Last season there was a toss-up for our most exciting game. Was it the 32-26 double overtime loss to Oregon or the 48-42 shootout win over Michigan? Both games had their share of big plays, but I tend to lean toward the Oregon game. When Michigan came to town, no one was sure who was going to win in the battle of 2-6 teams. It was a fun shootout, but little else was on the line. Against Oregon, many Duck fans respected us, but expected a double-digit win. Judging by the comments left on my old Off the Tracks blog, we gained the respect of nearly every Oregon fan that day.
In the end, I dubbed the loss one of the most frustrating of the past few years. We had a ranked team on the ropes at home and were playing some of our best football in a long time only to have a couple of critical coaching errors cost us the game. Now we have the return trip to Autzen Stadium to face the Ducks again. Virtually no one outside of this blog is giving us any shot at all of winning the game. After last year though, I think this could be a very dangerous game for a Duck team that will likely begin the season in the top 15.
2008 Record: 10-3 (7-2 tied for second place in Pac-10)
Bowl result: Beat Oklahoma State 42-31 in Holiday Bowl
Series with Purdue: Tied 1-1
Last Purdue win: 9/29/79 at Purdue 13-7
Last Oregon win: 9/13/08 at Purdue 32-26 2OT
Purdue fans wonder what might have been if Purdue had held on against Oregon last year.
Last Season for the Ducks:
I have become a pretty regular reader of Addicted to Quack. The general consensus of that excellent blog community is that injuries, specifically at the quarterback position, have cost the Ducks at least the Pac-10 title the past two seasons. Some would even say (and I agree) it cost them a shot at the national title in 2007. Oregon dropped just three games last season, and both Pac-10 losses came away from Autzen Stadium. Boise State surprised the Ducks 37-32 the week after we played them, but Oregon was still trying to settle its quarterback situation after Justin Roper got hurt against us. The Ducks open this coming season at Boise State in a game that many Duck fans are looking forward to. There was some bad blood last season between the schools, so our game with Oregon comes after a pretty hyped contest.
Oregon put some serious points on the board in the Pac-10, going 7-2 and earning a second place finish. It's only two losses were in games where the Ducks failed to score more than 16 points. USC asserted its dominance in a 44-10 win at the Coliseum, while California won a tight 26-16 home game. In four of Oregon's Pac-10 victories the Ducks cracked the 50 point barrier. The culmination was a 65-38 thrashing of Oregon State (in the Beavers' home stadium, no less) in the annual Civil War game that personally denied their rivals a trip to the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks are not afraid of an ambitious schedule this year. ESPN rated their non-conference schedule as the toughest in the Pac-10. Oregon goes to Boise State before facing Purdue and BCS bowl winner Utah. That's all before getting into a conference season that features USC. All of its tough conference games are at home, however. If Oregon gets through its non-conference slate undefeated is has a legitimate shot of finish the year unbeaten.
The Ducks had a pair of 1,000 yard rushers a season ago, while quarterback Jeremiah Masoli nearly became a third member of that group. LaGarrette Blount (1,002 yards, 17 TD's) will be the featured back with the departure of Jeremiah Johnson (1,201 yards, 13 TD's). Blount carried just 11 times against us last year, but he had 132 yards and two touchdowns. For the most part we actually kept him in check. 72 of his yards came on one play that set up a score in the second half. He did have the game winning touchdown at the end of the second overtime. Many pundits are lauding him as one of the best returning running backs in the nation. A JuCo transfer a year ago, Blount will make himself a lot of money with a good year in 2009.
A great 2009 isn't a guarantee, as the ATQ guys are certainly concerned about Blount's off the field attitude. There have been some concerns about his academics and level of fitness, but there are certainly no questions about his talent. As exhibited in last year's game, we can contain him for 10 plays only to have him bust out on the 11th. As far as Oregon's other running backs, The ATQ guys do a fantastic job of outlining the prospects to replace Johnson in the above link. They are young without much experience, but are extremely talented, especially LaMichael James.
Oregon's quarterback situation was messy a year ago. Nate Costa was to be the starter, but a second straight ACL tear ended his season before it began. Justin Roper started against us, but got injured and only played sparingly the rest of the year. Roper transferred out of the program before spring football, and he was followed by Chris Harper, who also played a little at quarterback late in the year. That left just Masoli and sophomore Darron Thomas (who got significant minutes as the 4th string guy against Boise due to injuries to Masoli and Roper) as the only experienced quarterbacks on the roster.
Last year's injuries could be a blessing to the Ducks. They allowed Masoli, who was third string going into the season, to emerge as the #1 starter. He got his first start against Boise State and improved greatly as the season went on. The junior ended up throwing for 1,744 yards and 13 touchdowns (against just five interceptions). He also ran for 718 yards and 10 touchdowns in Oregon's spread offense. Many believe that Harper is the best quarterback in the Pac-10, and he had little trouble grasping Oregon's complex spread offense a year ago.
Though Oregon prefers to run the ball, their passing game isn't too bad either. Jamere Holland is expected to become one of Oregon's top receivers, but he has limited game experience. He caught four passes for 53 yards a year ago, but more is expected of him this year. Jeffrey Maehl (39-421-5), and tight end Ed Dickson (35-508-3) are the two best returning receivers statistically. Senior Rory Cavaille is also listed as a starter on the depth chart, but he had just two catches for 12 yards and a score. The Ducks will do most of their work on the ground, but the receivers are just dangerous enough that we cannot completely ignore them. Dickson in particular was dangerous against us with 7 catches for 93 yards in last season's game.
One of the biggest question marks offensively for Oregon is its offensive line. In my earlier Q&A with Addicted to Quack, Dominic pointed out that their line lost a lot to graduation/the NFL and was banged up during spring ball. Projected starters C.E. Kaiser and Bo Thran were hurt during spring football and long-time center Max Unger was a second round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. The line projects to have some good size with everyone over 285 pounds. Its quickness will also be a factor, as it is necessary in their no huddle spread option attack. They will need to come together quickly, however. As we learned last year, offensive line issues can kill a season in a hurry if injuries keep you from putting a consistent group on the field.
When you're scoring almost 42 points per game you often don't need much defense. Even so, the Ducks had a pretty good unit last year that held opponents to 28 points per game. Their secondary was among the best in the nation, but losses due to graduation meant hat much of this unit must be replaced. Fortunately for Oregon, the offense should give them plenty of margin for error in most games.
Kory Sheets had a 180 yard, 2 TD performance against Oregon last year in what may have been his best game as a Boilermaker. His first carry on the day was an 80 yard TD run, and we really should have given him the ball more as the day went on. Overall we ran for 201 yards as a team against Oregon. I'm sorry, but history shows there is absolutely no valid reason we should EVER lose when we rush for 200 yards as a team. The running game will be our strength to start the year, and we have to have a similar performance against Oregon to have any hope of winning in Autzen.
The first line of defense against the run will be an experienced defensive line full of upperclassmen. Senior end Will Tukuafu brings back 7.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. His numbers should go up with the departure of Nick Reed (13 sacks a year ago). Kenny Rowe, Brandon Bair, and Blake Ferras were not starters a year ago, but saw some spot action. Ferras is a 6'6", 290 pound space eater at defensive tackle that should make running between the tackles difficult.
Oregon's back seven is often split into a two linebacker, five defensive back nickel package. Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews are both juniors at the linebacker spots and both played in all 13 games last season. Paysinger was second on the team in tackles with 95 and added a pair of sacks and interceptions to his resume. Matthews had 67 tackles and two sacks as well. Neither player was a stranger at getting into the backfield. Matthews had 13 tackles for loss while Paysinger had 12.
Where Oregon is a little shaky is its secondary. We are lucky that our inexperience in the passing game is not facing their secondary from a year ago. Last season Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung, and Walter Thurmond limited our passing game to 207 yards and picked off Curtis Painter twice. Only Thurmond returns from that trio, although he is one of the best cover corners in the nation. He had 66 tackles and a team high five interceptions a year ago. One of those interceptions was returned for a touchdown. Senior Willie Glasper will join him at the other corner position, bringing 21 tackles in reserve action from a year ago.
Oregon's defense features three safeties led by T.J. Ward. Ward led the team in tackles a year ago with 101, and he did finish with 5.5 tackles for loss. Ward likes to rove all over the field and is generally wherever the ball ends up. Talmadge Jackson and Eddie pleasant will move into the other starting roles. Pleasant is the lone sophomore listed as a starter for the defense full of juniors and seniors. Despite losing some serious talent a year ago, this is a very experienced defense.
Oregon Special Teams:
Senior Morgan Flint took over the kicking duties from a struggling Matt Evensen midway through last season. That is a bit ironic as Evensen and our own Chris Summers had a decent kicking day in the wind at Ross-Ade Stadium. Flint was 7 of 9 on the year, but only had a long of 39 yards. Tim Taylor will be the new punter after punting once for 39 yards last year. He may not be needed much with Oregon's offense.
As we learned, Oregon's return game is almost as dangerous as its offense. Jairus Byrd's punt return for a TD was a game changer last year, but the blocking opened a great hole for him. Redshirt freshman Kenjon Barner appears to have made enough of an impression before setting foot on the field to have won the punt returner's job. Thurmond will once again serve as the primary kickoff returner after returning 21 kicks for 528 yards last year. He had a long return of 91 yards, but it was not for a TD.
Defensively Oregon's kick coverage was among the best in the nation last year. They limited teams to less than 20 yards per return. Their punt coverage wasn't so good, however, giving up 12.5 yards per return and one touchdown.
This is the second straight game we will be facing a brand new head coach. Chip Kelly is taking over for long-time head coach Mike Belotti in a succession manner very similar to our own from Tiller to Hope. Do not expect a step back. Kelly was the offensive coordinator last year and should keep things running very smoothly.
I like that this game comes immediately after a tough road trip to Boise State and before the Utah game. It can be a bit of a trap game. It is Oregon's home opener, but if a godawful Indiana team can go out and win in Autzen why can't we? Sure, the 2004 Hoosiers were helped by seven Oregon turnovers, but we're going to be far better than that Indiana team. We might need only five. Seriously though, The Boise State game could take a lot out of Oregon. A win over the Broncos could cause a little complacency. A loss might bring them down a bit.
Still, I expect to have 100% of Oregon's attention. We gained their respect last fall and their fans know not to expect an easy win like they did last year. This will be the first road game for coach Hope and our farthest road game since the 2006 trip to Hawaii. It will be interesting to see how we respond to those factors.
I firmly believe the coaching staff cost us last year's game. We got conservative when we should have been aggressive, as evidenced by settling for a tough field goal at the end of regulation. We were aggressive when we should have been conservative, as evidenced by throwing an interception just before halftime instead of running out the clock. That interception led to three points, but they were three critical points that made it a two possession game at the break.
No one expects us to be competitive in this game. Of our 12 games, it is probably the least likely one we will win. I am planning on going to the game to see the beautiful scenery and experience what is supposed to be a fantastic game day atmosphere.
I am also going to watch us win.
We can absolutely win this game. I have maintained for a long time that I feel we will pull the upset. Coach Hope has changed the attitude of the program. I have little doubt he will have our guys believing they can win the game. If we stay committed whatever is working (likely the run) and the defense continues to show improvement we will hang around in the game we're not supposed to win. New defensive coordinator Donn Landholm puts an emphasis on creating turnovers too. If we can cause a few they will help greatly as well. I like that our defensive line and secondary should be huge positives against a team that mixes it up with the run. This will be the ultimate test for them.
We are going to beat one team we have no business beating in 2009, so why not start now? I may be going out on a thin limb here, but I have been saying for too long that we can pull this upset off. We can end our losing streak against ranked teams against the team it should have ended against last year.
The concerns in the secondary and along the offensive line for Oregon are two key factors. As much as I like and respect the Addicted to Quack guys, I can't help but point out that injuries, specifically ACL injuries, have played a major role in each of the last two years. I certainly don't wish ill will on them, but even if it is simple bad luck this is a team that has shown that injuries will often be an issue even early on.
We also didn't play that badly defensively a year ago. Yes we gave up 503 yards, but we held them to just one offensive touchdown in regulation. We ended up with two interceptions and, if not for Painter's killer pick before halftime and Byrd punt return, we probably would have won going away. The defense did a great job of keeping them out of the end zone, and it should be even better this year. If it can take advantage of an offensive line that is still gelling it could be a huge equalizer.
I like that this will be after an emotional Boise State game. I like that no one gives us any chance to win. I like that our running game will be sneaky good against a team we ran well against last year. I like that their secondary isn't quite as good as last year, giving our young receivers a small break. I like that coach Hope absolutely believes we can win this game. I'll probably be wrong on September 12th, but at least I'll go on record as being wrong well in advance.
Based simply on a good feeling, Purdue pulls off a shocking upset and shows that the new coaching staff is indeed a change from the old. If I am wrong, at least I will get to experience a great atmosphere with some of the best bloggers in the game when I meet some of the Addicted to Quack guys. Purdue 32, Oregon 31