BCS Bowl

A Very ‘Rosey’ Victory

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

A lot has happened in 95 years. No, I’m not going to give you a big dissertation on what’s occurred since Woodrow Wilson was president. (You can go to the History Channel for that one).   But 1917 was the last time Oregon won the Rose Bowl. That is, until Monday.

For once, the Ducks did more than show up for a big game, defeating Wisconsin 45-38 in Pasadena. As a result, Oregon can discard some critiques about their football team.

Chip Kelly can officially call himself a big-time coach now. (Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

They can’t win a BCS Bowl? Just did it. Same goes for beating a ranked non-conference opponent away from Autzen Stadium.

All that talk about how Chip Kelly was just an offensive gimmick coach? By winning this Rose Bowl, that perception will change things dramatically. You can also officially say Oregon is an elite college football program without a scoff here and there. There is more to this squad than a multiple choice of fancy uniforms.

However, this victory was not only crucial for validating the present. It was important for assuring an even brighter future. With USC primed to wrestle back the Pac-12 next season, it would’ve been a lot tougher to sell Oregon to potential five-star recruits without winning a game the Trojans used to take regularly.

Now you can expect that for the next few years, the Ducks and SC will battle for conference supremacy. Those games will be worth the price of admission.

De'Anthony Thomas went 91 yards untouched for a score in the Rose Bowl. (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

But that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, let’s look at some of the great stories that came out of a milestone moment.  Before we get to any of the great plays, I think you have to tip your hat to some of the fine assistant coaches like Nick Aliotti, Gary Campbell, Steve Greatwood, and Don Pellum.

These guys have been involved with the program since Rich Brooks was head coach and can remember the days when Oregon fans would be happy to get to any bowl.  With their hard work, they set the foundation that made the program what it is today. Without what these guys put together, you never would’ve seen someone like De’Anthony Thomas set foot in Eugene.

Speaking of De’Anthony, he did a lot on only two carries, didn’t he? A 91-yard run for a touchdown in the first half (which set a new Rose Bowl record) followed up with a 64-yard dash early in the third quarter.  I thought he might be the X-factor due to his athleticism, and the Badgers simply couldn’t match his speed when tested.

Lavasier Tuinei saved his best game for last as the Rose Bowl Offensive MVP. (Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In fact, his spectacular day made LaMichael James’ 159-yard performance seem bland in comparison.  If this was the last time he put on a Duck uniform, then he’s going out in style.

Ditto for Lavasier Tuinei.  The senior wideout has been criticized for not playing up to his full potential.  Yet he earned the offensive MVP honors with clutch catch after clutch catch, including two touchdowns. Having talked to him a couple of times, I’ve found him to be a decent fellow and I always like good things to happen to good people.

Of course, Tuinei can’t do that if quarterback Darron Thomas hadn’t played with great poise during the contest. True, he threw a pick and fumbled a ball that resulted in six points for the Badgers.  But Thomas shrugged off his miscues and managed the game well enough to win.  You remember how people were calling for Bryan Bennett earlier this year? They won’t be doing that going into 2012.

By the same token, kudos have to go to the Oregon defense. Yes, they gave up a lot of yards, particularly to Montee Ball. However, if you watched closely, it was clear that the Ducks weren’t afraid of the big running back or their super-sized offensive line. Look at the numerous times they’d answer one of Ball’s 10-yard bursts by knocking him on his keister on the next down. In the end, they made enough plays to contain a high-powered offense.

Terrance Mitchell and the Oregon defense made plays when needed in Pasadena. (Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised by how they performed, based on how they grew as the season progressed.  Look at the freshman cornerback Terrance Mitchell.  At the start of the year, he had to endure a trial-by-fire against LSU when he started in place of (no-longer-on-the-team) Cliff Harris. Could you have envisioned then that he’d be the one who forced Jared Abbrederis to fumble late in the game?

Or how about linebacker Kiko Alonso? He’s been a troubled young man the past couple of years, and he started the year suspended. Without rehashing any incidents, it appears Alonso has put his transgressions behind him and he played out of his mind against Wisconsin.  Where would they have been without his interception? That play was just one of many reasons why he was named the defensive MVP.

There are so many things you can talk about why the Ducks were able to pull out this amazing win. But you don’t have all day to read them, and I don’t have all day to write them. I will simply offer a couple more items before moving on.

Kiko Alonso came up with a critical interception against the Badgers. (Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

First, enjoy this victory, Duck fans. It took a long time to get to this point and you’ve endured many years of heartache in similar situations.

Second, this win is not the end of a journey. It is the beginning of another quest of even greater achievements.  Does this mean Oregon will win the Pac-12 every year from here on out?  No.  As stated earlier, USC is going to win a couple here and there, and schools like Washington will be formidable if they can get a defense.

But you won’t see the drop off that followed Joey Harrington’s departure in 2001. These guys will be in the hunt for BCS Bowls for a long time to come. Right now, I can’t wait for spring football to arrive.

Since it will take awhile before football rolls around again, let’s talk a little Oregon men’s basketball before I wrap this one up.  As I’ve said many times, it’s hard to get a read on how good these guys can be this season.

The Ducks started off the Pac-12 slate in fine fashion by spanking Washington State 92-75 in Spokane last Thursday. Unfortunately, they ran into a buzz saw in Seattle, losing 76-60 to Washington on Saturday.

There have been reasons for optimism with solid play from Devoe Joseph, E.J. Singler, Olu Ashalou, and Brett Kingma. What the Ducks have to do now is get a little more consistent and toughen up on defense.  If they can do that, they might have as good a chance to win the conference as Cal, Oregon State, or UW.  There is no front-runner in the Pac-12 at the moment, and one who cleans up their mistakes the quickest will likely take the title.  Should be fun to watch, and we’ll know a lot more about Oregon after they play Stanford and Cal this week.

With that in mind, I’m tired after keeping up with all the stuff that has happened recently. You’ll hear from me in a couple of days, as I begin to ramp up the college and prep basketball coverage.  I should also note that you will hear me talk about the Oregon women’s basketball team in the next column, and why they’ll need Amanda Johnson and Nia Jackson healthy to have any chance of finishing with a winning record this year.

So until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

 

Hard As ‘Clay’…

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— 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.”

Michael Clay has had a knack of being at the right place at the right time. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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.

Clay led the Ducks in tackles this year despite missing some games with an ankle injury. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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 believes he's become a better student of the game. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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.”

Michael Clay and the Ducks are hungry to win the Rose Bowl this time around. (Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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.”

Is LaMichael Staying or Going?

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

Looked at any interesting stuff about LaMichael James recently? The rumors have been flying since a report came out in The Oregonian on Thursday that the Ducks’ running back would enter the NFL draft after the Rose Bowl.

Or did he? Because there’s also been reports that contradict the story that has everyone talking. Aside from a brief denial on his Facebook page, James hasn’t been able to  address the situation until yesterday. Needless to say, he wasn’t thrilled that certain people were getting information about him from ESPN.

LaMichael James has not decided whether he'll enter the NFL Draft after the Rose Bowl yet. (Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“There’s really nothing going on,” said Oregon’s all-time leading rusher emphatically. “I don’t really know what happened with that deal. My family called me and asked if I had declared for the draft.”

Moreover, James wasn’t happy about hearing that he had make a decision he claims he hasn’t made.

“I think it’s kind of an unfair statement for someone to say something I didn’t say,” he explained. “If (running backs coach Gary) Campbell didn’t say it, then nobody really knows what happened. Because if I’m going to tell someone what I’m going to do, it’s going to be him. I haven’t discussed that with him or my family.”

In fact, James isn’t really focusing on what’ll he’ll do next until after a certain game in Pasadena.

“I’m really not thinking about it,” he stated. “The thing I’m thinking about is winning the game on January 2nd. I don’t want to make a decision or an announcement on it. My future is irrelevant right now. Come January 3rd, it will be relevant when the season is over. But I owe it to my teammates, the fans, and my coaches to think about the Rose Bowl. That is my important goal right now.”

De'Anthony Thomas is thrilled to be playing at home in January. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Ah yes, with all the scuttlebutt about their star back, you may have forgotten that the fifth-ranked Ducks are playing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. They started up practices again over the weekend and James believes the team is going back to basics right now.

“We’re getting back to the fundamentals,” said James. “Everybody is pretty much healthy right now. I think we’re really happy to get back out here with each other.”

As for the drama surrounding James, his teammates aren’t letting it become a distraction. Just ask De’Anthony Thomas.

“That’s his decision,” explained the freshman phenom. “I’m happy for him and good luck to him. I would miss him if he was gone. Just being around him has motivated me to work hard and be a great leader. My job has been to contribute off him and he’s been my motivation.”

If anyone is excited for the matchup in Pasadena, it is Thomas. He grew up in the L.A. area and loves the chance to play in front of friends and family.

“It’s a great feeling to play back home,” said Thomas. “It’s just a great feeling to make it to the Rose Bowl. I know our team can’t wait, and we’ll see what happens.”

Speaking of which, a lot has been made about Wisconsin’s offensive prowess with good reason. The Badgers’ running back Montee Ball is a one-man scoring machine, and their quarterback Russell Wilson is a dual-threat.  But the Ducks aren’t overlooking their defense, either.

“They’re really good,” said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich with a wry smile. “They’re rock-solid end to end. Up front, they’re very good. Their linebackers are spectacular, and might be the two best guys we’ve played all year. They have tremendous tacklers in their secondary.”

There lies the challenge for the speedy Oregon offense.

“You don’t see anyone run out of tackles against these guys,” Helfrich stated. “When we get in a one-on-one situation, we try to make the guy miss. That doesn’t happen too often with these guys. They’re incredibly sound in what they do.”

Moving onto to some other stuff, I want to make some things clear about my views on the meteoric success of Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos.  I don’t dislike the guy, but I haven’t been ready to crown him as the greatest thing going in sports at the moment.

Tim Tebow, contrary to some, isn't winning these games singlehandedly. (Photo Credit: Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Sure, he’s been leading great drives in the final two minutes. However, hasn’t Denver’s defense had a role in setting him up for all those heroic comebacks?  They’ve been playing out of their minds the past few weeks.

For that matter, how the other teams have executed have had something to do with it, too. It seems like the opponents have played their usual schemes for three quarters well on Tebow, and then go (inexplicably) to a prevent defense.  Hasn’t any squad learned that the only thing a prevent does is prevent you from winning?

That’s particularly true against Tebow. While he doesn’t have the most accurate arm, he can inexplicably throw it on the money when the defensive backs are giving his receivers plenty of room.  It happened in the most recent miracle last Sunday against Chicago.

The Bears were leading 10-0 with a couple minutes left in the game, and had been aggressive against Tebow all day.  Then, they started playing soft and Tebow burned them for a touchdown that was the catalyst for another storybook affair.

But, in all fairness, Chicago’s defense wasn’t ultimately the reason they ended up losing 13-10 in overtime to the Broncos. You can blame that one on the Bears’ running back Marion Barber.

All he had to do on what should’ve been their final possession was take the handoffs and stay in bounds. That’s something you learn at the Pop Warner level when you have a lead and the other guys are out of timeouts.  Instead, Barber decided to run towards the sidelines and got pushed into the Chicago bench.

What a chowder head. If anything, he’s more responsible for the Broncos’ last win than Tebow. Did Tebow stop the clock for Denver in that situation, providing more than enough time to then tie the game? No.

Like I said, I don’t hate Tebow. I’m merely saying there have been other factors at work and I’ll wait a little longer before putting him in the same conversation of quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

With that, I’ve got some Christmas shopping to do. But check back here next Sunday, when I will have a very special column for you to read.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

 

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like, Um, Another December

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— Sam Finley, Sports Editor – EDN

It’s that time of year again. There’s plenty of holiday cheer, unless you’re the poor sap that gets pepper sprayed by an overzealous shopper making the retail rounds. The wonderful sounds of Bing Crosby are often canceled out by the squeaks of a certain Chipmunks’ song. Like any other month, you take the good with the bad, and we’re in the middle of another December.

So why I don’t I save some of my yuletide sarcasm for another column? Preferably, the one I’ll be doing in a couple weeks. (Shameless plug dutifully inserted). In the meantime, here’s a quick wrap up of what happened on the local sporting front.

Darron Thomas and the Ducks are beginning preparations for the Rose Bowl. (Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

First off, congratulations to the Lake Oswego Lakers. They really took it to Sheldon, blowing them out 47-14 in the 6A OSAA State Championship. For once, it was the Irish on the other end of a one-sided affair.

The Lakers rolled up 490 yards of total offense, compared to Sheldon’s 216. That’s the main reason why Lake Oswego was able to win their first state football title in the history or their program.

You really do have to tip your hat to their head coach Steve Coury, who has been up there for two decades. The feeling of getting that trophy must be very sweet for him right now.

By the same token, take nothing away from what Sheldon accomplished this year. Lane Johnson’s first season as a head coach was outstanding, and the Irish should be in a position to win a championship or two before he’s through.

Meanwhile, as high school football officially draws to a close, the Ducks got back inside the Mo Center this weekend. In case you just got back from a two week vacation from Mars, Oregon will be playing Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on January 2nd. It’ll be their second trip to Pasadena in the past three years, and they know they have to be ready for the Badgers.

“We’re practicing hard,” said quarterback Darron Thomas. “We’ve got a big game coming up soon. I think we’ve got a little more spark to us this time and we want to come out with a victory.”

A lot has been made about Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, but Oregon will also have to deal with quarterback Russell Wilson. The guy can do it with his arm and his feet.

Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson provides a dual threat for the Badgers' offense. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“I think he’s a very good quarterback,” claimed safety John Boyett. “Number 16 brings a lot to the table. He’s a dual threat, very calm, and is able to make plays when his team needs them.”

While the Ducks are just starting to look at film on the Badgers, they do see a team that is just as impressive on defense as they are on offense.

“They are a hard-hitting, hard-nosed defense,” said running backs coach Gary Campbell. “They have good defensive linemen, adequate linebackers, and their defensive backs really come up and hit. So they’re physical.”

Regardless of what Wisconsin might or might not have, Oregon wants to take it to the next level in this matchup. After losing their last two BCS Bowls, the Pac-12 champions want to end this season on a winning note.

“A loss doesn’t diminish what happened this year,” Campbell explained. “But it takes the true climax away from the whole deal. Getting a bowl like this is important to us, but we want to win when we get there. That’s the next step.”

Moving on to the hardwood, the Oregon men’s basketball team edged Fresno State 74-70 last night at Matt Knight Arena. It was an awesome debut for guard Devoe Joseph, who transferred from Minnesota last season. He led the Ducks with 18 points, including three three-point shots.  All in all, not a bad first night for the 6’4 senior from Pickering, Ontario.

“I was very anxious to play,” said Joseph of his performance. “It was a little awkward at first, but then I played the way I like to play. That is, I played with a lot of energy and just got after it.”

The victory propelled Oregon’s overall record to 5-2. Still, it wasn’t an entirely pretty game for the Ducks. They turned the ball over 16 times, and head coach Dana Altman believes there are some things to clean up, especially before Pac-12 play begins later this month.

“We took a took a step in the right direction tonight,” explained Altman. “Devoe hit some big shots, and gave us some breathing room. We beat them on the boards by six (34-28), and that’s a good stat. But when you look at the second chance points, they beat us 26-14. That’s something we’ve got to get turned around.”

Dana Altman is pleased with his Ducks' recent win, but needs to see improvement. (Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Oregon can continue to sharpen their game on Monday night when they play Portland State, and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of improvements are made between now and late December.

It’ll also be intriguing to see how the Portland Trailblazers fare without the services of Brandon Roy. Their franchise player was forced to retire at the age of 27 due to his degenerative knees.

That’s a very unfortunate development. Roy wasn’t only one of the better players in the NBA the past few years, but one of the classiest. The guy was always fun to watch, and he will definitely be missed.

I’d like to say more, but I’m once again hearing the aching sounds of a certain Christmas song. Time to grab my chipmunk mallet.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

 

Coming Up Roses…

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

Now you can smell the roses. The Ducks smacked the UCLA Bruins 49-31 in the inaugural Pac-12 championship on Friday and punched their tickets to Pasadena. It will be Oregon’s second trip to the Rose Bowl in the last three years. They’ve also won their conference the past three consecutive seasons. That’s not only a milestone here in Eugene, it is a rarity across the country.

“It’s incredible,” said defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “I think there are only other two teams that have ever done it (Oklahoma and USC). What’s really cool is that, somewhere down the road, someone will ask, ‘who was the last Pac-10 champ?’ It’ll be Oregon. Then they’ll ask, ‘who was the first Pac-12 champ?’ It’ll be Oregon. That’s kind of cool.”

LaMichael James rushed for 219 yards in what might've been his last game at Autzen. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Certainly, Aliotti’s defense played a big role in the win. It wasn’t the prettiest performance, since they allowed 31 points, but they did get some big sacks on UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince, and forced some critical turnovers. Head coach Chip Kelly believed it was another typical night for his kids.

“They really are an unsung group,” said Kelly. “We just marvel at the effort they play with.  When we need big plays, they come up with them. This is a true team. It’s not one side. It’s offense, defense, and special teams. All those guys contributed.”

A lot of guys contributed, but let’s focus on two on the offensive side. First off, junior running back LaMichael James put on a show with 219 yards and three touchdowns. If this was his last game at Autzen Stadium, then it was quite the curtain call. But, while praising the fans’ pleas to come back for another season, James really isn’t thinking about that right now.

“The most important thing to me is my teammates,” said James. “I love being with them every day, and I feel very blessed to be a part of a team like this. I don’t think about one more year. I just think about the next day.”

It was another humble statement by Oregon’s all-time leading rusher. As spectacular as he is on the field, he’s always been fairly low key off of it.

“LaMichael is special,” Kelly stated. “You watch what he does in the classroom and in the community. It’s not just what he does as a football player, but how he lives his life. It’s what I want our team to be like. I think he epitomizes that. He’s about unique excellence.”

That being said, should he decide to jump to the NFL, James has treasured his time as a Duck at a time of unprecedented success.

Darron Thomas now leads Oregon with 63 all-time touchdown passes. (Photo Credit: Alex Shoemaker)

“It means a lot to me,” James explained. “We like to reach for the sky. I think it really starts in practice. Coach Kelly does an amazing job getting the best out of all of us. If you come out and work hard every day, then the things that have happened will take care of themselves. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

Another major contributor to the Pac-12 championship win was quarterback Darron Thomas. In many respects, Friday’s game was an average day for him.  He’d make a throw or two that were nowhere close to being at the intended receiver. But in the end, he wound up with 219 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Speaking of which, he now holds the school record with 63 touchdown passes in his college career.

“I’m very excited to get the record,” said Thomas. “I’ve got a lot more to go. I’m happy to be on the list with a lot of great Oregon quarterbacks. But hey, it’s my team that made it happen. The offensive line blocking for me each game. The receivers catching the ball, and running backs picking up protection. It’s all on the team.”

His coach certainly appreciated what Darron did with his arm, but also with his feet. A few weeks ago, Thomas injured his knee and his mobility has been suspect since. Yet, late in the third quarter, he broke loose on a keeper to set up Oregon’s last score that sealed the deal.

“Darron is awesome,” claimed Kelly. “I don’t want anybody else running this football team. He’s a special player. When he made that 40-yard run, I thought we were going to see an ESPN highlight where he rips the knee brace off like Forrest Gump did in the movie. One of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around.”

Now the Ducks can finally talk about playing for the highest possible prize they could achieve.

“It means a lot,” said Kelly. “The Rose Bowl is the pinnacle for this conference. It’s the ‘granddaddy.’ If don’t have the chance to play in the national championship (which we can’t because of our two losses), then there’s no other game you’d rather play in. We’re excited to go there and represent this school.”

Of course, this time around, they want to do more than simply play there. After coming up short in their last two BCS Bowl trips, Oregon needs a win to validate themselves as an elite program. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be seen as merely a very good team with fancy uniforms.

Bret Bielema and his Wisconsin Badgers will be facing Oregon in the Rose Bowl. (Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

With that in mind, the Ducks will certainly have a challenge on their hands in early January against Wisconsin. The Badgers, led by brash head coach Bret Bielema, are a ground-and-pound style team, so we’ve got the power versus speed matchup going.

But who has Oregon played that could possibly compare to Wisconsin? Oh yes, Stanford. We all know how that one played out, didn’t we? In other words, the opportunity is there for the Ducks to make a statement. We’ll see if they can take the next step in a few weeks.

Let’s move on to some other things. What an interesting OSAA 6A semifinal round, huh? It wasn’t the same M.O. by Sheldon High yesterday, but the result was the same against Central Catholic. The normally high-scoring Irish didn’t score a touchdown until late in the game to squeak out an 18-9 win against the Rams in Portland.

No, they didn’t light up the scoreboard. Then again, you could argue that’s the mark of a champion. A good team will always find a way to win, even when they don’t have their best game going for them.

By the same token, the Irish will need to have their ‘A’ game this coming weekend in Portland. They’ll face the Lake Oswego Lakers for the 6A state title, and it will be a hungry bunch. While Sheldon is going for their fourth title in the last ten years, Lake Oswego is looking to win their first championship ever.  Should be a tremendous game to watch.

Now then, you can look for some interesting wrinkles in the sports section, beginning with this coming Tuesday. I’ll be unveiling a new segment, and I hope it meets with your approval. What is it? You’ll find out in the next couple of days.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

You Can Almost Smell The Roses…

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

Had the format stayed the same, Oregon could’ve booked their travel plans to Pasadena this week. The 49-21 win over Oregon State would’ve guaranteed a Rose Bowl bid, and a third consecutive conference title.

However, my friends, these are new times. Since the Pac-10 expanded into the Pac-12, the conference had to split up into two divisions. Thus, the Ducks merely won the Pac-12 North and will now face UCLA at Autzen in the inaugural championship game. If it seems a little strange to you, think about how some of the long-time coaches feel.

Chip Kelly said the Ducks are only concerned with who they're scheduled to play. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“It is a little weird,” explained defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “It’s different and new. But it is what is, and we’re excited to be in the game. Now we have to show up on Friday, so we can win and go the Rose Bowl.”

Admittedly, the sexiest match up hasn’t been arranged for Friday. Had a couple fellas (who we will simply call Pete and Reggie) kept their noses clean, the Ducks would be getting a second crack at USC on Friday night. That’s one a lot of people (including myself) want to see again.

Instead, Oregon will be playing a 6-6 Bruins team who got the nod by virtue of a second place tiebreaker in the Pac-12 South. That said, head coach Chip Kelly isn’t worrying about who they’re not playing.

“We have no control over that,” said Kelly.”We don’t control what time we kick off or that the game is on a Friday. No one asks us. We don’t worry about outside influences or things we can’t control. It’s wasted energy to talk about something that is not in existence.”

Sure, UCLA got waxed 50-0 against the Trojans last week. If you want to add to any potential misery the Bruins might endure, the Ducks did plaster them 60-13 a year ago. Oh, and let’s not forget their head coach Rick Neuheisel will be coaching his final game (since he got a pink slip this past Monday). All that in mind, Oregon is not overlooking what stands between them and a third straight BCS appearance.

“We’re not looking past UCLA,” claimed quarterback Darron Thomas. We’re not looking at the 31-point spread or anything like that. Those guys have a shot to come out and mark off one of their goals, which is to win the Pac-12 Championship. So they’re going to come out ready to go, and may even play their hardest game.”

Darron Thomas isn't looking past the Bruins on Friday. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

As has been said in previous columns, there are no guarantees. For all their flaws, UCLA has shown the ability to play defense.

“They have a really athletic group,” stated running back LaMichael James. “I don’t think many people realize how athletic they are up front. They have great speed. It’s going to be an incredible game.”

The Bruins also employ a unique offensive scheme, and do have a very good running back in Johnathan Franklin.

“They run the pistol like Nevada does,” said Aliotti. “The Bruins are much better at it this year, because they’ve used it for two seasons. They’re one of the top four rushing teams in the conference, so they run the ball very well.”

Nonetheless, this one still looks like a game that the Ducks should run away with as long as they don’t come in asleep.

“All I hope is that we play with great effort and passion,” said Aliotti. “If we do that, everything else will take care of itself.”

So how does this one play out?  Maybe the Bruins give Oregon a fight for a quarter. After that, this is the other team from Los Angeles that we’re talking about.

The only question I have is what number will be lower? The television ratings that come with a clear mismatch or the number of points UCLA will actually score? Your guess is as good as mine on that one, folks.

As for the game itself, it will be okay to start smelling the roses by halftime. The Ducks win a 55-17 laugher over the Bruins and can finally start thinking about Pasadena.

I would like to mention one more thing on the Pac-12 Championship game before moving on to other items. After all the sarcasm I just spewed about the contest, it is going to do a lot of good for some kids in our area.

The Pac-12 is partnering with the U of O to help create a new technology center and reading area for the Boys and Girls Club of Emerald Valley. The project, launched as part of the inaugural Pac-12 Legacy Event, will mean new computer equipment, an EA gaming area, and many other things for the kids to use.

It comes at a very welcome time for the Boys and Girls Club.  They were forced to close their doors in October due to a lack of funds. But now they’ll be able to reopen their doors on January 4th. Extremely good news, indeed.

Dana Altman is more concerned with the players he has, not the ones who recently left his program. (Photo Credit: Eric Evans)

Now let’s talk a bit about the Oregon men’s basketball team. The Ducks have been a bit of an enigma so far. Last week, they go on the road to defeat a solid Nebraska team 83-76. But on Tuesday, they barely got by a 1-4 UTEP squad 64-59.

They’ve also had a couple guys depart the roster. After playing in the first two games, the highly-touted freshman Jabari Brown decided to leave the program. Then, on Tuesday night, it was announced that Bruce Barron chose to follow Brown out the door. Still, head coach Dana Altman is trying to put a good face on the situation.

“We’ll move forward with the players we have,” said Altman. “I’m not going to talk any more about guys not on the team. We’ll discuss the 13 that are here. But Jabari and Bruce have left, so we’ll just move on from here.”

It’s all they can do, really. Even without those two guys, this team has the potential to vie for an NCAA Tournament bid this year (failing that, they’ll be in the NIT). It won’t be easy, but Altman seems to have this program on the right track.

Moving quickly to some high school football, the Irish are two days away from moving one step closer to another state title. By defeating Central Catholic in the 6A OSAA semifinals on Saturday, Sheldon will advance to the final round. But they have to get past the Rams first. Should be an interesting affair at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

Making His ‘Mark’

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Sam Finley,  Sports Editor EDN

Two years ago Mark Helfrich came home. The Coos Bay native jumped at the chance in 2009 to become Oregon’s offensive coordinator, and he’s enjoyed every minute of it.

“It’s been great to be around family and friends,” said Helfrich. “I’ve also liked being around the coaches who have been on staff for a lot of years because I’ve known a lot of those guys for a long time. Getting to work with them again has been awesome.”

Mark Helfrich has been Oregon's offensive coordinator since 2009. (Photo Credit: Eric Evans)

This isn’t Helfrich’s first coaching stint in Eugene. In 1997, he was a graduate assistant under Mike Bellotti. While he wasn’t sure that the Ducks would reach their current great heights, he did see the possibilities.

“You honestly never know,” he claimed about the program’s success. “Washington was really good back then and USC was kind of up and down. But I think everyone always saw the potential here. Obviously, the influx and the support that we’ve had has been awesome, and the resulting fan support has been huge. So as a coach, you always try to create that vision.”

Of course, he also has the added perspective of having come to Oregon games as a kid. The differences between Autzen now and then are like night and day.

“I remember the days when you could play full-field football games outside Autzen,” Helfrich explained. “None of the current facilities around here existed, and it was all gravel parking lots. So people would literally play full-field games before kickoff. You couldn’t do that now.”

Helfrich will take the changes, especially at a time when Oregon has made unprecedented strides on the football field. Provided the Ducks win the Pac-12 Championship on Friday, they will make their second Rose Bowl appearance in the past three years (as well as their third consecutive trip to a BCS Bowl).

Even though he’s had an influential role in shaping one of the nation’s best offenses, his head coach, Chip Kelly, seems to get most of the credit. Helfrich isn’t bothered by not getting the accolades; he believes that he’s merely part of a collective effort.

“I think we all work together really well as coaches,” he said with a smile. “First and foremost, the players should get all the credit. Our entire coaching staff works together great, and obviously, winning is part of the lubrication to make that stuff work. But nobody around here cares who gets the credit.”

Moreover, Helfrich is having fun drawing up schemes for a high octane attack every week.

“We want to score,” laughed Helfrich about his offensive philosophy. “Whatever it takes, that’s our goal. Whether that means running the ball 99 times or throwing it 99 times, we’re going to try and score.”

Oregon tight end David Paulson loves the play calling of Mark Helfrich. (Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

And whether it is by running or throwing, Helfrich’s peers have been happy with his performance.

“Mark has done a great job,” said Kelly. “We brought him in a couple years ago when I became the head coach. I wanted a guy who could add something to our staff, and he’s done an unbelievable job for us.”

“He’s been outstanding,” explained defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “I mean think about our offense. They’re towards the top in scoring, total offense, and rushing. I always kid when I say this, but I seriously believe we play our best defense when our offense is on the field.”

Helfrich also clearly earns the utmost respect from his players.

“His play-calling during games is great,” said senior tight end David Paulson. “But he’s also really good in how he prepares us during the week. We’re definitely prepared for every team we go up against. Everything a defense throws at us is stuff we’ve seen in practice, so we’re ready for it.”

But Helfrich’s biggest fans probably come his immediate household.

“My wife and kids are awesome,” Helfrich said. “We have a son (Max) that’s almost 5, and our daughter, Maggie, is almost 2. My wife (Megan) has been incredibly supportive, and during the busy football season I know it’s tough on her with me not being around as much as I would like to be. But for most of the coaches who have that support, it’s great.”

Mark Helfrich is happy to be back in his home state after years of coaching in other areas. (Photo Credit: Oregon Media Services)

Helfrich particularly likes being back in his native state after years of being away. When he ended his college career as a quarterback at Southern Oregon University in 1996, Helfrich came to Eugene for one year. But then, he spent a couple seasons as the quarterbacks’ coach at Boise State. A five-year stint at Arizona State followed that gig. Before returning to Oregon, Helfrich was the offensive coordinator at Colorado from 2006-2008.

“I’ve like having my kids close to other family members,” he said. “I’ve been a bit further east, for several years, from my home state. I was a Duck fan growing up, and my parents and my brother went to school here. There’s a lot of connections that way and that makes it special.”

As for his future plans, Helfrich is simply focused on getting prepared for a big game against UCLA.

“I want to have a great practice tomorrow and have a great performance on Friday night,” chuckled Helfrich.

The Ducks will need a great performance against the Bruins in order to assure themselves a trip to Pasadena. With that in mind, Helfrich has been encouraged by the way the team has prepared during a short week and he feels they’re up for the challenge.

“We just had an awesome practice today,” he said. “It was probably the best we’ve practiced all year. I think our guys get that formula and want to do that again. They want to have another couple great days of preparation, focus on the task at hand, and that’s all it really can be.”

 

Plenty To Play For Besides State Pride…

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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.

Oregon running back LaMichael James knows that winning against the Beavers is a must to advance to the Pac-12 Championship. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“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.”

Markus Wheaton and the Beavers would love to spoil the Ducks' season. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

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.

Oregon safety John Boyett is thankful to be part of a great football team. (Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

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.