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Oregon preview

Based on the very early returns this season, we face our most difficult out of conference test when Oregon comes to town Saturday afternoon. This does not mean that the other two pre-conference games are easy. Because of the way Central Michigan played us in the bowl game and the difficulties we have had in South Bend historically, we could easily be 1-3 before the conference season even starts. We can’t afford to be, but it is possible. Oregon presents a more daunting challenge though. Notre Dame struggled last week against San Diego State, giving me a measure of confidence that we at least can win in South bend. Central Michigan can beat us, but we should still beat them (and indeed must if we want to go to any bowl).

The Ducks are a very formidable foe. They feature a number of weapons on offense. There isn’t a single player that we can point to and say, "if we stop him, we stop the team." From what they have done, there aren’t even two or three guys that we can say that about. I don’t think I am speaking too highly when I say that a win over a very good team like Oregon means we can think of a New Year’s Day bowl. At the very least it would wake up a lot of teams to us, as it would mean the 14 game losing streak against ranked teams would be over.

Oregon offense so far:

Statistically, no one has been better in the country so far. In two games they have racked up 1,185 yards of total offense and 15 touchdowns. Against Washington, the Huskies actually played a good first half before 30 unanswered points blew open a close game. I was able to watch that game and Oregon’s superior talent prevailed in the end. Not only have they gained a lot of yards, the offense has been very balanced with a 664-520 running versus passing ratio. 408 rushing yards against Utah State skewed things a little last week, but the point is that Oregon has proven they can move the ball no matter what method they choose.

So how do we stop them? Their spread offense is one of the smoothest we will see all season. Quarterback Nate Costa was lost for the season before it even started, but he was lost last year as well. So, it is not like he was a vastly experienced quarterback. Three different quarterbacks have played in both games so far, and all three have been effective. Justin Roper and Jeremiah Moseli have taken most of the snaps so far. Each has two passing TD’s and a completion percentage north of 55%. Roper has a rushing touchdown, but both haven’t rushed on keepers much with only 12 of the team’s 97 carries between them.

If there is such a thing as a change of pace quarterback it is true freshman Chris Harper. When he is on the field he is much more like Dennis Dixon than the other two. So far he is 4 of 6 for 40 yards passing with a score, but he is very dangerous with his legs. He has gained 85 yards on 16 carries with a pair of scores. This was also in minutes that were not mop-up action in both games. Oregon quarterbacks are always a threat to run, but when Harper is in there he is a bigger threat.

Speaking of running, I remarked earlier how we may have caught a break when Johnathan Stewart declared early for the NFL. While he is doing well in Carolina, I officially retract that statement. LaGarrette Blount and Jeremiah Johnson have more than picked up the slack in his absence. Against Washington it was Johnson (124 yards, 2 TD’s) who did most of the damage. He has 161 yards and two touchdowns total.. The reason for his lack of production against the Aggies was Blount. Blount, one of the top JuCo players a year ago, tore up the Aggies in similar fashion (132 yards, 2 TD’s). He has 153 yards and two scores as well. Both have big runs of more than 35 yards on their resume, which would have been longer if that pesky goal line hadn’t gotten in the way. Remene Alston provides another worry with 93 yards and a score. All told, Oregon had seven rushing touchdowns to go with 408 yards against Utah State.

So it’s simple: if we slow down their running game we’re okay, right? Ha! When these Ducks take flight they are just as dangerous. Terrence Scott has been the biggest receiving threat so far with 10 catches for 161 yards and two scores. Jeff Maehl is next with 9 for 121 and a score. Oregon has used 10 different receivers on the season, but that is a bit skewed because of their margins of victory in each game. While they would prefer to run, their passing game has proved to be ample so far.

Granted, much of this has been against teams far worse than us. Utah State is one of the worst teams in the country. They weren’t going to compete at all, and Oregon had a field day. Washington made things tough for awhile, but the defense got tired in the second half and things quickly got out of hand. Washington’s offense didn’t help matters any by doing little after some early scoring drives. The rest of the game was mostly Jake Locker running for his life. Our defense will do a better job, but I still have trouble seeing how we will keep them under 30 points. That just means we have to score more and get a few key stops.

Oregon defense so far:

Again, these numbers are skewed somewhat because of Utah State’s putridity, but they are a still a very good unit. We must be a lot sharper offensively to have any chance, and we have to keep the ball longer than we did against Northern Colorado. So far the Ducks have actually only forced one turnover, but they haven’t needed to do more. They boast one of the best secondaries in the nation as well. Curtis Painter won’t find cornerbacks dropping easy interceptions like Northern Colorado did.

Because of that, it will be strength against strength. We’re going to pass. Everyone knows that. Oregon is going to defend the pass because that is the strength of its defense. In two games they have given up only 365 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Bear in mind, this was with the lead and other teams throwing a lot. Utah State and Washington were a combined 40 of 70 against them, so they are allowing some completions. Neither passing offense was as good as our own.

A telling stat is the number of sacks the Oregon defense has. Oregon has 8 sacks through two games, meaning our offensive line must be ready. They performed admirably against Northern Colorado and that was with two starters out. Both starters will be back this week. Will Tukuafu has gotten to the quarterback twice, while the other six sacks are spread evenly among six players. Defensive end Nick Reed will also be a player to keep an eye on. He has 11 tackles and a sack so far.

Spencer Paysinger leads the team with 19 tackles and a sack from his linebacker position. Walter Thurmond, Jairus Byrd, and Patrick Chung form the bulk of a very good secondary. Between them they have 29 tackles and five pass break ups. It will be interesting to see how our new found physicality in the slot with Keith Smith will match up against them. Last week we got a lot of yards after the catch, especially from Smith and Desmond Tardy. Those yards will be harder to gather this week.

Washington had some success when Jake Locker was able to run out of the pocket. Curtis Painter has proven in the past he can run, and Purdue is a better team when its quarterback can duck and run when the opportunity is there. Drew Brees was a master at this. If Painter is going to take the next step and beat good teams he must be able to do this starting Saturday. Oregon will cause pressure. Their secondary will cover our receivers. If Painter can recognize this and step past the pressure there should be room for him to run.

So far Oregon has given up just 183 yards and one touchdown on the ground. We cannot abandon the running game as we have in the past. That plays into Oregon’s hands. Teams haven’t run on them yet since they have trailed. If we abandon the running game early as we did so many time last year, this game will be over in a hurry. We must be patient. Kory Sheets showed some elusiveness last week. If he gets 100 yards we should be able to win because it means we held the ball away from their offense enough for him to get those yards.

I have a feeling that time of possession will be a huge statistic in this game. If we win this category it either means we’re playing well and keeping the ball from them or they are scoring so quickly it won’t matter.

Oregon Special Teams so far:

Naturally, since Oregon has been scoring a lot of touchdowns they have had little need for huge contributions from their special teams. Matt Evensen has made two medium-range field goals and has been 13 of 14 on extra points.

Byrd is averaging 11 yards per return on punts, but has a long of 51 yards bumping up his average. As a team the Ducks are averaging a modest 24 yards per return on five returns.

Final thoughts:

I’ve said all along that our showing in this game will dictate our performance on the season as a whole. If we win on Saturday, there is no reason we cannot win in South Bend or beat good teams like Penn State at home. A loss, especially a bad one, puts us in danger of missing a bowl game. We have done well in the past against BCS teams outside the Big Ten when they come to Ross-Ade. Under Tiller we are 6-3 against such teams in Ross-Ade (4-2 against Notre Dame, 0-1 vs. Wake Forest, 1-0 vs. Arizona, 1-0 vs. Syracuse). This will be the best team out of conference we have faced at home, however.

I also hope the crowd is into it Saturday afternoon. It’s not Notre Dame or a Big Ten team, so the crowds tend to be fairly lackluster. Honestly, we don’t have a lot riding on the game if we lose because we were expected to and it doesn’t count in the Big Ten. It’s been quite a awhile since we have played a ranked non-conference opponent at home not named Notre Dame, so it is a new experience for us.

I do think we need that elusive perfect game in order to win. It’s unfortunate because the program badly needs a win like this. It’s been 14 games and almost five years since we have beaten a ranked team anywhere. The weather could be a factor, as rainy conditions could slow down Oregon’s team speed. They are run-oriented though and we are not. This means our passing game likely will struggle much more than their speed. We also cannot afford to turn the ball over. This means no high Curtis Painter passes or Kory Sheets fumbles.

I think if we win we can honestly dream of a 10 win season, something that has eluded us for years. It was possible in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, and even last year had we not lost winnable games. In order to win, we must at least slow Oregon down and not allow the big play. We have to get at least a couple of key stops and prevent them from putting it away early. We also must score. We cannot have empty trips into Duck territory. If we can score early, get a lead, and hold it for awhile we will have a chance. Oregon plays better when they are ahead, so we must deny them that opportunity.

That said, we are still Purdue. Until we rise up and beat a good team like this I won’t believe it. We can take a big step forward on Saturday, but I won’t believe it until it happens. Right now, I am thinking the Ducks will win, with the prediction coming in tomorrow’s Big Ten preview.