TV: ABC regional coverage beginning at 12:30 PM, Saturday
Line: Oregon favored by 4
After beating Michigan in the biggest non-conference victory of the Mike Bellotti era, Oregon is the talk of college football. A stunning first half blowout was enough to withstand a late run by the then No. 3 ranked team in the country and has many people suggesting that a rout of the Cougars is next on the menu. But as Pac-10 fans are well aware, this conference knows how to beat its own. With the exception of the '96 Sun Devils and the '98 Bruins, no team in the conference has escaped unscathed in the last 12 seasons. Seemingly indomitable teams led by quarterbacks named Palmer, Harrington, Gesser, McNown, Tuiassassopo, and Leaf have all fallen to seemingly less talented conference foes. While there is reason to debate which team is more talented in this match-up, Saturday will separate one pretender from the contenders in the race for the Pac-10 title.
THE DUCKS ON OFFENSE
Overview: The Bellotti offense stresses running the ball effectively and passing the ball safely. Thus far the Ducks have done both with proficiency. They rank in the top 35 nationally in both run and passing yards, and have achieved their first downs on an almost equal basis. Turnovers have been almost non-existent, as this team understands the importance of ball control as well as any team in the country. You either play solid fundamental defense against the Ducks or you play catch-up, it's as simple as that. The Ducks won't blow you away with their offensive firepower, but they will kill you with their tenacity and balance if you don't knock them on their ass.
Strategy: WSUs' defense has performed as advertised in its first 4 match-ups, but they have yet to face an offense this talented and balanced. They have to bring their A-game from the opening kickoff or they may find themselves in Michigans' shoes at halftime. Priority one is stopping the Duck's run game and forcing them into third and long situations, where the Duck's two-headed QB can be tested by a veteran WSU secondary. This is harder than it sounds as the Duck offensive line is a cohesive group of veterans that won't give up on their running attack even if it is ineffective for a series or two. The Cougs second priority is to get pressure on the Ducks quarterbacks. While this is a Cougar forte', their task will be compounded by the fact that the Ducks can comfortably switch to a fresh quarterback when needed, either of which has good escape ability. Solid fundamental tackling and swarming is a must, as the Ducks have a knack for turning short passes into big gains.
Players to Know:
Kellen Clemens, QB: Oregon deliberately rotates quarterbacks between Clemens and Jason Fife. Clemens is the primarily signal caller and has been nearly perfect in his sophomore season, throwing for 729 yards and 7 TDs in the first 4 games, but the numbers don't do him justice. He moves like a cat and throws accurately in the pocket or on the run. When Fife is brought in, the offense usually switches to no huddle and can really disrupt a defense. Both players make great decisions with the ball and are a threat to scramble for yards whenever the play breaks down. Neither has thrown an interception in 120 pass attempts and they currently rank No. 1 and 2 in conference passing efficiency.
Terrence Whitehead, RB: Oregon runs a three-headed running back, similar to the way WSU does. Whitehead is the most utilized and the most dangerous, with Ryan Shaw and Chris Vincent rotating in. The trio probably is a notch below their WSU counterparts, but they get more carries so they tend to wear defenses down more.
Samie Parker & Demetrius Williams, WRs: Yes, Oregon has a Williams too. Both he and Sammy Parker are dangerous pass catching threats and are fast as hell. Tackle them securely or a short gain will quickly become 6 points.
Tim Day, TE: Day really had a good game against the Wolverines and may become a bigger part of their offense in the weeks to come. He's a solid receiver and blocker.
THE DUCKS ON DEFENSE
Overview: Just as Bellotti's offense tries to run the ball and protect the quarterback, his defensive scheme looks to stop the run and pressure the passer. Against Michigan, their run defense was impenetrable and they currently rank in the top 5 in most run defense categories nationally (2.2 yards per rush, 53 rushing yards per game). Pass defense has been a different story, with the Duck secondary still not shaking their reputation for giving up long passing plays in the second half, but they have improved over last year. In 2001 and 2002 Duck's 4-3-4 defensive set has often resembled more of a 6-3-2 with their cornerbacks left on an island to defend receivers one-on-one. This season they have been less prone to let the corners fly solo.
Strategy: Player for player these teams match up well. It is generally suggested that home fields are worth three points. Autzen Stadium is worth four, and the odds makers seem to recognize that. The Cougars will be aided by the experience gained at South Bend and in Boulder, but this may be their toughest road venue yet. And they haven't visited Eugene since '99. The effect of crowd noise must be minimized by the use of silent counts, and hopefully, by putting points on the board before the Ducks build too much momentum. If WSU wants to run the ball against these guys, they will have to make Oregon respect the pass first. The good news is WSU quarterback Matt Kegel may have some decent passing prospects, as the Duck secondary is notably smaller than the Cougar receivers. Pass early and aggressively. Kegel will need to take some chances, preferably on longer yardage plays. The Cougs need to keep pace with the Ducks, as both teams are known for coming out of the box red hot. If the game is close at the half, WSU should be in good shape. The third quarter has been all Bill Doba this year (WSU has outscored opponents 41-9 in the "coach's quarter") and the Cougs could force Oregon into another second half letdown if they make good adjustments.
Players to Know:
Kevin Mitchell, OLB: It seems like Mitchell has been around forever. He is a tackling machine and reads defenses very well. He's suffered from knee problems but seems to be holding up well this year.
Devan Long, DE: 4.5 sacks in his first 4 starts have people in Eugene already making comparisons to his Outland Trophy winning brother, Rien, from WSU. While he might not be a candidate for any major awards yet, he has been Oregon's best pass rushing threat off the line and will need to be marked.
Keith Lewis, FS: Lewis is one of the best open field tacklers in the Pac-10. He has done a great job containing big runs and minimizing the damage from any blown coverages on the receivers.
Igor Olshansky, DT: The loss of star sophomore Haloti Ngata put a lot of pressure on Igor to step up and minimize the drop off at defensive tackle. He along with cohorts Robby Valenzuela and Junior Siavii have been outstanding at clogging up the middle and the defense hasn't missed a beat in Ngata's absence.
Steven Moore, CB: At 5-9, Moore is actually the bigger and better of the two Duck corners (5-8 soph. Aaron Gipson is the other). He's got great speed but will have to stay focused on containing WSU receivers on the longer routes.
THE DUCKS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Ducks are sound in all facets of special teams. Both kickers are accurate and their kick returners are a threat to score if not effectively contained. Place kicker Jared Siegel hasn't been stellar this year, but was accurate from as far as 59 yards last season. The Ducks are aggressive in special teams coverage, blocking 9 kicks last year and 3 so far this season.
The Cougars and Ducks own the rights to one of Pac-10's most even rivalries. How even? Currently the Ducks control the series by just one game, 37 wins to WSU's 36. Likewise, Oregon has bettered WSU by just one win since the start of their rise to prominence in the 1994 Rose Bowl run. Over the past 2 seasons, each program has claimed a Pac-10 title, with WSU posting a 23-6 record to Oregon's 22-7 (WSU's victory in Pullman last season being the only difference). Whether it is personnel or prestige, these teams are bringing very similar material to the table right now. The separating factors on Saturday will be the coaches and the venue. The Ducks have shown they are still brutal at home and Bellotti has once again proven himself to be among the best game day coaches in college football. The Cougs have demonstrated they can play quality ball at any venue in the country and have virtually silenced the doubters of Doba and Kegel.
All signs point to a great game on Saturday. Grab your steak knife and eat it up.