Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

More probing for reasons USC's seven-year streak at the top of the Pac-10 may be vulnerable. Read Thursday's argument for Cal. Part of the Doc’s Pac-10 Week.

Kelly has his man. The jury is very much out on Chip Kelly as a boss -- he's never been a head coach at any level -- but based on th early returns, one of the enduring legacies of Mike Bellotti's paradigm-shifting tenure at Oregon will be plucking Kelly from total obscurity at New Hampshire. As offensive coordinator, his versatile, run-based spread immediately punched up an inconsistent, occasionally stagnant unit and turned an erratic, on-and-off starter, Dennis Dixon, into the pilot of an all-purpose death machine that averaged just shy of 43 points per game; convincingly beat Michigan, USC and then-undefeated Arizona State; and rose to No. 2 in the polls through the first two months of 2007.

In retrospect, the fact that the offense collapsed so spectacularly following Dixon's season-ending ACL injury at Arizona -- the Ducks dropped that game and the last two of the regular season, including a pathetic shutout loss at UCLA -- is a testament to its resilience: Given a month to recuperate, Oregon blasted South Florida in the Sun Bowl, 56-21, with previously hopeless freshman Justin Roper, a third-stringer, tossing four touchdown passes.

It was last year's success, though, that really proved the point, after starter Nate Costa went down in the preseason and Roper was hurt in the third game; Jeremiah Masoli, another third-stringer, was knocked out in the first quarter of the loss to Boise State. Subsequently, the Ducks started 4-2 with no really impressive wins and again fell off the radar after a 34-point loss at USC. But with the completely unheralded Masoli entrenched as the starter over the second half of the season, all of a sudden it was bar the door again:

Oregon Offense Over the Second Half of 2008
UCLA (W): 31 points, 365 yards, 5.6 per play
at Arizona State (W): 54 points, 537 yards, 7.4 per play
at California (L): 16 points, 290 yards, 3.5 per play
Stanford (W): 35 points, 451 yards, 7.3 per play
Arizona (W): 55 points, 504 yards, 8.8 per play
at Oregon State (W): 65 points, 694 yards, 10.1 per play
vs. Oklahoma State (W): 42 points, 565 yards, 7.8 per play

Note that the only loss on that list, at Cal, occurred under the following conditions:

... and that's as impressive a run as any offense made last year short of the record-breaking spree at Oklahoma. Oregon's offense broke records, too, setting school marks for total points and yards and eventually outpacing the 2007 attack that seemed well on its way to the mythical championship game before Dixon's injury.

All that is to say this: Kelly's scheme has more than fulfilled the hype despite a string of injuries and attrition at key positions. At the key position, the short, squat, lightly recruited Masoli couldn't be more different than the lanky, sleek Dixon, or the ponderous, pocket-bound Roper, but all three have succeeded to various extents, and Masoli almost unanimously projects as the best quarterback in the conference as a junior.

Make that 'Men.' Like Jonathan Stewart next to Dixon, LeGarrette Blount was lost next Masoli and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Jeremiah Johnson, but completely lived up to the hype when he got the chance, flashing the same combination of power and breakway ability that made Stewart a first-round pick. Blount averaged a ludicrous 7.3 per carry, with eight runs over 30 yards on just 138 carries, and brought his fair share of thunder:

But the most intriguing player in the offense may be Jamere Holland, a blazing USC transfer who played sporadically last year but is expected to have much more expanded role. Masoli and Blount should be able to run most of the time regardless, and Jeff Maehl and tight end/tazer Ed Dickson are reliable receivers, but Holland's ability to stretch the field can make the offense truly lethal.

We won't back down. USC comes to Autzen Stadium for a potentially blockbuster showdown on Halloween (if the Ducks get by Cal at home and USC by Ohio State and Cal on the road, both teams should be undefeated and ranked in the top 5-10), but at least as important as the homefield advantage is the fact that Oregon is the only Pac-10 team in the last six years that's lined up across from the Trojans as an ostensible equal: The Ducks were actually slight favorites when SC came to Eugene in 2007, and responded with a 24-17 win over a banged-up outfit, but still one with more experience overall than the Trojans who'll come in this time. Having those few weeks as the unquestioned king of the conference, however briefly, has to account for a lot -- and if nothing else, SC has lost three straight in the state of Oregon since 2005. That's no substitute for coming at them with a veteran offensive line, as opposed to one missing three multi-year starters, but it is, you know, something.

Later today: Pac-10 picks.

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