Chip Kelly often says the Ducks prepare against a faceless opponent and that their focus each game is competing against the vision of how good they can be.
That theory gets the ultimate test today.
An occasional laugher or one-sided matchup can be a tonic for a football team in building confidence and developing depth but two of these in a row can lull the entire group into an eyes wide open sleepwalk. A team can get cocky on a diet of cupcakes, and the frosting of easy victory with less effort can rot the teeth of their ambition and drive. That would be a big mistake, because Arizona and Cal come next, both with fairly decent football teams and some players that can give them genuine trouble.
So the measure of success today is not hanging a score on Missouri State. That will happen inevitably. Instead, the Ducks must show the improvement and focus that will achieve success in the weeks to come. Here are three key areas that define winning on a day the outcome doesn’t hold much suspense:
Precision and execution in the downfield passing game
Darron Thomas had a wonderful day directing the offense against Nevada, and the next step in his 2011 maturation and leadership is getting the ball to his outside receivers and tight end with consistency. The Ducks need dependable connections here to stretch the field against tougher defenses and coopt the California blueprint. Safeties and linebackers can’t pack the line if Rahsaan Vaughn, LT Tuinei, De’Anthony Thomas, David Paulson and Colt Lyerla present credible threats at every level and in every seam and hook zone.
The Ducks need one other target from the second group. Will Murphy or Eric Dungy or someone needs to emerge as an extra receiver, particularly with Kenjon Barner and Josh Huff starting the year with maddening, lingering injuries.
Effective and consistent play from the offensive line
Darron Thomas hasn’t been sacked in 73 passing attempts, and that’s a start. (Bryan Bennett went down once, for -4 yards in the Nevada game.) But blocking in the running game has been spotty. Too much penetration is disrupting the timing of too many plays, and LaMichael James has looked tentative at times because he has nowhere to run. Oregon’s spread attack with zone blocking will always be a high risk/high reward scheme, because, as Fishduck points out in his excellent and informative instructional series, the defense can stuff a gap when they guess right, but leave huge holes when the line moves them and the running back finds a lane. Penetration by the defensive line destroys the running game, and so far the Ducks’ line hasn’t achieved the cohesion needed to minimize it. Big plays have disguised a pattern of overall ineffectiveness. Today they need to show they can get a push and control a line of scrimmage. The Bears have a pair of 300-pound tackles, big enough to pose as adequate dummies for a drill Steve Greatwood’s troops have to start getting right with far more consistency.
Penetration and playmaking by the Oregon defensive line
The same principle works on the other line of scrimmage. If the Webfoots truly want a third straight conference championship, their young d-line has to start showing signs of maturity and make plays. It feels real good to be a gangster, and roughing up the Bears might give Isaac Remington, Dion Jordan, Taylor hart and company the idea they can do more than soak up blocks. So far this year they have no sacks and a paltry 2.5 tackles per loss. They need to spend some time invading the Missouri State backfield, because unless they can put some pressure on Zach Maynard and Brock Osweiler later on, they’ll make them look like John Elway and Jim Plunkett.
Want to know if the Ducks are getting better and on schedule in their development? Don’t want the scoreboard or the cheerleaders cartwheeling. Check the replay and watch the line play, and take a note of how often and how effectively Darron Thomas hits a receiver downfield. By these measures fans will know if the Ducks are ready for the PAC-12 and the opportunity to get back in the BCS race.