Oregon Preview

SCPlaybook's Lyle Everett provides an in-depth look into the #20 Oregon Ducks (4-1, 2-0) as they visit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this Saturday night to take on the USC Trojans, currently ranked ninth in the nation. ABC will offer live regional coverage starting at 5:00 PM PST.

Coaching

As far as coaching rivalries go, perhaps none in the Pac-10 is larger than the one shared by Pete Carroll and Mike Bellotti. Oregon's all-time winningest football coach has elevated the program to its highest level during his 13 years at the helm. Since taking over for Rich Brooks in 1995, Bellotti has led the school to 11 bowl appearances, including eight seasons with eight or more wins. Meanwhile Oregon has accumulated the second-most victories (108) of any program in the Pac-10 during his tenure. Bellotti is 110-53 at Oregon and is fourth all-time in Pac-10 conference wins with 67. Only four former league coaches (John Robinson, Don James, Terry Donahue and Larry Smith) were able to post more conference victories than Bellotti in their first ten seasons. He currently ranks 14th on the list of winningest active Division-I coaches in the nation.

Prior to accepting head coaching responsibilities, Bellotti served as Brooks' offensive coordinator from 1989 to 1994. Carving his niche as an offensive guru, Bellotti's offense at Oregon led the Pac-10 in scoring in his first year as OC. Many believe he won the head coaching job five years later when his offense put up 501 total yards against undefeated #2 Penn State in the 1995 Rose Bowl. Oregon set or tied 15 Rose Bowl records that day and Bellotti's gameplan kept Penn State off balance all afternoon. Once Brooks left to take over the St. Louis Rams in the NFL, the heir apparent stepped in and has never looked back. Bellotti is the longest tenured head coach in the Pac-10.

Nick Aliotti returns as defensive coordinator at Oregon, mentoring the always-aggressive "Gang Green". Aliotti is best known for taking a unit ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in defense in his first year in 1993 and molding it into one that ranked among the nation's top-20 in defending the run, pass and in scoring defense. During his 17 seasons at Oregon, he has coached 22 defensive players selected in the NFL draft. After leaving Oregon in 1995 to coach with Brooks in St. Louis, Aliotti headed the defense for the UCLA Bruins in 1998 before returning to Eugene the following year to stay.

44-year-old record-setting Chip Kelly returns for his second year as offensive coordinator for the Ducks. Formerly the OC at New Hampshire, Kelly is credited for utilizing the spread-read offense to boast the highest scoring team in Oregon history last year. While at New Hampshire, Kelly's offenses averaged better than 400 yards of total offense in seven of his eight seasons and more than 30 points a game in his final four years. Since taking over as Oregon's OC prior to the start of the 2007 season, Kelly's offense has topped 30 points in 14 of 18 outings. The Ducks have averaged 40.7 points per game this season. When eclipsing the 30-point plateau, UO has posted a 12-2 record.

Offense

Replacing Dennis Dixon, who was the Heisman front-runner last year before tearing his ACL in a November game against Arizona, has been a major priority for Oregon on the offensive side of the football. Bellotti was tasked to pick a new starter from a group of five potential candidates: Justin Roper, Nate Costa, Jeremiah Masoli, Chris Harper and Darren Thomas. Costa was the projected starter during fall camp, but was lost to season-ending knee surgery on a partial tear of his ACL just before the first game against Washington.

With Costa out, Roper and Masoli split time against Washington, both performing well in a lopsided 34 point victory. Three quarterbacks played in the Ducks' second game of the year against Utah State, with true freshman duel-threat Chris Harper seeing his first action of the season. With Roper sustaining an injury to his knee during the overtime victory the next week against Purdue, Masoli got the start against Boise State, but gave way to Darron Thomas who got the Ducks back into the game after being down 34-13 in the second half. While entering the game for the first time on the final play of the third quarter, Thomas proceeded to complete 13 of 25 passes for 210 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 4th to engineer drives that led to 19 points.

Despite Thomas' performance against the Broncos, Masoli got the start against WZU last week, completing 9 of 16 passes for 161 and two touchdowns. It is Masoli who figures to be the starter for the Ducks on Saturday night against the Trojans. A transfer from City College of San Francisco, Masoli opted to head north to Eugene despite the stout stable of QBs already on the roster. All the athletic signal caller did as a true freshman in 2007 was pass for 3,592 yards, run for 448 yards, amass 41 total touchdowns (11 rush), and lead his team to a junior college national title. He completed 61.3 percent of his passes (258-of-421), made third team All-America and was his conference's offensive player of the year.

Oregon features two very strong running backs during this 2008 campaign, despite losing one of their best ever in Jonathan Stewart one year early to the NFL. LaGarrette Blount, tabbed as the nation's top JC running back out of East Mississippi CC, leads the team with 487 yards and eight touchdowns on just 66 carries (7.3 yds/carry). Blount possesses power, speed, lateral quickness and great vision, which comprises all the best traits a running back can possibly have. He is seldom brought down by just one tackler and is viewed by Oregon fans as a bigger, more powerful Reuben Droughns.

Jeremiah Johnson (Dorsey HS) returns for his senior season, and his production has nearly matched that of Blount's. Johnson has gained 458 yards on 65 carries, scoring six touchdowns while averaging 6.8 yards per carry. Together, Johnson and Blount give USC's defense what will likely be the toughest rushing attack they will see all season.

Oregon's three most prominent receivers are all extremely capable, led by senior standout Jaison Williams (6'5", 240 lbs) and his team-high 20 receptions, 288 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Williams has a chance to break many of Oregon's all-time receiving records this year, including career receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He has at least one catch in the last 14 straight games. Williams also possesses good yards after catch (YAC) ability.

Terrance Scott starts on the opposite side and has caught 18 balls for 271 yards and two touchdowns. Jeff Maehl is a sophomore slot receiver with quality production of 18 catches for 205 yards and two touchdowns. As you can see, all three of these receivers have very similar numbers and demonstrate virtually no drop-off from one another statistically this season. The Ducks also have arguably the best tight end in the conference in Ed Dickson (Bellflower HS). Last year, Dickson caught more passes in one season (43) than any other Duck in school history. Thus far on the season, Dickson has put up big numbers for a TE, catching 20 passes for 266 yards and two TDs.

The blocking corps is built around team captain and Outland Trophy candidate Max Unger (6'5", 300 lbs). Unger has started every game of his Oregon career and is the man who the Ducks choose to run behind in crucial short yardage situations. He is smart and athletic enough to start at each position at O-line and is one of the program's strongest linemen ever.

Left tackle Fenuki Tupou (6'6", 322 lbs) is a large human being. Like Unger, he is on the Outland Trophy watch list entering his senior season. He bench presses 415 pounds, yet perhaps what is most impressive about him is that he actually saw time at quarterback in high school! RG Mark Lewis, LG Jordan Holmes and RT Jacob Hucko comprise the rest of the starting OL.

Defense

While the Ducks were definitely an offensive-oriented club in 2007, if Oregon hopes to remain a Top 25 team throughout this season, they will need to get a stronger effort from their defense. The main man on the D-Line unit is Mark Sanchez's old high school teammate, All-American DE Nick Reed, a hard-charging pass rusher who racked up 22.5 tackles for loss (TFL) and 12 sacks last season. He is a team captain and preseason nominee for the Nagurski and Lott Trophies as well as the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. Reed currently has 8.5 TFL to match five sacks in as many games this season. The Ducks most definitely bring the pass rush, as evidenced by Reed and the opposite end, junior Will Tukuafu (6'4", 279 lbs). Tukuafu is tied with Reed for the team lead with five sacks this season and leads the Pac-10 with 9.5 TFL. He was credited with 7 tackles, 3 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery last year vs. USC.

The Duck's leading tackler is WLB Spencer Paysinger (Beverly Hills HS). Paysinger got off to a quick start, posting 12 tackles, 2.5 TFL and one sack in his starting debut against Washington. A key contributor on last year's special teams units, he emerged as one of the team's most improved players during spring ball. He was tops for the linebacking corps in the weight room as a sophomore this season, squatting 445 pounds and power cleaning 319. Senior John Bacon is the middle linebacker, while Jerome Boyd (Dorsey HS) gets the start at SLB after a 2007 All-Pac Ten Honorable Mention season.

Oregon brings what could be the most talented defensive backfield in the conference to the Coliseum this Saturday, led by preseason All-Americans Patrick Chung, Jarius Byrd and Walter Thurmond. Chung, a senior Rover, is thought of as one of the hardest hitters in the nation, having paced the club with 117 tackles a year ago. He recently moved into the top ten on Oregon's all-time tackles list with 323 and was on preseason watchlists for the Nagurski, Thorpe and Bednarik Awards. He is the heart and soul of Oregon's defense, a four-year starter and three-time all-conference honoree. Chung was second team All-America last year after posting more tackles than any other DB had for UO in 13 years.

Jarius Byrd is coming off a huge year in which he led the Ducks with seven INTs while adding three fumble recoveries and 65 tackles to his 2007 resume. He too is a three year starter and preseason All-American. Possessing great closing speed, Byrd is an incredible competitor who at times desires to put the entire team on his shoulders. He has tremendous awareness once the ball is in the air and is a deadly one-on-one cover corner. During winter testing, he set the program's all-time power clean lift for a DB with 330 pounds.

Byrd's counterpart at corner is Walter Thurmond. He is the team's fastest player and is currently the team leader with two INTs on the year, but missed the entire game against Boise State with a groin injury.

Special Teams

Senior placekicker Matt Evensen was 4-of-4 on FG attempts and converted 2 PATs in the Ducks' dramatic 32-26 overtime win at Purdue. He tied the contest at 23-all with a clutch 38-yarder late in the 4th quarter and also booted a 33-yarder on the first possession of OT for the Ducks' first lead in the game. He is 6-9 on the season, with a long of 41 yards, and has converted 24 of 26 PATs.

Senior Josh Syria is one of the best punters in the conference, averaging 39.4 yards per punt. Patrick Chung and Walter Thurmond share duties of kick returning, with Chung averaging 33.8 yards a return and Thurmond right behind him with 27.6. Jarius Byrd is the punt returner, averaging over 16 yards per return while taking one back for an 87-yard touchdown at Purdue.

Notes USC leads the all-time series 36-16-2, but the teams have split 6-6 over the past dozen meetings…Since 2000, the two sides have met in Los Angeles only twice with USC winning 35-10 in 2006 and the Ducks prevailing 28-17 in 2000… The Ducks wear helmet stickers that read "TD" in memory of teammate Todd Doxey, a victim of a swimming accident on the McKenzie River this past summer… The Ducks are 15-4 since the start of 2006 when they have a 100-yard rusher… For the third straight year, Oregon will feature custom Nike uniforms made up of yellow, green, black and white jerseys and pnts, along with helmets in green, white and yellow…The uniforms claim to be 28% lighter than other uniforms when dry and 34% lighter under wet conditions…With nearly 400 style combinations of uniforms at their disposal, the Ducks wore a different style in every game during the 2007 season.….The Trojans are currently 16.5 point home favorites…

Stay tuned to SCPlaybook.com for news and updates on the USC Trojans.


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