Pasadena

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Hoping For A Little More ‘Resolve’ In 2012…

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By Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

You hear the word ‘resolve’ a lot in the world of sports.  It’s mostly said by coaches hoping that their team will rebound after a tough game.  I suppose you could argue that some other words could be used instead, but maybe it is a good time for me to suggest some quick resolutions for some folks in the realm I cover.

First of all, I have a resolution for Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo.  After years of bravado, maybe it’s time for this signal caller to put up or shut up.  How do you keep Romo away from your festivites?  Tell him he’ll have to play a big game there.

Tony Romo had better start living up to his hype. (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Seriously, I’m tired of hearing that this guy could be the next Brett Favre. (Though he does have the off-field drama queen role down pat).  Either he shows what he can do in a pressure situation (this weekend against the Giants is a great opportunity) or it is time to turn off the hype machine.

Next up, LeBron James.  We know what this so-called “King” can do in the NBA regular season. However, we’ve been told that LeBron just needed a better cast of characters around him before he could win the title.

That excuse floated out the window when he left Cleveland for Miami last year, and he started talking about the multiple championships that the Heat would acquire.  Funny thing is, in  the 2011 NBA Finals, the best player on the court was Dallas’ Dirk Nowitski (who let his game do the talking for him).

Therefore, until the Miami Heat win the big one, maybe it’s time all of us have this joint resolution:  We saw Michael Jordan play.  Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time.  LeBron James, you’re no Michael Jordan.

LeBron James should never be compared to Michael Jordan until he delivers in a big game. (Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Now for a more local resolution.  For the Oregon football team, it’s pretty simple. The Ducks have had three marvelous seasons under head coach Chip Kelly.  Going to two Rose Bowls in the past three years (and playing in the BCS championship in the one between) is nothing to sneeze at.

But in early 2012, they need to do something to solidify their 2011 campaign as a step in an even higher direction.  They’re playing Wisconsin in Pasadena this Monday, and should probably borrow the mantra from the late Al Davis. Yep, they need to “just win, baby.”

You’ll find a an article written by myself an Mr. Don Smalley on what the Ducks (and Badgers) need to do to come out ahead on Monday.  What that article DOESN’T tell you is what will happen.

As I see it, it comes down to one factor I didn’t list: De’Anthony Thomas. The freshman phenom can do it all from lining up in the backfield, running a pass route, even returning kicks. Some have said Oregon hasn’t seen an offense like Wisconsin’s yet. (That’s bunk! They were called the Stanford Cardinal).

De'Anthony Thomas could be the difference in the Rose Bowl for the Ducks. (Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

The truth is, I don’t think the Badgers (or any other Big-10 school) has seen an athlete quite like DAT this year.  I’m looking for him to have a big day in front of his Southern California relatives, and that’ll be a big reason why the Ducks will finally get that elusive Rose Bowl win.  Here’s my prediction:  Oregon 42, Wisconsin 31.

Let’s get to one or two of my resolutions before I wrap this one up.  First, I intend to keep my long standing resolution not to every play leap frog with a unicorn. (I’ve heard that can be painful). I’m also planning to try and be a little nicer…but we’ll see how that goes. It may take a little more ‘resolve’ on my part.

Triple H had better watch out for Sam Finley when the WWE comes to Eugene. (Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Seriously, 2011 had it’s ups and downs for me. But this was a good year, and my resolution is to take the EDN sports section and continue to mold it into something worthy of your constant attention.  We’ve had some great articles in our first year, but we want to take what is good and make it even better.

We’re going to be starting some weekly reviews for both college and prep basketball that I know you’ll want to read.  You’ll also find even more profiles than ever before.  For that matter, you’ll probably find EDN in some places you didn’t necessarily think we’d go.  Here’s a perfect example:  The WWE is coming to Matt Knight Arena in February, and I intend to be there. (Look out Triple H, here I come). So check back here and watch the evolution happen.

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.”

Ready When Needed

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— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor

Bryan Bennett definitely knows about the area the Ducks will be playing in on the second day of January. The 6’3, 205-pound redshirt freshman grew up in Granada Hills, California and attended high school in nearby Encino.

Bryan Bennett stepped in admirably this season while Darron Thomas was hurt. (Photo Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

“It was nice growing up in So Cal,” said Bennett with a soft-spoken laugh. “We were definitely spoiled with the nice weather and all the nice things like that. I’m definitely happy to be going back home for this game.”

Oregon’s current backup quarterback admired a certain athlete when he was a kid . Not surprisingly, it was a guy who played the same position.

“Brett Favre was my favorite,” he explained. “I just liked his style of play. He was a competitor, and would always continue to work hard. Favre also had a big, strong arm and I liked that.”

That being said, why would a someone who enjoyed the Southern California climate choose Eugene for college football as opposed to USC or UCLA?

“I thought that Oregon was the best fit for me,” Bennett said of his decision to come here. “When I was going through the recruiting process, I felt like that this was the place I needed to be.”

Right now, Bennett has found himself behind Darron Thomas on the depth chart. But he’s taken his role in stride.

Bryan Bennett is willing to help the Ducks out any way he can. (Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

“Everybody wants to be playing,” he stated. “I want to be a starter, but that’s not my role on the team at the moment. So I’ll do what I can to help this team and stay positive. I’m just doing whatever the coaches ask me to do right now. I try to be a leader in the best way I can. And if I’m asked to step in, I have to be ready to do that.”

He certainly proved he could play at a moment’s notice this season. After Thomas went down with a knee injury against Arizona State, Bennett effectively managed the Ducks to a 41-27 victory over the Sun Devils. A week later against Colorado, he completed 11 of 20 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-2 win in Boulder. Finally, Bennett threw for two more scores in the second half, helping Oregon edge Washington State 43-28.

“I just reassured myself that I could do this,” said Bennett of his playing experience. “It reinforced that I could be a quarterback at the University of Oregon.”

So does Bennett take any pride that he, in his own way, helped his Ducks win their third consecutive Pac-12 title?

“I never even looked at it like that,” he claimed. “But I was just happy to help my team when they needed me.”

He’s been happy to help out his squad, just as he’s been assisted by many of his teammates like Thomas. Bennett said the current starting signal caller has gone out of his way to show him the ropes.

Bryan Bennett is excited to be running home to play in the Rose Bowl. (Photo Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

“Darron has helped me out a lot,” said Bennett. “So did (then-backup) Nate Costa when I first got here last year. But DT and I are always side-by-side in the team meetings and on the field. (As are fellow quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Dustin Haines and Brennan Doty). We’re always working together with offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. The group we have around us is what makes our quarterbacks so special at Oregon.”

Maybe this is why Bennett is willing to wait his turn for more playing time (most likely in a couple years), and will continue to sharpen his skills before that happens.

“I think I’ve become smarter about the game,” he explained. “I can always learn more about the playbook and other new things like other defenses, as well as the overall game of football. That’s allowed me to grow and mature.”

Whatever his current role might be, he’s elated that Oregon will be at the Rose Bowl early next month.

“I’m very excited to go to Pasadena,” Bennett said. “I’ve been watching the Rose Bowl for a long time. When I was in high school, I used to go watch UCLA play there all the time. I’m just happy that a lot of my family will be able to go and I’ll get to see them afterwards.”

The fifth-ranked Ducks will face a stiff test against tenth-ranked Wisconsin. However, Bennett is confident that they’ll be ready for the challenge.

“We just need to continue to prepare,” he claimed. “We need to do the best we can day in and day out. If we do those things, then I think we’ll have a good shot to go out there and play our game.”

 

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.”

 

A New Challenge Looms For The Ducks

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By Sam Finley, EDN

The number four can represent many things.  In a positive light, it cen be seen as the insignia on the Fantastic Four’s costumes.  But if you’re a Duck fan, then you’re not even thinking about it in comic book terms.

No, in this case, it is the number of turnovers committed by Oregon in their 40-27 loss against LSU this past weekend.  It is one of many reasons why the Ducks fell face first on a national stage in Dallas, Texas.

Against anyone, sloppy ball handling will hurt your team’s chances of winning.  Against an SEC team like LSU, you will seal your team’s fate, particularly when you give them the ball on your 20 yard line.

Take away the turnovers, and Oregon could’ve won.  Yes, LSU’s larger offensive and defensive lines played a role in the outcome. So did their running back Spencer Ware.

And yes, I’m being mindful of the fact that the Ducks were playing a lot of younger guys for the first time.  Guys, like De’Anthony Thomas (who fumbled twice) who will learn from their trial by fire and become Oregon players you will remember for years to come.  They also could have used Cliff Harris in the secondary on Saturday.

That being said, this team has plenty to play for.  I still think they’ll win their third consecutive conference title, and will play in a BCS bowl game. (Though going back to the National Championship Game is going to be a reach, so you’re likely going to have to “settle” for Pasadena this time).

But, as Ross Perot used to say, here’s the deal:  While there is no question that the Ducks have established themselves as the college football power in the Northwest, as well as one of the top three teams in the Pac-12, there is a new challenge facing Chip Kelly & Company.  Specifically, Oregon must win a game against a ranked non-conference opponent and it must be away from Autzen Stadium.

We know what the Ducks can do there, and would probably win against any national power handily with LaMichael James running for well over 150 yards (instead of the meager 54 he got on Saturday).

However, if you want Oregon to be truly recognized as one of the nation’s elite teams, then they have to go to a neutral site or a highly-ranked opponent’s venue and come out on top.  That, with all they’ve accomplished in recent years, is something they have yet to do.

If you don’t think it’s that big of a deal, consider that this is the fourth time in the past three seasons where they’ve failed to defeat a top opponent outside of Eugene.  They didn’t do it in Boise two years ago.  They also stumbled in the Rose Bowl against Ohio State in 2010, and came up painfully short against Auburn in the BCS title match in January.  The setback against LSU has effectively established a trend.

Until the Ducks can win a game like the ones mentioned above, then Oregon will be known as merely a very good team that is worthy of being ranked in the top ten every year.  They won’t, however, be seriously considered as one you can talk about as one of the great programs on the national landscape.

If they can win their conference as predicted, they’ll have their shot at national redemption come January in the Rose Bowl.  In the meantime, let’s briefly talk about some other items.

As stated earlier, Oregon does have plenty to play for, and beating Nevada this weekend would be a great start for them to make a quick turnaround.  The Wolf Pack may have lost a lot of starters from last year’s 13-1 team to the NFL, but you can’t overlook them.  

Somehow I don’t think, especially after the LSU debacle, that the Ducks will take anyone for granted. Nevada picked the wrong week to come to Autzen, and it could be a long day for them.  Here’s my guess on this one:  Oregon 42, Nevada 17.

Now then, some people have said that LaMichael’s performance in the first week cost him any shot at the Heisman Trophy this year.  Let’s put it this way:  He’s definitely not one of the top five guys you’d consider for the award at this moment.  But, despite his very average-looking perfomance against the Tigers,  he still became Oregon’s all-time leading rusher.

LaMichael James established himself as Oregon's all-time leading rusher during the loss against LSU. (Photo Credit: Eric Evans)

If he can run off a string of games of 100 yards or more and has a huge game against Stanford late in the year, then you can’t pound the nails in the Heisman coffin just yet.  On the flip side, I wouldn’t be planning a trip to New York for the awards presentation, either.

I would, however, plan on letting you all know what’s on tap for the upcoming months.  We will be expanding this sports page into a bunch of areas, and it will become something people in Eugene haven’t seen before.  You’ll start seeing some of new features within the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, look for a wrap-up on the Ems’ first round NWL playoff series this week.  And on Friday, there will be a piece about Oregon’s receivers you might want to check out.  I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the game previews that will be coming on a weekly basis, too.

Until then, I’ll see you in the bleachers.

Sam Finley has been the EDN sports editor since June 2011.  He welcomes your feedback at [email protected]