With the ten-point quizzes out of the way, the Ducks take their midterms in November.
Four key games will decide whether it’s a ho-hum trip to San Antonio or an opportunity to right historical wrongs in Pasadena. The games they remember are played in November, and Oregon has an opportunity to gut out historical achievements, or put another good but not great season into next year’s media guide.
Three weeks running Bryan Bennett has provided the spark in an Oregon win with his mobility, poise and playmaking verve. With a big game in a hostile stadium, will an experienced but banged-up Darron Thomas solidify his hold on the Ducks’ starting quarterback job?
Nike uniforms, their reputation, and the accomplishments of the past can’t help them now. In Seattle a vastly improved Husky team lies in wait, 6-2 and ravenous to tear apart a seven-year losing streak, take the next crucial step toward resurgence: beating Oregon.
The Ducks have reached the lofty place long held by USC. The rest of the league measures their seasons and marks their calendars by the standard of the swoosh. Eugene has become Football Town U.S.A., or at least Football Town West Coast.
On Saturday they played a tuneup for the showdown in Seattle, and the Ducks were businesslike but not impressive. They won, and ran their record to 7-1, but they didn’t dominate the Cougars, relying on a third quarter surge and big special teams plays to put away a surprisingly stubborn and competitive Washington State squad. Paul Wulff’s Cougars frustrated Oregon’s defense with 30 first downs, converting third downs with alarming regularity. Twice Nick Aliotti’s defense needed an interception at the goal line to turn away a Crimson drive
The grades were dismal. Reviewing the keys to game, what stands out is that the Ducks will need to pull out a couple of A’s in November to achieve 11-1 and an opportunity to host the conference championship, playing for a third straight title the first Friday in December.
Seize your one chance
Pregame, we said the Ducks had to live like they were dying versus the Cougars, playing like it was the only game they had this week. But the urgency and focus wasn’t there, particularly on offense. They had an uncharacteristic, sputtering start, with their first three plays being a bobbled pass, a bobbled pass deflected to the defender for an interception, and a false start. The Ducks led only 15-10 at half, and only because Avery Patterson blocked a punt that Boseko Lokombo turned into a country touchdown.
Behind Bryan Bennett and De’Anthony Thomas Oregon surged to a lead and a victory, but WSU moved the ball throughout, and Oregon’s offensive line had a deplorably sluggish first half.
This trend can’t continue in November. With key games against amped and talented opponents, the Ducks can’t rely on a third quarter tsunami to overwhelm them. They have to come out and execute. It will take four quarter efforts to stuff Washington, Stanford and USC, and the focus has to be stronger.
Grade, urgency and focus: C
Don’t let Lobbestael be a passing fancy
WSU’s number two quarterback led an offense that surged for 462 yards and 30 first downs as he went 28-38 for 337. Only two interceptions and four sacks kept this from being a dangerously close game. The worry is that if the Ducks young secondary couldn’t contain the Cougars, will they improve enough to withstand Keith Price, Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley? Anthony Gildon and Cliff Harris should be back, but somehow, the secondary has to ramp up its game to contain Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. With Chris Polk providing the balance, the sophomore Price has thrown for 1990 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Huskies are a serious upgrade from WSU, and the Ducks posted a mediocre grade defensively this past Saturday.
Grade, pass defense: C+
No matter who’s throwing, the Ducks must refine their counterpunch
Chip didn’t offer many clues about who would get the start at quarterback, this week or last. The beat writers were left to read tea leaves coming out of practice, and fans scanned warmups with interest. DT had a brace on. Bennett was taking reps. It turned out that Thomas started, but the Oregon offense struggled in the first half and got a serious boost of energy in the second when BB came off the bench.
The downfield passing game continues to be a source of frustration, however. Even though both quarterbacks contributed to the win, neither was stellar, especially in connecting with receivers downfield. Thomas overthrew a wide-open David Paulson on a play that would have been six. Bryan Bennett hung on to the ball two beats two long when Lavasier Tuinei was open on a post, allowing the defender to close. The Ducks have not been sharp throwing downfield this year, and no connection or combination of connections has come remotely close to replacing Jeff Maehl. They have bursts of competence, but for the season, the downfield passing game gets a grade that won’t help the APR.
Grade, downfield passing game: D
The game was the most lackluster win in Autzen in a long while, but ultimately, the Ducks are 7-1 and undefeated in conference play. They’ll need a better effort against vastly better competition in the next three weeks. Expect Chip Kelly, Nick Aliotti and company to have them focused and ready for three games that will play in prime time.