Finally we have actual football to talk about rather than endless speculation or off-field misery. The Ducks and Tigers play the first big game of the 2011 college football season in four days. Chip Kelly and his coaches and players, are in a normal game-week preparation behind closed doors. With just a little news leaking out, these are the storylines that will determine success or failure in Dallas:
How will LSU’s Jarrett Lee react to his emergency start? Lee is a fifth-year senior now, not the scared redshirt freshman who tossed up six pick sixes in eight starts, the worst in the SEC that year. LSU sources say he’s grown as a quarterback, and many whisper that the Tigers are better off with him running the offense rather than the erratic and judgment-impaired Jordan Jefferson, who’s suspended after a charge of second degree burglary.
Lee has a better arm, says Kris Brauner of Saturday Night Slant, a LSU blog. In spot duty last season he completed 54-89 passes for 572 yards, 2 tds, and 1 dreaded pick. He looked steadier, and less prone to big mistakes, but the fact remains he hasn’t beaten out Jefferson in three years after losing the job to him in the tail end of 2008. His passer rating of 119.9 was a slight improvement over Jefferson’s 115 mark, but the 6-2 206-pound backup quarterback is no threat to run: last season he had ten rushing attempts, for -46 yards, nearly all quarterback sacks. The Ducks can be certain he’ll stay put in the pocket, and if they can get to him, they may be able to make the old bad Lee resurface. If that happens, and LSU falls behind in the game, expect Zach Mettenberger, the 6-5, 222-lb. transfer from Georgia and Butler Community College, to start warming up on the Tiger sideline. He’s the X factor for Les Miles, with a howitzer arm that yielded 32 touchdowns and just four picks in a season of jc ball at Butler, leading that team to the junior college national championship and an 11-1 record.
Both these guys come into the game with the advantage of low expectations. Tiger fans are deflated by the loss of Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Shepard to suspensions, preparing for the worst and praying for the defense to have a dominating game. The Bayou Bengals one chance to win is to turn the game into an SEC slugfest, with stifling defense, turnovers, a relentless ground game with tailback Spencer Ware darting, cutting and breaking tackles behind a big, veteran offensive line. Les Miles will pull out a couple of trick plays, and the Tigers win their typical close, physical game. The more the Tiger message boards repeat this script, the surer they believe it will be the actual reality of Saturday night. LSU will dominate the line of scrimmage, the faithful say, just like Auburn did.
Hroniss Grasu won the job, but can he do the job? Oregon’s new center is 6-3 291, having bulked up after a season of diligent off season work in the weight room. He was strong and steady in fall camp, earining the respect and confidence of Steve Greatwood and the veteran spokesmen of the offensive line, Mark Asper and Carson York. But how will he perform when the lights go in Dallas, lined up across from LSU’s quick, strong, beastly defensive tackles like 300-pound bruisers like sophomore Michael Brockers and 5-star freshman Anthony “the Freak” Johnson? As the center Grasu is responsible for quarterbacking the defense, and he has to be mindful where weakside linebacker Ryan Baker is, the Tiger’s best backer, who led the team last year with seven sacks. It’s vital that Oregon’s offensive line has good communication and good reads, and avoids the penetration and disruption that plagued them in the Ducks four losses under Chip Kelly: Boise State, Stanford and Ohio State in 2009, Auburn in 2010. Each time the offense stalled and sputtered, not because of a blueprint or a failure of the scheme, but a defensive tackle two yards deep in the backfield, swallowing up LaMichael James before he could find a running lane. Grasu, York and Ryan Clanton have to have a steady game in the middle of Oregon’s line, and the Ducks need to prove they can move they football in a so-called big game.
This storyline is overplayed a bit by the SEC-friendly analysts of ESPN, however. This game is being played on a fast track rather than the sloppy, soggy ill-managed grass in Glendale. The Ducks will have the traction to use their speed and multiple weapons, and the results are likely to be closer to the offense that won games by three touchdowns over Tennessee, Stanford, USC and Washington. A team that produces 6899 yards of offense and 47 points a game doesn’t forget how to play. If they execute, they’ll beat LSU decisively.
Darron Thomas must have a steady game, playing back home in Dallas. He needs a solid start, and needs to avoid being over-amped with his entire extended family and friends in the stadium, playing before a loud, passionate, hostile crowd. Duck fans will be outnumbered in Jerry World, and the stands will be a sea of purple and gold, with LSU fight songs and traditional cheers reverberating around the stadium. Thomas has faced that before, and he has to be on track, on target, sure-handed with the football and decisive in his reads. He’s the triggerman in the Oregon offense. He has to be dialed in for the Ducks to win, particularly avoiding the tempo-destroying self-inflicted wounds the Ducks suffered in Glendale. No bad reads, no ill-advised throws, be the Darron Thomas who piloted the Ducks to 12 wins while throwing for 2881 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Have the Ducks had enough time to jell in the downfield passing game? LSU’s physical secondary will be primed to crowd the run and fly to the football, so it’s imperative that Thomas and his receivers are able to counteract that by moving the football through the air. Josh Huff has been dinged up in fall camp, and Rahsaan Vaughn is a newcomer, but the Ducks need these two to make a connection with DT in a big game situation. The vertical passing game is the other home run threat in the Oregon offense, after LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas breaking big runs.
The Ducks need all their weapons to prevail against LSU. They want to dictate the pace, by playing in a flashy and innovative style that matches their new cool anthracite uniforms.