This is definitely the undercard for the evening's main event.
This match-up pits the #10-ranked unit in the Pac-10 for total offense against the #7-ranked defense. It's the #9-ranked passing offense against the #9-ranked passing defense.
For UCLA, this was about expected this season. But for Oregon, the Ducks' dismal defensive performance so far this season was very much unexpected.
The Ducks returned seven starters, and the defense was actually thought to be the team's strength heading into the season. And it wasn't a case where the analysts were affected by Duck blindness, Oregon did have a number of standout players returning from last season.
|D-End Nick Reed.|
But it hasn't materialized, at least so far.
There have been some minor injuries to the Duck stars, but nothing too serious. In fact, the Ducks have been pretty injury-free on defense, with only one starter missing one game so far due to injury.
The buzz phrase in Eugene this week has been "training their eyes," which refers to Oregon's secondary not biting on play-action.
Boise State exploited the Oregon secondary for 386 passing yards and three touchdowns. Last week, USC lit it up for 443 passing yards and 4 touchdowns. Much of it was blamed on the cornerbacks biting on play-action.
This might sound familiar: Oregon Defensive Coordinator Nick Aliotti is getting much of the blame. The note of familiarity for UCLA fans is due to Aliotti being the former UCLA DC under Bob Toledo, who was, whether justified or not, given much of the blame for UCLA's porous defenses in the late 1990s – specifically the one in 1998 that most Bruin fans think kept UCLA from a national championship that year.
Aliotti's defensive philosophy then is the same as now: Put your cornerbacks more or less on a man-to-man island and hope you can pressure the quarterback quickly enough so the corners aren't isolated for too long. It's not a bad defensive philosophy, but you need some NFL-type cornerbacks to pull it off, and Oregon thought they had some capable ones this season.
Reed has done his part in limiting the amount of time opposing quarterbacks have to get rid of the ball. He has six sacks, which has him tied for fifth in the country. What's made him so effective is the fact that the other defensive end on the other side, Will Tukuafu (JR, 6-4, 272) has five sacks of his own, with the team having a total of 19 on the season, which is #1 in conference.
Ra'Shon Harris (SR, 6-5, 300) is another good one lined up at defensive tackle, who has 9 tackles for loss.
The linebacking unit has generally has been solid. Veterans John Bacon (SR, 6-4, 240) and Jerome Boyd (SR, 6-2, 215) have performed fairly well at middle and strongside linebacker, and new starter Spencer Paysinger (SO, 6-3, 216) has generally gotten good reviews at weakside.
The blame has mostly been heaped on the much-hyped secondary, and mostly on the cornerbacks, who have been biting foolishly on play-action, trying to overplay the run.
It's generally helped the Ducks against the run, since they're allowing just 109 yards per game on the ground.
|Tight end Ryan Moya.|
UCLA quarterback Kevin Craft will probably be on the run for most of this game, both intentionally and unintentionally. Watch for UCLA Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow try to get him away from pressure with roll-outs, trying to get him to hook up with the receiver that has become his most reliable, tight end Ryan Moya.
UCLA's running game struggled against Washington State – in the Rose Bowl – so you can imagine how it will fare against Oregon in Eugene.
Advantage: Oregon. The Ducks get this nod, but it's not neceesarily an overwhelming one. C'mon, we all know that there isn't a defense out there that UCLA's offense would get the advantage over besides Washington State. But Oregon's defense has shown it's vulnerable. Heck, it even allowed WSU to gain 271 yards, sandwiched between 424 yards by Boise State and 598 yards by USC.
The thing is, though, the teams that have done well against the Ducks' D have been good passing teams, which UCLA isn't. Oregon's cornerbacks have struggled against elite wide receivers, which UCLA doesn't really have, when opposing quarterbacks have been given a lot of time to throw by experienced offensive lines, which UCLA also doesn't have.
Expect UCLA to break out its full playbook for this one. It went vanilla last week against Washington State, which is surprising in itself that UCLA was confident enough in its offense against anyone to go vanilla. Chow will utilize some plays that we haven't seen yet this season, and neither has Oregon, hoping the element of surprise might possibly make up for the advantages that Oregon's defense has over UCLA's offense.
OREGON'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE
The Oregon offense is truly one of the most impressive in the country so far this season. It's ranked #10 in the country, and it's accomplished this without either of its first- or second-string quarterbacks.
|Receiver Jaison Williams.|
But, then again, UCLA is closer to Washington and Purdue (two of the teams Oregon beat) than they are to Boise State and USC.
What's been most interesting about Oregon's offense is that, without its two top quarterbacks and absent a significant passing game, it's still so effective. The spread-option has been mostly option, with the Ducks having run the ball 60% of the time. And it's been done with every opposing defense knowing it's going to run the ball.
It's a testament to how good the offensive scheme is, that opposing defenses are still guessing what Oregon's offense is going to do just about every time it comes to the line of scrimmage.
It's also a testament to a good offensive line, and how that can be the primary influence on a team's season. Oregon has, perhaps, one of the best offensive lines in the country, with Max Unger (SR, 6-5, 300), who was on a few pre-season All-American teams, at center, and Fenuki Tupou (SR, 6-6, 330), the left tackle, considered one of the best at his position in the nation. Tupou had a mild injury, but is expected to play and right tackle Jacob Hucko (SR, 6-7, 312) has a fractured shoulder he'll continue to play with, and has been playing with for weeks. They've given up just 8 sacks, and four of those came in one game, against USC, last weekend.
What's scariest about Oregon's rushing attack is they use LeGarrette Blount (JR, 6-2, 220), the JC transfer, as a devastating change of pace. Johnson has 485 yards and Blount has 481.
Both, individually, have gained just about the same yards as UCLA's entire running game (487).
Johnson and Blount did have pretty poor games against USC last week, with Johnson gaining 45 and Blount 0, but just like you have to throw out the 200 combined yards they ran for against Purdue (one of the worst rushing defenses in the country), you can throw out their results against USC. The Ducks are averaging 267 yards on the ground per game, so you can easily expect them to gain a huge chunk of yards running the ball.
Starting at quarterback for the last three games has been Jeremiah Masoli (SO, 5-11, 214), a JC transfer who led City College of San Francisco to a JC national championship in 2007. Masoli has done what the Oregon coaches have asked of him, achieving a very solid 132 efficiency rating, completing about 60% of his passes and throwing just one interception. He's also very much a threat to run the ball out of the spread option.
|D-tackle Brigham Harwell.|
It's interesting to consider that Roper would still be considered the #2 QB if it weren't for a season-ending knee injury to projected starter Nate Costa in fall camp.
When Masoli or Roper look to throw, they'll be looking for Jaison Williams (SR, 6-5, 242), a very big and physical receiver who tends to dominate smaller defensive backs. Terence Scott (SR, 6-0, 171) is the guy with the shake, and tight end Ed Dickson (JR, 6-5, 243) is considered one of the league's best. Another one to watch is Jeff Maehl (SO, 6-1, 175), even though he could be slowed by an injured wrist that is bandaged.
UCLA's defense has struggled defending the run so far this season (don't get fooled by last week's performance against Washington State). Every opponent that had a good running game pretty much walked through the Bruins for easy rushing yards. It's not a coincidence that UCLA's two wins – against Tennessee and Washington State – were the games it succeeded in limiting the opponents running game.
It's too much responsibility to heap on the heads of UCLA's two good defensive tackles, Brigham Harwell and Brian Price. The running game has been vulnerable because opposing OLs have been able to double-team Harwell and Price since no one fears UCLA's defensive ends.
Advantage: Oregon. The Ducks, of course, will own this match-up, but it probably won't be the annihilation you might think since Oregon is fairly one-dimensional. UCLA's Defensive Coordinator DeWayne Walker has to see that his only chance is to put one or two additional defenders in the box to try to stop Oregon's running game and make Masoli or Roper beat you. UCLA's passing defense hasn't exactly been stellar, but the two cornerbacks, Alterraun Verner and Michael Norris, have had solid seasons so far, and Walker will depend on them to keep Oregon's deep options under wraps while he pressures the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. It might take more pressing of the receivers than Walker usually employs.
The problem will be, however, even though UCLA stacks the box, Oregon will almost assuredly be able to run.
On Special Teams, the Duck to watch is Jairus Byrd, who is averaging 16 yards per punt return, having scored a touchdown on an 87-yard return so far this season. Oregon has two solid performers in place kicker Matt Evensen (SR, 6-1, 194) and punter Josh Syria (SR, 6-3, 232).
Oregon has only scored over 40 points on UCLA once in 80 years.
Saturday could very well be the second time.
But don't think this Oregon team is as good as some of the most recent Duck teams; they simply aren't. The offense isn't as good as in years past, mostly because of the question mark at quarterback, and the defense is inexplicably under-performing. The Ducks have beaten some lowly teams, but have looked mediocre against two good ones.
But also, don't think that this Duck team isn't vastly more talented than UCLA. Oregon has a number of NFL-potential skill players, but where it really owns this match-up is with its offensive line. The Oregon OL should appear similar to BYU's OL against UCLA's defense – big, strong and dominating. If UCLA is going to have any success against them, DeWayne Walker is going to have to pull out all the stops on his blitzing, including run blitzes, and take more chances than we've seen yet this season.
Neuheisel knows that this is a showcase game for his program, and a win would get them back in the post-Tennessee state of exceeding expectation. Watch for Neuheisel and Chow to spice up the offense with some imaginative play-calling, since the element of surprise is really all it has going for it.
UCLA fell flat on its face the last time it went on the road against a good team. That experience will probably keep this one from getting out of hand for the Bruins, and the fact that the 2008 edition of the Ducks isn't nearly as good as they've been recently gives UCLA some chance to stay in it.
Neuheisel and the Bruins will try to possess the ball, mixing the run game and the short passing game to keep its offense on the field, run the clock, and keep the score down. It's the same strategy it's had in every game (except WSU): Hopefully stay in it by the fourth quarter, maybe get a couple of lucky breaks like turnovers, and be in a position late in the game to steal one.