Keys to the game: Nevada at Oregon

Four-touchdown favorites on the streets of Glitter Gulch, the Ducks have to win the game in the trenches of Autzen, or a promising season will go bust on the second hand. To avoid a Boise State-like debacle and a horrifying tale Duck fans will tell their grandchildren by the fire at future campouts, these are a few things to look for this afternoon in the frenzied confines of the biggest little stadium in the world:

Establish dominance on both lines.

Pushed around a little in the second half by the bad ol’ boys of the SEC the Ducks want to pass on the experience to the Wolfpack in Nevada’s first game of 2011. Nothng exorcises the lingering embarrassment and pain of a lopsided loss like pummeling the next team to come to town. Chris Ault’s crew has the misfortune of catching the Ducks while they’re riled, and Oregon is going to want to show the Autzen fans, the conference and the country that they haven’t forgotten what won them two conference titles: being tough at the line of scrimmage. Steve Greatwood and Jerry Azzinaro no doubt drove the point home during another week of closed practices: we win our individual battles up front, and that is what makes Oregon football go. The Ducks aren’t a fancy finesse team where it counts: the big fellas are supposed to push opponents like bouncers tossing guys out of the bar. Losing stinks. Winning, and winning with authority, is a healthy tonic to a week of misery. This afternoon the Ducks go back to being the Ducks, explosive, agile and relentless. Expect both lines to show they were listening during practice, and understand the cohesion and focused aggression it takes to dominate a football game.

LaMichael goes back to being LaMichael.

Frustrated and hemmed in, James wasn’t happy with his results or his opportunities in Dallas. He’s probably a little chafed at the suggestion he’s lost a step, or that De’Anthony Thomas is now the quick and explosive one in the Oregon attack. He also hates losing. James will get better running lanes in week two as the offensive line begins to jell, and he’ll be running with authority, sticking his foot in the ground and going from zero to sixty like the great back who is Oregon’s all-time leading rusher. Tell his 36 career touchdowns he’s a step slow, or his 3301 career rushing yards. Remember that he missed one game last year. He’s on pace for an 1800-yard season and 5000 for his career. Expect LaMichael to get a chunk tomorrow. Bad as it was in Cowboy Stadium, he still had 115 all-purpose yards, Oregon’s leading receiver with six catches for a nifty 61. They’re using him more out of the backfield this season, and that’s a great safety valve for Darron Thomas, and an added dangerous weapon in the Oregon offense. Even though he got stiffed by the Stiff Arm Trophy websites this season, nobody’s heard the last from LaMichael James. He may score the first time he touches the ball this afternoon, and twice more before he takes a seat on the cool bench before the misting fans.

Darron gets his groove back

The smooth junior quarterback with the Barry White voice got all caught up in a bad rhythm in Dallas. He was herky-jerky and out of step, just wasn’t reading right or improvising at the right time. Darron’s better than that. He’ll be in a New York state of mind for the Nevada game, chill with a flat-brimmed hat low on his eyes with no Matt Barkley dorky dancing before the game. As a quarterback Darron has to play two inches under control, but he knows that. Back in Autzen, the site of his greatest games and his incredible debut in September of 2008, DT will be in the flow, finding and hitting open receivers in stride, taking off a half dozen times to mix up and frustrate the defense, triggering an offense operating at full tempo. Football will be fun again with Autzen rocking, and the Ducks will put on a great show for the Oregon faithful and visiting five-star offensive lineman Kyle Murphy, 6-7, 270 with the frame to grow to SEC size with Jim Radcliffe agility.

Terrell Turner, Dion Jordan, Taylor Hart, Brandon Hanna, Isaac Remington and company conduct a business meeting.

For the Ducks to achieve their awesome potential as a defense, this group has to get fired up and start pressuring quarterbacks. They need to find the intensity and technique to assert themselves in games, turn those relentless Jerry Azzinaro-inspired motors to ludicrous speed. The Ducks need some Kenny Rowe/Will Tukuafu/Nick Reed/Haloti Ngata results from this year’s edition of Gang Anthracite. They didn’t make enough noise or impact in game one, and it’s time they take some pride in themselves as a unit and become a force, protecting their secondary with some consistent pressure, putting the Nevada Pistol in plenty of longshot situations like 2nd and 12 and 3rd and 17.

It is better to conceive, believe and receive

Scott Frost and Oregon’s receiver group needs to identify the guys who are going to make plays in games. Anyone tune in to the Arizona State game last night? A wayward Duck, Aaron Pflugrad,  had a big night for the Sun Devils, pulling down a career-best 8 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks have half a dozen guys with the talent to play that way, but they have to get open and connect with Darron Thomas. Josh Huff, De’Anthony Thomas, Lavasier Tuinei, Rahsaan Vaughn, David Paulson, Colt Lyerla, and Justin Hoffman have the potential to be a solid receiver corps, and fans still haven’t given up on seeing one of the superbly-talented freshmen to break into the lineup.

In game two, the Ducks need better routes, fewer drops and more first downs from the receivers. It would get a huge roar from the knowledgeable Autzen crowd if they broke a few deep. Two or three would be a good day’s work. A vertical passing game would a huge weapon in the Oregon offense, making every component of their attack more effective. LSU lined up seven and eight in the box with impunity last weekend, the Ducks not managing a completion longer than 18 yards.

The kids are all right.

If this game and the next (against SW Missouri State next Saturday, also home at Autzen) go the way they should, Oregon’s coaches and fans will be able to get an extended look at younger, promising players in the Duck rotation. Lyerla should have his first catch, the Momba his first big run. Ek, Dargan, Malone, Ebert, Hardrick, Wallace, Coleman, and Fisher may get a chunk of snaps to show what they can do. Eric Dungy might get his first career catch. But the most anticipated debut? Bryan Bennett, the redshirt freshman quarterback, who vows visitors to practice with tight spirals and his quickness around the corner. The future of Oregon football could be on display by midway through the third quarter, and attentive fans will enjoy how bright it truly is. As wonderful a ride as the last three years have been, the next three could be unprecedented and glorious: a smart coach, talented players, and the loudest, most enthusiastic and best informed fans east of Birmingham.



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