Each week at my other Duck football website, The Duck Stops Here, we identify our keys to game prior to each Oregon matchup. Here’s a look at Oregon’s grades in game 5.
Give LaMichael James a chance to be great
James had a Heisman-worthy game with 30 carries for 239 yards, and the fat kids living the dream paved the way for long runs of 53, 47 and 30 yards. James was at his electric, creative, explosive, tough-running best in this game, and in particular the receivers and tight ends did a great job of blocking at the second level for both him and Kenjon Barner, who also broke loose with a 68-yard touchdown run, true freshman tight end Colt Lyerla with a key downfield block on that play.
It has to be said, however, that the line didn’t do a complete job of protecting their star running back. He took a pounding in this game, battered for losses and short gains on a dozen plays. Part of that is the nature of the spread, which, as FishDuck has ably pointed out, is a high risk/reward offense that produces both huge holes and occasional plays where the defense guesses right and succeeds in overloading where the play is going.
On James’ 30th carry, the Ducks suffered their most devastating injury since Dennis Dixon went down in 2007. The difference this time is the Webfoots have the depth to cope with the damage, at least long enough to give LMJ some time to recover.
So the offensive line gets a B. They created some great lanes, but they also didn’t do an adequate job of protecting their star late in the game.
Grades: LaMichael James: A (With an A++ for courage and character). Offensive line: B
Be effective in the downfield passing game
Darron Thomas had a dismal start in this game. He was erratic, and threw an interception off his back foot, a poorly thrown ball and a bad decision with miserable mechanics. For a while it looked liked a replay of Cal last year in the passing game. The Ducks will need Thomas to make a much better start and have more consistency as PAC-12 play continues, particularly with his star running back on the shelf for a while. Against ASU, Washington and Stanford, Oregon may need to good halves of football from their quarterback, not the fembot version to start the game.
After the interception, Thomas was brilliant, 5-6 passing with three tds. Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas showed themselves capable of being the downfield passing targets Oregon has been looking for, each making big plays, The Black Momba uncoiling for 6 catches for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns, Josh Huff getting free for 3 catches for 54 yards, including a sensational grab where he leaped high and pulled the ball down with a defender on his back. Lavasier Tuinei also caught a touchdown pass; he’s been a reasonably consistent possession receiver this season, already with 4 td receptions, tieing him with Thomas for the team lead.
So far Darron Thomas has thrown 15 touchdowns with 2 interceptions, completing 59.4% of his passes. He’s been fabulous in spurts and woeful and erratic for stretches, and his teammates need him to settle down and lead them through adversity over the next few games. They can’t lean on LaMichael for the near future.
Grades: Darron Thomas: B- Receivers: A.
Cliff Harris gets off the milk carton
Cliff Harris was sighted in this game, making it off the missing persons list with a brief appearance returning punts and in mopup duty in the secondary. The thinking was going in that Kash’s cover skills could help the Ducks counteract Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones, Cal’s tall, fast outside receivers. Harris didn’t play much, and Allen and Jones caught 15 balls for 236 yards, Allen getting 9 for 170 and a touchdown.
For undisclosed reasons, Cliff Harris, a preseason All-American and last year’s conference leader in interceptions and pass breakups, remains a third team cornerback in his junior year. Murmurs are he’s been inconsistent in practice. Oregon’s leader in pass breakups through five games: Cliff Harris with five.
The Ducks need Cliff to be his nacho-smothering self in the games to come. The PAC-12 is a league full of elite receivers, and ahead on the schedule are stars like Marquess Wilson and Robert Woods, Chris Owusu and Markus Wheaton. Cliff has the talent to turn plays the other way. Oregon hasn’t produced a turnover in weeks, and there may come a game soon where the Ducks need a big play on defense or special teams to spark them.
Whatever Harris needs to do to get himself back in the coaches’ good graces and back in the starting lineup, he needs to start doing it and be consistent about it. His team needs him, but it can’t be a team unless he does it in the right way and every day.
Limit big plays
This was another serious alarm bell for the future. Isi Sofele, Cal’s diminutive and undistinguished tailback, whose previous career high was against Presbyrterian in game three, had huge success bouncing outside on Oregon’s defense, scampering for 112 yards on just 12 carries, a gaudy 9.9-yard average. Allen got loose over and over downfield, averaging 18.9 yards a catch, including a 31-yard gain.
True, the Ducks shout out Cal in the second half, and held the Bears to 15 points. But that isn’t the point. The challenges are greater in the immediate future. Arizona State has a fast, explosive offense, and so do Washington, Stanford and USC. The Ducks have to continue to get better defensively, get Michael Clay healthy and have Cliff Harris get himself out of the doghouse. They can’t win the conference giving up 112 to Isi Sofele, and letting great receivers go off for big days.
Overall, the Ducks played a good game, winning handily on national television, running their record to 2-0 and 3-1. But with LaMichael’s status uncertain over the next few weeks, they’ll have to challenge themselves. Other key players have to take a bigger role and set the pace. 200 yards of offense is suddenly missing, and they can’t count on LaMichael to take over games. They may face their toughest conference opponents without their biggest star. Class is in session, and the Ducks have to ace their midterms. The material gets harder as they go deeper into the book.