Preview of Oregon Game

UCLA travels to Eugene to take on the Oregon Ducks in loud Autzen Stadium. It's definitely UCLA's toughest game yet this season, and it gets tougher since the Bruins are breaking in a new, inexperienced quarterback. Here's really the first chance for UCLA's defense to prove itself against a "good" offense...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- UCLA travels to Eugene, Oregon, to take on the Oregon Ducks Saturday at 12:30. The game will be televised regionally by ABC Sports, with Dan Fouts and Tim Brant the announcers.

-- Oregon is 4-1 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-10, an identical record to UCLA.  The Ducks are currently ranked 18th in both the USA Today and AP Polls. It's the first opponent UCLA has faced this season that is ranked.

-- Oregon had been ranked 11th in both polls before a deflating loss against now-10th-ranked California last week, in Berkeley, 45-24.  Cal jumped out to a 28-3 lead by the second quarter and the game was never in jeopardy after that.  Cal scored most of its first 28 points off of Oregon turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble), and a Cal punt return.

-- Oregon has beaten Stanford, Fresno State, Oklahoma, and Arizona State.  The win against Oklahoma was controversial, with the Ducks being awarded a fumble recovery on an onside kick that replay clearly indicated wasn't a legal onside kick, which lead to the go-ahead score.

-- UCLA leads the all-time series, 38-21, with the first meeting between the schools taking place in 1928. 

-- UCLA and Oregon didn't play against each other in 2005. In 2004, the game was played in Eugene, with UCLA achieving perhaps its biggest win of the Karl Dorrell era, beating Oregon 34-26.  With running back Maurice Drew not playing due to an injury, back-up Chris Markey rushed for a then career-best 131 yards and five receptions for 84 yards to lead the Bruins. It was only the second time Oregon had ever lost in Eugene in November in his Oregon coaching career.

-- Before 2004, Oregon had beaten the Bruins four straight times, which was the longest winning streak for the Ducks ever over the Bruins. 

-- UCLA has done remarkably well against Oregon in Eugene, winning four of the last six match-ups there, including three in a row from 1992 to 1997.  UCLA has a 13-7 advantage against the Ducks in Oregon, while winning 12 of 14 in the Ducks home, Autzen Stadium, since it opened in 1967.  Previous to Oregon's win in 1990, you have to go back to 1957 for Oregon's previous win in Oregon against UCLA.

-- UCLA's success in Oregon is impressive, especially given the fact that Autzen Stadium is considered one of the toughest places to play in the country. The stadium seats 54,000, and the fans are right on top of the field, which creates a very noisy environment for visiting teams.   UCLA will practice Wednesday with very loud crowd noise piped into their practice field.

-- In a report released by the NCAA, Oregon led the country in attendance a year ago as it relates to a ratio of total attendance compared with stadium capacity.  Oregon had a a seating percentage of 108.2% for the 2005 season, which edged Nebraska's 104.8% and Texas' 104.1%. Oregon commonly sells standing-room only tickets.

-- The Ducks are coached by Mike Bellotti, and in his 11 seasons he has become Oregon's winningest coach in its history, compling a 94-43 record. His best season was in 2001, when the Ducks finished ranked #2 in the country and with a win in the Fiesta Bowl.  His 94 wins in 11 seasons is the second most of any program in the Pac-10 during that time period, and his teams have finished in the top 20 four times in the past seven seasons.  The Ducks have been to seven straight bowl games.   Bellotti is known as an offensive mind, with the Ducks averaging more than 400 yards per game in offense in eight of his 11 seasons. 

-- Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was UCLA's defensive coordinator in 1998 under Bob Toledo, the year when UCLA lost to Miami in the "Hurricane Bowl," which kept them out of a national championship game, and many blamed it on that team's poor defense.

-- Dorrell is 3-8 against ranked teams in his four years as UCLA's head coach, and 0-6 on the road against ranked teams.

-- Oregon has 31 players on its roster from Southern California.

-- A contrast in styles: Oregon likes to score quickly, averaging 37 points per game and only 27:15 minutes of possession per game. UCLA, on the other hand, has possessed the ball more than four minutes longer per game (31:48), while UCLA averages 26.8 points per game.

-- UCLA starts just three seniors - wide receiver Junior Taylor, center Robert Chai and defensive end Justin Hickman. It has just nine scholarship seniors on its roster.

-- It's projected to be 71 degrees and partly cloudy in Eugene on Saturday, with only light winds.

OREGON'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Oregon went to a spread last season, and there was some reservations from Oregon fans.

But not anymore.  Oregon averaged 438 yards and 34.5 points per game last season with the new scheme. So far this season, Oregon averages 469 yards and 37 points per game, good enough for the #4 and #9 rankings in the country.

It's easily the best offense UCLA has faced this year, and probably the best offense it will face this season (Cal might have an argument).  For a good UCLA defense that really hasn't been tested, this is it. This is where UCLA's defense earns true respect.

It's going to be tough going. Everywhere you look in Oregon's offense they have weapons.

But let's first start with the blue-collar guys in the trenches. Oregon's offensive line doesn't have a real elite talent in the bunch, but five experienced guys who all started last season.  Senior center Enoka Lucas (6-4, 299) is the anchor and will probably make all Pac-10. He his knee rolled up last week against Cal, but it wasn't considered serious. He's flanked by two solid guys in the interior, senior right guard Palauni Ma Sun (6-6, 330) and junior left guard Josh Tschirgi (6-4, 311). Notice that these three average 313 pounds, which is a considerable weight advantage over UCLA's smaller defensive tackles.  Then throw in sophomore left tackle Max Unger (6-5, 306) and junior right tackle Geoff Schwartz (6-7, 340), and you're looking at 317 pounds on average, compared to UCLA's DL, which averages 269 pounds, and you have a near-50-pound differential. That's a big difference in bulk. 

One of the reasons Oregon went to the spread was the lack of quickness of its offensive line, so it'd be able to pass block better than it had in years past.  It's done well in that area this season, allowing only three sacks so far, which ranks it third in the nation. It has considerably excelled, also, at run blocking this season, leading the Pac-10 in rushing yards at 196 per game, which is a considerable accomplishment for a Duck offense, since it hasn't led the Pac-10 in rushing since 1955, being such a pass-oriented offense for so long.

This is easily the best OL UCLA will have faced yet this season, and holding the line of scrimmage against them is the biggest challenge the UCLA defense will have faced yet.

Contributing to that 196 yards per game on the ground is also some potent ball carriers.  Sophomore tailback Jonathan Stewart (5-11, 230) is one of the best in the conference, averaging 96 yards per game. He's strong, quick, hard to bring down and, while he's had a history of injuries, so far this season so good, even though he's been slightly bothered by a sore ankle. Oregon does like to go to its second string tailback, sophomore Jeremiah Johnson (5-9, 210) to keep Stewart fresh and give Oregon another style of runner to throw at defenses, with Johnson being shiftier.  There are times in the spread when Oregon actually has Stewart and Johnson in the game at the same time.

Oregon's running game hit a speed bump last week against Cal, however, gaining just 70 yards on the ground when it had been averaging 227.  Cal's defense dedicated itself to stopping Oregon's running game and succeeded. 

Oregon QB Dennis Dixon.

Junior Quarterback Dennis Dixon (6-4, 200) is a big running threat, too, and the perfect fit for Oregon's spread. They'll option Dixon out of it, he'll run off quarterback draws, or just take off on a roll-out. He was actually Oregon's leading rusher last week against Cal, gaining 45 yards.

It had long been thought that Dixon could be a better runner than a thrower, but he's changing that perception this season.  He leads the Pac-10 in passing yards per game, at 259, has a good pass efficiency rating at 136. While he doesn't have great mechanics in his motion, and lacks touch sometimes, he uses his arm strength to power in balls to receivers.  He does have a penchant for making bad decisions, especially forcing throws, and did so on his first pass from scrimmage last week against Cal, throwing an interception that gave Cal the momentum early that it never relinquished.

Make no mistake, though: Dixon is a considerable weapon, both throwing and running the ball. He's about the same level of threat as Washington's Isaiah Stanback, but he has a great deal more weapons around him to make himself far more dangerous.

Oregon, in fact, could have the best collection of receivers in the conference, and one of the best in the nation. It's been led so far this season by big sophomore Jaison Williams (6-5, 240). Williams has had to live down a tendency to drop balls, and he's been doing it so far this season, leading the Pac-10 in receptions (9.6 per game) and receiving yards (105), which gets him ranked 10th and 4th in the nation.  Williams is big, strong and has good speed for his size, and has been very difficult for smaller DBs to defend so far this season.  He's such a weapon that they want to touch the ball, he lines up in the backfield sometimes. But that's just the beginning: junior Brian Paysinger (6-2, 2208) has been very effective, and is their fastest wide out; senior Jordan Kent (6-5, 210), the son of basketball coach Ernie Kent, is big and very fast, a track sprinter, and turning himself into an NFL prospect; and senior James Finley (6-2, 204) and junior Cameron Colvin (6-2, 200) were thought to among their best receivers heading into the season. Colvin's been limited by a hamstring injury, and is doubtful. There is also junior Garren Strong (6-3, 200), but he's also questionable, with a groin injury.

And it doesn't end there. Also, perhaps, having an all Pac-10 season is senior tight end Dante Rosario (6-4, 240) who has very good hands and is a tough runner after the catch.

Whew.

UCLA's defense has been talking about "challenges" all season, and this is truly one.

UCLA DE Bruce Davis.

The Bruins have been great against the run, #2 in the country, giving up just 50 yards per game, and it's almost surreal to write that they're ranked #2 in the nation. It's been a swarming attack, rather than an overpowering one, with the Bruins overwhelming you with quickness, gang pursuit and fundamental tackling.  Wreaking the most havoc has been UCLA's two defensive ends, Justin Hickman and Bruce Davis, with Hickman registering 6.5 sacks and Davis having 19 tackles on the season, seven of them for loss, along with 4.5 sacks.   Davis, who is a tweener, not big enough really to be a defensive end and not fast enough to be a linebacker, has been utilized really well in UCLA's new defensive scheme, his quicknessable to exploit bigger, slower offensive tackles, while also being utilized as in pass coverage. 

It's still up in the air whether middle linebacker Christian Taylor will play, trying to return from an ankle sprain. He ran sprints Wednesday in practice but did it gingerly, so sophomore Kyle Bosworth could make the first start of his career. It is a step down from Taylor, who brings a great deal of knowledge and smarts to the position. Bosworth played fairly well in the second half against Arizona after Taylor went out, but it will be an entirely new ballgame playing in Autzen Stadium, against Oregon's offense, which will have guys lining up at different spots consistently.  Even though there are probably better all-around talents on UCLA's defense than Taylor, he might be the one that you didn't want to lose the most heading into this team's first road game against a ranked opponent with one of the most potent offenses in the country. 

UCLA's defensive secondary will be pressured throughout the game, and while the cornerbacks - Trey Brown, Rodney Van, Altereraun Verner and Matt Slater - have generally owned every passing offense they've faced, this is a whole new level of offensive weaponry they'll be seeing. When Oregon puts just its starting receivers on the field you're going up against Williams (6-5), Kent (6-5), Paysinger (6-2) and Rosario (6-4). So who does 5-9 Brown or true freshman Verner take? 

Advantage: Oregon.  UCLA has faced such mediocre offenses so far this season, you kind of forgot what is fun about college football - when two good units clash. This is really the first time this season Bruin fans will see it, and hopefully it won't signify the limits of UCLA's newfound-dominating defense.

But we have to expect that UCLA's defense won't be as dominating as we've seen in its first five games, merely because this is a new level of offense it's facing.  The UCLA D, however, has earned enough respect to believe it will be able to limit Oregon's offense and not get blown off the field.

While Oregon has a prolific passing game, it'd be smart to emulate Cal's approach to defending the Ducks - try to take away their running game and make Dixon beat you with his arm.  He probably still will, at least several times in the game, but if you can keep their running game under 150, the defense will do its job - and that is, keeping the game in reach.

There are many disadvantages UCLA has in this match-up, but one advantage it does have: It's seen this type of offense before, against Utah, Rice and a bit against Washington. None of those were the same caliber as Oregon's but it at least makes it feel familiar, rather than completely unfamiliar.

The other advantage would be UCLA's superiority in quickness in its front line, and expect UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker to try to exploit that, bringing pressure on Dixon from various points and run blitzing with the defense's quickness to fill holes.  While UCLA is trying to limit the Ducks on the ground and pressuring Dixon, it's going to be a huge task for UCLA's secondary to keep these receivers under wraps.  Again, they're going to catch some balls, especially against UCLA's smaller and young cornerbacks, but keeping them from gaining too much YAC (yards after the catch) will be key.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. OREGON'S DEFENSE

Oregon's defense is pretty good, and it probably would have been very good if it had all of the players that were projected to start at the beginning of the season.  It's missing four starters due to injury, including linebacker Brent Haberly (broken forearm), cornerback Jackie Bates (broken leg), defensive end Victor Filipe (elbow), and defensive tackle Cole Linehan (broken foot).  It's also missing back-up cornerback Terrell Ward (knee) and defensive tackle Ra'Shon Harris for the season with a torn tricep in his arm.  Junior defensive tackle Jeremy Gibbs (6-3, 283) has been hampered by a sprained ankle, but will play.

Despite all the injuries, Oregon is still the fifth-best defense overall in the conference, in a conference of good defenses, and it's #1 in pass defense, allowing just 154 yards through the air per game.

The way to move the ball against Oregon's beat-up defense is on the ground, with the Ducks allowing 178 yards per game rushing.  Last week, the Cal Bears beat the Ducks because they blew open big running holes on their way to gaining 235 yards on the ground. 

Losing Linehan up front was a blow (the equivalent of losing, say, Kevin Brown for UCLA), and then losing Harris, his projected back-up, was another blow.  Senior Matt Toeaina (6-3, 301) had to move from defensive end to tackle to compensate. It's also a big drop-off after losing all-world defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from a year ago. With Gibbs a bit banged up, Oregon's interior D line is its most vulnerable spot.

Starting on the edge is senior Darius Sanders (6-5, 270), and now sophomore Nick Reed (6-2, 259) who is the pass rush specialist they intended to use primarily on passing downs. 

Oregon linebacker Blair Phillips.

With the loss of Haberly at linebacker, you could call it lucky that the Ducks run a 4-2-5 scheme, minimizing Haberly's absence.  Experienced senior middle linebacker Blair Phillips (6-2, 250) is making a huge effort to pick up the slack and leads the conference in tackles with 9.6 per game (48 total).  Junior A.J. Tuitele (5-11, 213) has stepped in for Haberly, and is active, but under-sized.

Even without cornerback Bates, Oregon's back five have been excellent so far this season. Cal's offense leads the Pac-10 in passing, averaging 280 yards per game, and the Ducks limited them to a season-low 189 yards last week.   And the Ducks have been doing it with two redshirt freshmen cornerbacks, Walter Thurmond (6-0, 175) and Jairus Byrd (5-11, 208), with Byrd replacing Bates.  Their third corner is also a redshirt freshman, Willie Glasper (5-11, 180).

Senior free safety J.D. Nelson (5-11, 219) is the heart and soul of the Duck D, and a second-team all-conference pick a year ago. Sophomore Patrick Chung (5-11, 205) made a name for himself last year as a freshman at rover, and is having a strong sophomore campaign. 

It's a tough assignment for UCLA's offense, heading into defeaning Autzen Stadium, being led by a sophomore quarterback making his first start. It'd be too much to expect for Patrick Cowan to be as efficient as he was against Arizona last week.  He's bound to get flustered by the environment and a Duck defense that's going to make it a priority to harass him into mistakes. 

But what UCLA would like to see is Cowan not force throws, play smart, avoid interceptions and hopefully provide enough controlled passing yardage to complement a prolific running game.  Because without the running game, UCLA's offense isn't going anywhere.  Even though all eyes will be on Cowan, the real pressure to produce will be on UCLA's running game, with Oregon's running defense obviously weakened by its injuries.  UCLA's offensive line is led by guard Shannon Tevaga, starting his 24th straight game. It isn't often when you spotlight the interior OL as a major key of the game, but Tevaga, fellow guard Chris Joseph and center Robert Chai are this week, needing to have their best game of the season, opening holes through Oregon's vulnerable d-line. 

UCLA QB Patrick Cowan.

UCLA also has to get a big performance out of running back Chris Markey, who has looked good in recent weeks, despite some limited running room.  His back-up, Kahlil Bell, hasn't looked as good, and we expect, again, to see more of freshman Chane Moline running the ball.

Oregon has defended the pass mostly through very good coverage and just an average pass rush.  UCLA has been good at pass protection so far this season, really only having one bad game against Rice's funky defense.  And with the way UCLA will be trying to move Cowan around to get him different launch points, expect Cowan to have time to throw. 

But don't expect him to be throwing deep down the field. UCLA hasn't done it much all season, and it doesn't seem like it's in their offensive mindset this year.  And if there's a game where it might not be prudent this would be it. So, you'll probably see UCLA's wide receivers being utilized in the same way they have in every game this season, on quick outs and underneath.  Veterans like Junior Taylor, Marcus Everett and Brandon Breazell need to get an advantage over Oregon's young corners if UCLA's passing game is going to work.

Advantage:  Oregon. We give the nod to the Ducks because of the home field advantage, coupled with the UCLA quarterback starting for the first time. That's not a great combination for the Bruins. And UCLA's running game, which will be a big key to the game, has yet to show any consistency this season, and Oregon will be stacking the box trying to stop the Bruins from running and then challenging Cowan to beat them. 

If we hadn't made it clear, UCLA needs to be able to run the ball. It's the Oregon D's vulnerability, and it will eat up clock and keep Oregon's high-scoring offense off the field.

Watch for Special Teams to have a major part in this game.  And interestingly, both schools have very similar strengths and problems in their special teams.

UCLA punter Aaron Perez has been disappointing, typically getting off 37-yarders with very short hang times, giving opponents generally better field position than they should have.  The only punter having a worse season in the Pac-10 is Oregon's Matt Dragich, averaging just 36 yards per punt.   UCLA's kicker, Justin Medlock, once again, could be the team's high scorer in this game. Oregon's place kicker, Paul Martinez, is also a good one, with Medlock and he probably 1-2 in the conference.  

For UCLA, in a loud stadium, it's not hard to predict that true freshman punt returner Terrence Austin could have some issues.  Oregon boasts some good return men, however, with Jonathan Stewart leading the nation a year ago in kick-off returns.

Oregon also has shown it likes to fake punts this season, doing it twice so far and successfully.

Prediction:

While there's enough about this UCLA team that would lead the Bruin homer in you to believe they can win in Eugene, there are just too many factors tipping the scales the other way.

UCLA's offense hasn't hit on all cylinders yet this year, and it'd be surprising if it did in Autzen Stadium, starting a new quarterback, against the #1 passing defense in the conference. 

UCLA's defense, while it's been good so far this year, hasn't done it yet against a "good" offense.  Oregon has the #1 rushing offense in the Pac-10, their strength being their road-grating strength in the interior OL along with good running backs, and UCLA has yet to really prove it can shut down a good running offense. And then, on top of it, Oregon's passing game is scary, with big, fast receivers, against UCLA's smaller corners. 

Then there is the emotional factor. Oregon was ranked 11th in the nation last week, and poised to break the top ten with a win over Cal on the road. But the Ducks made some big mistakes, particularly turnovers, and got deflated against the Bears and never truly recovered in that game. Returning home this week, before their home crowd, you'd have to think that these Ducks are going to be very hyped up.

Turnovers have been critical for Oregon this year, both in converting their opponents' into victories and, last week, losing because of them.  Oregon's offense has a penchant for them, being second to last in turnover margin in the conference, with Dixon throwing picks and Oregon ball carriers losing the handle often.  UCLA is #1 in the conference in turnover margin, mostly because it's forced a bunch of them with its new, aggressive defense.  But you can also see UCLA's offense, with a possibly rattled, inexperienced quarterback, committing its fair share this week.   You can probably expect many of them, from both sides, which could help to run up the score a bit.

Many are saying that is is a game for UCLA to gain national respect. Could be, but more than likely a UCLA win wouldn't probably change the mind of Kirk Herbstreit about UCLA, but probably about Oregon. But those who follow the program closely know that this is an opportunity for UCLA to prove to itself and to its fans that it's a good team this year, and that it's defense is legitimate.  While we have to pick Oregon to win it, there is still enough here to not be suprised by a UCLA upset.

Oregon 31
UCLA 24


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