October 28, 2009
From the beginning, Oregon's football renaissance over the last decade has always been about offense, and in a lot of ways, that's still the case: Past the midpoint of the season, the Ducks are second in the Pac-10 and in the top 20 nationally in both rushing and scoring, and have put up at least 42 points in three of the last four games, all against Pac-10 defenses. In place of infamously exiled LaGarrette Blount, running back LaMichael James has four 100-yard games in the last five and is rolling up almost seven yards per carry, with nine runs of at least 20 yards.
In general, though, this unit hasn't lived up to the hype, and hasn't come close to the attack that left a trail of destruction en route to a 6-1 finish over the second half of last season. That offense was frighteningly balanced: In addition to eight 300-yard rushing games, then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly also coaxed big passing games from raw quarterback Jeremiah Masoli at the end of the year -- 298 yards through the air against Arizona, 309 at Oregon State, 258 against Oklahoma State -- to give the Ducks as much punch offensively as any team in the country. But other than one prolific afternoon at Cal, the passing game has been a mediocre threat at best -- the Ducks rank last in the conference in yards per game through the air, and might be in a completely different place in the season if not for defensive and special teams touchdowns providing the margins in tight wins over Purdue, Utah and UCLA.
But where the Ducks are in the season is right where they want to be: On a six-game winning streak, undefeated in conference play, on pace for its first BCS bid since 2001 and having apparently left the disastrous opening-night flop back in Boise heading into their second season-making date Saturday, against USC. And unlike Oregon's previous flirtations with the top 10 in 2001, 2005 and 2007, this defense is more carrying its own weight in relation to the offense:
It's not only the best Duck defense of the decade so far: It's been the best defense in pretty much every significant way (a few yards per game on the ground notwithstanding), most notably by allowing a full touchdown less per game on the scoreboard than any other Oregon D since 2001. The impetus for the turnaround has come from the perpetually scorched secondary, which leads the Pac-10 in both passing yards allowed and pass efficiency D and has held every opposing quarterback in check despite missing three-year starter Walter Thurmond at one cornerback for the last three games and his backup, fellow senior Willie Glasper, for the last two. Turns out you can afford to be a little banged up on the back end when you've generated 18 sacks in the last four games on the front end.
The big advantage this team has over its predecessors, of course, is that it hasn't faced USC, which completely torched the Ducks through the air last year in Los Angeles and is settling into a steady rhythm behind freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. Since leading the fourth-quarter comeback in SC's low-scoring win at Ohio State and sitting out the entirety of the stunning loss to Washington, Barkley has set his sights downfield, gunning for 283 yards at Cal and 380 at Notre Dame while averaging well over 16 yards per completion -- largely without the Trojans' top deep threat, Ronald Johnson, who returned from a broken collarbone for a big game in last week's win over Oregon State (six catches for 99 yards and a touchdown) and will be at full speed Saturday in Eugene.
USC's point totals have also steadily risen with each of Barkley's last five starts, as well from 18 at Ohio State to 27 against Washington State, 30 at Cal, 34 at Notre Dame and 42 against Oregon State. As it turns out, they've needed almost all of those points to win shootouts the last two weeks. For once, though, Oregon doesn't seem to be in a position to hit the throttle on offense and hope there's enough juice to keep pace; unless there's another gear that's been almost entirely absent through the first seven games, we know this offense isn't quite that high-powered. The defense, on the other hand, may be in position to match or even surpass the Trojans as the best D in the Pac-10 by locking down Barkley and Co. in one of the toughest environments it will face all year. If it doesn't, it's hard to see any other plausible route to the conference driver's seat.