— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor
He’s made his presence felt on many ball carriers this year. Oregon linebacker, Michael Clay, #46, has had a key role on the Duck defense this season. The 5’11, 225 lb. junior came to Eugene a couple years ago from the Bay Area.
“I grew up in San Jose,” said Clay. “It’s kind of a big city, but I like it. It might be a little grayer, but I would say growing up in Northern California is better than growing up in Southern California.”
Clay decided to play at the U of O because it was the perfect school for him both in size and distance.
“It was close enough yet far away enough from home,” he explained. “I was choosing between Cal and Colorado. Boulder was a little too far. Cal was right in my backyard and I couldn’t be that close. I wanted to get away and Oregon seemed like the right fit.”
Whatever his rationale for coming here, he’s delivered some nasty shots against many quarterbacks and running backs during the 2011 campaign.
“I love making the big hits on the big stage,” he said with a wide grin.
Ironically, some of those hits were made while Clay had been in his own kind of pain. He missed three games this season with an ankle injury, yet still finished second on the team with 89 total tackles. That type of grit has earned him the respect of the coaching staff.
“Michael has been a real leader for us on the defensive side of the ball,” said UO head coach, Chip Kelly.
“He missed some games for us this year, but he’s still one of our leading tacklers and has a great knowledge for what our defense is. He understands the schemes and always seems to be at the right place at the right time.”
Indeed, Clay has been very good at reading opposing offenses and disrupting their schemes. He credits this to becoming a better student of the game since his freshman year.
“I’ve gotten a lot smarter,” Clay stated. “In ’09, I was just kind of out there running around. But I now know the defense a lot better.”
Clay also believes that, along with fellow linebacker, Dewitt Stuckey, there was an urgent need to sharpen the overall knowledge of the defense coming into this season. After longtime starters, Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger, left for the NFL, they knew that they had to fill the leadership gap.
“It was kind of a collective deal,” he explained. “I think we all had to kind of grow up a bit after we lost two great guys in Casey and Spencer. But Dewitt and I have gelled real well together and have matured as time went on.”
Clay’s maturity (along with the Oregon defense) will be tested at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, on January 2nd, when the fifth-ranked Ducks face tenth-ranked Wisconsin. The Badgers have one of the country’s best running backs in Montee Ball, who led the NCAA with 32 rushing touchdowns.
“He has really good feet and he runs very well behind his pads,” said Clay about Ball. “It’s going to take more than one guy to take him down. If you try to take him down by yourself, he’ll fall forward for another five yards.”
Clay also sees the potential threat in Wisconsin quarterback, Russell Wilson, who is able to run and throw with equal precision.
“Wilson can run and is very athletic,” he claimed. “He has a great command of that offense and he can zing you with his passing. So, he’s a very well-rounded quarterback.”
As Clay and the Ducks have studied the game film this past week, they don’t see any reason for the Badgers to deviate from the stuff that got them to Pasadena.
“They’ll probably stick to their game plan,” Clay said. “In their original game plan, they’ve got a few tricks here and there. So I don’t think we’ll see anything that is significantly different. Maybe a wheel route from the back or a double pass, but nothing different otherwise.”
That being said, Clay thinks the Pac-12 Champions will be ready to play in their second Rose Bowl in the past three years.
“It’ll be my second time down there,” said Clay. “I’ll get to go back to California and I have relatives down there that’ll get to watch. I’m definitely excited for this trip.”
Unlike the last time, however, Clay believes the Ducks won’t be satisfied with simply getting to a major bowl game.
“We’ve been to a BCS bowl two years in a row,” he explained. “We’re definitely due for a victory. I think every one is hungry on any given Saturday. But this being the BCS granddaddy of them all, we are a bit hungrier to get a win.”
In order for that to happen, he said it all will come down to Oregon’s attention to detail and intensity on every snap.
“We’ve got to read our keys,” Clay stated. “We also have to play hard to the end of the game. If we do that, then we’ll be just fine.”