By Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor
Let’s get this one out of the way: Lindsay McCormick and I were right. We said in last Friday’s column that Oregon would topple Stanford in Palo Alto. Sure enough, the Ducks stunned the nation by spanking the Cardinal 53-30 on Saturday. Before the contest, a lot of ‘experts’ claimed that Stanford’s power game was mightier than Oregon’s quickness. Most of those guys forgot about two little words: speed kills.
The Ducks set the tone when linebacker Dewitt Stuckey intercepted an early Andrew Luck pass, (who may have tossed his ‘inevitable’ Heisman with it). Shortly thereafter, the Ducks were up 8-0. True, the Cardinal kept it close for three quarters, but they showed the weakness of their ball control style of play.
In order for that kind of offense to work, your team has to have a slight lead, so you can smash the running back at the defense for a few yards (or get another five with a play action pass) while taking a few minutes off the clock in the process.
Against Oregon the Cardinal found themselves in the position of having to play chase. The Ducks would zip down the field and score in 60 seconds or less, and Stanford was puffing and wheezing just to keep it a one-posession game. Eventually they got worn out, and that’s when the roof caved in on their BCS title hopes.
Meanwhile, with this victory, the fourth-ranked Ducks are clearly back in the national championship hunt. A couple more dominoes have to fall, but now a January trip to New Orleans (as opposed to Pasadena) doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did after the opening loss to LSU. That being said, don’t expect Oregon head coach Chip Kelly to spend his time lobbying for a higher ranking in the next three weeks.
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Kelly. “You all have your opinions and you’re going to formulate them based on what you see on the field and how the game is won. I don’t think anyone votes LSU as number one because Les Miles is standing on top of a soapbox saying so. I’ve never seen anybody get a ranking because the coach lobbied for it.”
Nor should you place any bets on running back LaMichael James to talk up any possible Heisman Trophy honors. Some might argue that he got himself back in the race by rushing for 146 yards against Stanford. But his priorities are elsewhere.
“I don’t care about the Heisman at all,” said James. “I only care about winning games.”
And that’s how it should be when the stakes are now higher than ever for this season. If the Ducks lose one game from worrying about potential honors, then any arguments will become a very moot point. Remember, they haven’t even won the Pac-12 North yet.
“It’s wasted energy for us,” Kelly explained. “Our energy is solely focused on getting ready for a really good USC team. That’s the one thing we can control.”
Indeed, USC comes to town this weekend and will be fired up. Although the Trojans are currently atop the Pac-12 South standings, they can’t play in the inaugural conference championship game nor can they go to a bowl – they still have a little thing called ‘probation’ to contend with. So, for the Men of Troy, this is their BCS game. Knocking off the Ducks would send a message to the rest of the nation that they’re still a force to be reckoned with. While Stanford might’ve been the best overall conference foe Oregon has played this year, USC could be the most talented.
“They may have the fastest receivers we’ve faced,” said linebackers’ coach Don Pellum. “Matt Barkley is a really good quarterback. They’ve got a really talented line. Is it the best we’ve faced? It’s the best this week, because that’s who we’re playing.”
“They’re better than they were a year ago,” Kelly stated. “Barkley is playing at another level as a junior. They’ve also improved on the defensive side of the ball, and have a better understanding of what their coaching staff is doing.”
Then again, USC having a solid squad is nothing new in the college football world.
“What I see is another talented USC team,” claimed Pellum. “They’ve got hard-running backs, like Marc Tyler, that break tackles. They always have blocking tight ends, and they’ve got a great scheme. It’s been the same USC formula since I started my college career.”
By the same token, the Oregon defense should be up for the challenge. The defensive line, led by Terrell Turner, has delivered some key sacks in recent weeks. The secondary has finally started getting takeaways. And linebackers Stuckey and Michael Clay are playing at a much higher level than when the season started.
“We’ve gotten a little better as group every week,” Pellum explained. “One guy has performed well in one game a little better than another guy. But the nice thing is, overall, the group has been consistent. We’ve simply achieved this through hard work.”
It will be up to the defense to slow the Trojan attack down, which might be easier said than done.
“You’d better tackle the tailbacks,” said Pellum. “Historically, that’s the way it has always been. You’ve also got to pick and choose when to pressure them and you’ve got to find a way to limit explosion plays.”
So how does this one play out? Maybe it is appropriate that the opponent is from Los Angeles, because there will be plenty of drama between now and Saturday. Will James run for over 100 yards again? Can De’Anthony Thomas run wild against a stacked USC defense? Can the Kardashian family please go away? Whoops, wrong story.
In the end, while the Trojans may have the weapons to hang with the Ducks for four quarters, I don’t think it’ll be enough to spoil the party (especially at Autzen, where the crowd will be even more amped than usual). Oregon will win a wild 52-35 shootout over the boys from Southern California.
Now onto some other quick items, starting with high school football. You have to tip your hat to Sheldon head football coach Lane Johnson. After years of serving as an assistant to his brother Marty, he has done an outstanding job of continuing the Irish’s winning ways this season. Last week, Sheldon ripped up Clackamas 50-0 in the first round of the 6A OSAA playoffs. It’s safe to say that Lincoln High will be a stiffer joust in the second round game on Friday. But win or lose, it’s clear Johnson has the program on the right track and we should be seeing them in the championship game.
Staying on prep sports, we’ll be ramping up our high school basketball coverage within the next three weeks, stay tuned as they say. Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.