-oriented, but this year they've really improved their ground game, averaging 165 yards per game rushing.

The fact that Oregon has been able to run the ball so well this season is really the primary reason for their offensive success.  The only two times this season the Ducks' ground game has been out-gained was against two of the best teams and defenses in the country, Oklahoma and Cal.

So, in other words, the outlook doesn't look good for a UCLA defense that has been pretty darn bad at defending the run, allowing an average of 229 yards per game.

Oregon has done it mostly because of its very good offensive line, which starts four seniors and one junior.  They've juggled a couple of guys, trying to find the best right tackle for some of the season, and had to scramble to patch up injuries at center, but have now settled in with the same lineup for the last several games. Senior left tackle Adam Snyder (6-6, 325) is considered one of the best in the Pac-10.  Center Robin Knebel (6-6, 310) is nursing an ankle injury. 

Oregon running back Terrence Whitehead.

The Oregon running game has also benefited from the emergence of junior tailback Terrence Whitehead (5-10, 210), who overtook Maurice Drew as the #2 rusher in the conference this week, averaging 101 yards per game. Whitehead started the season a bit slowly, but has really come on. He's gone over 100 yards in four of his last seven games (just missing the 100-yard mark by a few yards in two other games).  He's gotten stronger as the season has progressed, and it would appear is poised to probably have his best game of the season against UCLA's defense (his game-high for the 2004 season is 166 yards so far).  Whitehead is also a very distinct threat catching the ball out of the backfield, and Oregon's offense loves to get the ball to its running back in the flat.

Two other offensive players have really been key for the Ducks, and have been kind of the indicator as to how Oregon's offense will perform.  If junior wide receiver Demetrius Williams (6-2, 185) and junior tight end Tim Day (6-4, 268) are healthy, the Oregon offense has flourished. Day's performances are especially indicative.  Day had off-season foot surgery and has played his way back into game condition. Then his production took off halfway through the season, as did Oregon's offense. It's probably no coincidence that Oregon's offense kind of shut down in the second half of last week's Cal game, when Day sat out the second half due to an ankle and calf injury. In the first half he had five catches for 46 yards.

It's pretty much the same with Williams. He also missed most of Oregon's fall camp with an ankle injury and had to play himself into shape, which has recently been some considerably productive shape.  In three games before last week, Williams was hot, catching 27 passes for 320 yards, with two receptions for 50 yards or more, and entered last week's game as the fourth-leading receiver in the Pac-10. Last week, though, Williams was hindered with turf toe and sat out the second half against Cal, and it's believed he could be limited for the rest of the season with it.

Both Williams and Day are expected to start Saturday, but a key to the success of Oregon's offense could be how hindered they are by their injuries.

While Oregon has been patching up its receivers, its quarterback has been steadily productive. With some bigger profile quarterbacks in the Pac-10, Oregon junior Kellen Clemens (6-2, 215) has put together a very good year in their shadows.  He has thrown for 2012 yards, averaging 247 yards per game, with 14 touchdowns against 5 interceptions. Last week against Cal he was on fire out of the gate, throwing four TD passes in the first half. He ranks first in the league in total offense and third in passing, ahead of such notables as USC's Matt Leinart and Cal's Aaron Rodgers.  Clemens is smart, knows the Oregon offense, throws accurately, and is mobile. He's also clutch, gaining a rep for comebacks. He almost pulled one off last week against Cal, but an Oregon receiver dropped a fourth-down pass at the Bears' 25-yard line.

UCLA defensive end Brigham Harwell.

In other words, UCLA's defense has an immense challenge on Saturday. There isn't any aspect of the matchup that bodes well for UCLA's defense, facing a team that runs the ball really well with a good running back behind a good offensive line, and a mobile, accurate quarterback with a knack for clutch plays. 

UCLA will have to, first and foremost, limit Oregon's running game, and that responsibility seems to fall on UCLA's linebackers.  For UCLA's defense to stop the run, it's vital that Spencer Havner have a good game, but unfortunately he has an injured hand which prevents him from being able to grab, and limits his ability to throw off blocks.  Middle linebacker Justin London has been better in recent weeks, but the high-ankle sprain still limits his mobility. 

UCLA's front four got burned pretty consistently last week against Washington State, and they're out to prove that the Stanford game the week before wasn't an aberration. They'll need to get some heightened play from their young defensive ends, and it seems that true freshman Brigham Harwell might have the most capability of providing that. It's pretty plain, though, that UCLA's front seven will have to play far above what they have this season to even hope to contain Oregon's offense, particularly its rushing offense.

Advantage: Oregon.  Perhaps the only thing that could limit Oregon's offense is how hampered Williams and Day are by their injuries.  If Williams can't go at full speed, though, talented true freshman Cameron Colvin (6-2, 195) will be called on, and while he's young an inexperienced, he's perhaps the most talented offensive player on the team and an instant threat when he takes the field.  Oregon has allowed the most sacks in the Pac-10, but they're facing the team that has made the fewest sacks in the conference in UCLA, so that matchup seems a wash.  If Oregon is able to run, and Clemens gets time to throw, their offense will roll. The unpredictability of Oregon's offense, and their penchant for using a lot of misdirection and deception conjures of some horrible visions for this game.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. OREGON'S DEFENSE

It doesn't get much better on this side of the ball. Oregon's defense is one of the best in the conference, allowing a stingy 314 yards per game total.  They're solid in just about every phase of their defense, and even with some injuries have had some younger, inexperienced players step up.

The injuries beset the Oregon secondary primarily. A senior cornerback, Rodney Woods, was lost for the season.  Starting rover Marley Tucker dislocated his elbow a month ago, and has missed five games, even though he might play this week. Corneback Justin Phinisee (5-11, 199) took over the rover position, and freshman Jackie Bates (5-10, 175) now mans that corner spot.  If Oregon had a weakness it would be at that corner spot with Bates, so you can probably expect UCLA to go after him consistently.

Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

The front seven are very good, led by elite talent, sophomore Haloti Ngata (6-5, 345) at defensive tackle. Ngata missed the entire 2003 season with an injury. He is huge, strong, quick and the anchor of a good defensive line. Junior defense end Devan Long (6-4, 258) is having a potential All-Pac-10 season, having 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He's a difficult one to contain. 

The linebackers are experienced and good. Middle linebacker Jerry Matson (6-1, 225) is definitely the leader of the defense, while leading the team in tackles.  Outside linebacker, junior Anthony Trucks (6-1, 230) is also one to watch, with good pursuit ability.

For an offense that's coming off its worst performance of the season last week against Washington State, it's a tough task for UCLA to right the ship against Oregon on the road.  It will be especially tough if two of UCLA's top three offensive players, tight end Marcedes Lewis and running back Maurice Drew, are too hampered by their injuries to be effective. Lewis bruised his tailbone against WSU last week and sat out the second half. He didn't practice fully this week, and while UCLA said he's ready to go, it's entirely possible he won't be his usual dominating self.  Drew sprained an ankle against the Cougars and sat out a majority of the game. He didn't practice this week and, while he's making the trip to Oregon, it's believed he won't play, or if he does, in a very limited capacity.

This puts a great deal of pressure on UCLA's quarterback Drew Olson to produce.  With the potential loss of the effectiveness of Lewis and Drew, Olson will have to be that much better for UCLA's offense to be productive. 

UCLA receiver Tab Perry.

Oregon's defensive scheme, as designed by former UCLA defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, is an aggressive one that uses a great deal of blitzing, which has resulted in 26 sacks this season.  It also tends to stifle the run well. But it does have vulnerability - leaving its cornerbacks on man-on-man islands, vulnerable against a quarterback that can quickly get the ball into the hands of good receivers. 

Craig Bragg, you'd have to say, is a pretty good receiver, being the all-time reception leader in UCLA history.  Tab Perry, the other senior, is another tough man matchup, showing last week how hard it is to get position on him physically in his second-half touchdown catch against WSU. 

So, Olson has his targets, and he'll get them in man coverage enough. It's could come down to whether Olson can execute.

UCLA's one slightly good news is the return of starting center Mike McCloskey, who is probably UCLA's best offensive lineman. It probably hasn't been coincidental that when McCloskey has missed games this season, UCLA's offensive line and offense overall have sputtered.

Advantage: Oregon.  UCLA's offense wasn't really shut down effectively, until last week against Washington State when it lost Lewis and Drew. While UCLA does have good running backs to pick up the slack in Manuel White and freshman Chris Markey, it was very evident how big of a hole is left without Drew's running ability.  Without Lewis you take away such a huge part of UCLA's passing game and it impacts so many aspects of the offense.  It's a tough proposition that UCLA's offense at full strength would be successful against a good Oregon defense on the road, but with Lewis and Drew questionable, it's a remote proposition. Too much responsibility falls to Olson, and he's just been plainly too erratic and ineffective at times this season.  The noise at Autzen Stadium is always a factor.  With the fan noise, UCLA has never played well in the Autzen in recent years.

Prediction:  UCLA would have to go against just about every indicator going into this game for it to be successful. But heck, they went against every indicator last week. There are two factors here that will determine whether UCLA is in this game very early on: If UCLA's defense can even hint at limiting Oregon's running game and if Drew Olson comes out of the block playing well.  It's a big challenge for UCLA, not only for its defense and for Drew Olson, but for the Bruin coaching staff. An inspired game plan, one that is aggressive and goes for it, in a game that has some huge ramifications, would be good to see.  Oregon, after losing a close one against Cal last week, returns home, is playing for a bowl bid itself, and you'd think would be hyped for this game. You'd think that, after all the rumblings about UCLA not being mentally tough last week against WSU, they'd show up emotionally for this game.  For UCLA to win, it's key they stay in the game early, minimize early mistakes, and not allow Oregon any big offensive plays, particularly on the ground.  If UCLA can get some confidence, and get an idea early that they're in the game, they definitely have proven this season that they'll stay in a game until the end. 

Oregon 37
UCLA  24


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