By Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor
The things you love about college football can also break your heart. That’s how you had to feel last weekend if you’re an Oregon fan. After nearly coming back from a 24-point deficit against a stacked USC team, a field goal attempt by kicker Alejandro Maldonado sailed just to the left.
Thus, the now-tenth ranked Ducks lost 38-35 to the Trojans. Moreover, any hopes of returning for the BCS Championship game went out the window with the upset. Still, Oregon has plenty to play for. By winning this Saturday against Oregon State, they’ll clinch the Pac-12 North Division and will host the inaugural conference championship game (and fight for the rights to the Rose Bowl) the following Friday. In the meantime, they haven’t been holding a pity party over what might’ve been.
“The kids are great,” said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “They’re resilient and they bounce back. I think the loss hurt and stung hard on Saturday, but the feel-sorry-for-yourself bus left Sunday night and none of our guys were on it.”
In fact, some of the Ducks consider the recent defeat a life lesson of sorts.
“You learn something from every game whether you win or lose,” said safety John Boyett. “Every one is a learning experience, because you go back, watch the film, and see what you did right or wrong. You use that to become a better player and help your team win the following game.”
With that in mind, the Ducks still have to do one small thing against the Beavers.
“We’ve got to win,” said running back LaMichael James. “It means a lot more now because of the loss to USC. When you lose a game, you can’t wait to play the next one and we’re really fired up.”
Of course, the fans on both sides will be fired up. Even with nothing on the line, the Civil War Game is always huge in this state. Just don’t tell that to the players, who are treating it as another day at the office.
“It’s a big state rivalry,” explained Boyett, “so it’s big for the fans and the people who live here in Oregon. But as a player, it’s just another game and you have to handle your business accordingly.”
“I still don’t know what it means,” James claimed about the meaning of the rivalry. “I know what it means to me and (to) treat every game like it’s the Civil War, and that’s the way you’re supposed to take it. I just play this game like I’d play everybody else. That’s the way it just has to be.”
You can, however, ask some of the people who have been around the Oregon program for years. Gary Campbell, who started his tenure as the running backs’ coach in 1983, has been a part of some great Civil War Games — and some stinkers, like the infamous ‘Toilet Bowl.’
“It was a zero-zero tie,” he laughed. “It was the first time I’ve ever been involved in something like that or even heard of possible game ending with no points for either team. I was certainly pleased when they brought those ties to an end in college football. But it was a miserable game, and I don’t think either school was happy about it.”
In the games that have had winners, one guarantee is a year of humiliation for the losers. In this matchup, there is added drama. As stated previously, if the Ducks take this one, they can play for a third consecutive BCS Bowl appearance. On the other hand, if the 3-8 Beavers win, they can make their own season by putting a damper on their cross-state rivals.
“It means bragging rights for the state of Oregon,” said Campbell. “In this case, it also means the Pac-12 North. So, it’s a big deal. It doesn’t matter what the records are between the two teams. They go out the window with the hatred between the schools. It’s a nice kind of hatred, but it’s about two teams that want to reign in the Northwest.”
“It’s a always a big game,” explained Aliotti. “It decides who is in control of the state for that year. But this time, even though you don’t like to say it, there are things riding on this weekend. If we win, we’re Pac-12 North Champs, and they’d like to take that away from us.”
If we learned anything from last week, it’s that we play the games for a reason. No, Oregon State is not even close to being as dangerous as USC. But they do have weapons on their offense, beginning with their freshman quarterback Sean Mannion.
“They throw the hell out of the ball,” Aliotti stated about the Beavers’ passing attack. “They have guys like Markus Wheaton and they throw it down the field a lot. They run a lot more deep routes than most teams we’ve played, and they haven’t tried to run the ball as much in past years. But I do expect them to run some to set up the throw.”
On the other side of the ball, while the OSU defense doesn’t appear scary on paper, they still possess guys like safety Lance Mitchell and cornerback Jordan Poyer. Moreover, the Beavers have this nasty tendency to get better late in the season.
“Oregon State always plays good defense,” said Campbell. “Their defensive coordinator, Mark Banker, does a great job. They’ve got some guys that really buy into what he’s teaching, and they’ve got some good athletes who are hungry. The Beavers tend to get better as the year goes on, no matter how good or bad they are. By the end of every season, they’re much better than when they started.”
With than in mind, how do the Ducks come out ahead with more than state pride on the table?
“We’ve got to play pass defense,” said Aliotti. “That means underneath coverage, deep coverage, and rushing the quarterback. When I say that, I don’t just mean the secondary, I mean everybody.”
“The team who makes the least amount of mistakes… whoever doesn’t turn the ball over is going to win the game,” said Campbell.
With that in mind, I guess it’s time for me to tell you how this one is going to play out. Okay, I was wrong last week, but I’ve been right nine out of 11 times so far. Certainly anything can happen, and if Oregon plays a sloppy first half, they’re asking for trouble.
That being said, I don’t see that happening come Saturday. In recent seasons, the Ducks have come back more determined after a loss and have made the next opponent pay for it. We may see an almost laser-like focus from the Oregon offense at the start of this one.
Provided they take care of the ball, as Campbell said, there’s no way OSU will keep up with these guys. In the end, that will be more than enough for the Ducks to roll away with a 52-17 beat down over the Beavers.
Now onto some other items. Unless you’ve been living under a Plymouth Rock, you know that Thanksgiving is this week. That’s why I found out what some of the Ducks are thankful for.
“Thanksgiving is every day for me,” said James. “I’m very thankful to play football. I’m also thankful to be here with my friends and teammates. I’m very blessed just to be in college. That’s why I say it’s every day for me.”
“I’m just thankful to be a part of this team,” explained Boyett. “I’m thankful to play for the coaches that we have and am excited just to play another game.”
Both are very good answers from two of the sincerest players you will meet in college football. I’m certainly thankful that I get to cover a team that has (more often than not) players who act like winners on and off the field.
But that’s not all I’m appreciative about during this holiday. I’m thankful to have several wonderful family members and I’m sorry I can’t be with all of them on Thursday. I’m thankful for the many friends I’ve made over the years, as well as a few more that I’ve made in recent weeks. (You know who you are).
This Thanksgiving, however, I have one more thing to be thankful for: a wonderful opportunity at EDN. Yes, the operation has some cobwebs to clear, but I’m still very much committed to making this site the “go-to” place for local sports. Trust me, folks. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
We’ll resume our sports coverage on Friday night. Our own Alex Shoemaker will be covering the Sheldon game against Grant. The Irish will have to play better if they want to advance to the next round of the 6A OSAA playoffs. But something tells me their coach, Lane Johnson, will have his boys ready.
Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers. Happy Turkey Day.