Keys to the game: assorted quack, smack and facts for Oregon at Colorado

FishDuck Staff Editorials

The keys to the game are different for this one. An Oregon loss is so unlikely, given the dismal state of the Colorado football program, which is a walking MASH unit at 1-6, that this game is more about what the Ducks achieve and accomplish to push forward in their season.

The old coaching cliche is true; this mile-high massacre is Oregon’s only opportunity to play football and get better this week. As Chip notes, you get thirteen chances a year to strap it up and play. Execution is a habit. Excellence is learned, and earned.

This is what the right kind of Oregon victory should look like, and what Webfoot fanatics want to see in game seven of the Ducks drive to attain a third straight conference title:

Who starts at quarterback, and how does he respond?

There is no quarterback controversy at Oregon. There won’t be one until the Spring of 2013, and Chip Kelly will manage that one perfectly. Looking ahead, imagine the dizzying circus of spirals that will fill the air when four talented passers set up and take aim at one open quarterback job a few months after Darron Thomas finishes his senior season. Bennett, Mariota, Rodrigues and Lockie will compete hard for the job, with none willing to concede it based on expectations or preconceived pecking order. That will be a 30-day showdown in the Mo followed with intense interest.

Right now Bennett’s focus is completely on this season, and he’s playing to become a better quarterback and keep this 2011 team on the right road, but today at Colorado potentially represents a huge opportunity for him. If Darron doesn’t go, the experience of operating the offense and being the guy from the opening whistle in a live college game would rocket forward his development as a leader and a quarterback.

There’s been no official announcement of the game day starter by the Ducks. The media read the tea leaves as well as it could coming out of closed practices, feeling at times like the breathless reporting from a Hollywood red carpet: what was Darron wearing, and what did he say about his next project? Did Chip Kelly give any hints about who his leading man would be? Hollywood rolls like that, but it was weird to see it video cammed in the lobby of the Moshofsky Center, everyone all Twitter and Facebook and TMZ over whether Darron had a limp.

Thomas will press hard to go in this one. He says the doctors don’t have to clear him, because he was never uncleared. But a week to heal might pay huge dividends for his health and his focus, and Bennett getting an emergency start might make this a better football team in weeks to come and then in the next three years.

Quarterbacks are competitive guys. Whether it’s a three-line passing drill, seven-on-seven, spring practice or the Rose Bowl, every quarterback worth his red jersey wants the job, the ball,  the start and the prettiest girl. They’re driven guys. They have to be to excel at a position where 60,000 people are screaming at you every week, 11 slobbering Cro-Magnons want to rip you apart, and 15 microphones hang on your every word and post-practice burp. To be great, a quarterback has to want to be the guy, every week. As long as the game is a contest, they’re not content to hold play cards and flash signals. You wouldn’t want a guy if he was. He may know his role, and handle it with poise, but if he didn’t want to beat the other guy, take his job, defeat the other team and hear the lamentations of their women, you wouldn’t want him.

For everybody but Mark Helfrich and Chip Kelly this will be a game time decision. The two quarterbacks bring an interesting contrast of styles and skillsets to the field, and it will be compelling to see how either responds in the mile-high air. Darron Thomas has the command, the experience and a 17-2 record as a starter. He’s been brilliant at times in this season, amassing a healthy 163 quarterback rating with 17 tds, just three interceptions. In the Ducks’ first six games he’s thrown for 1227 yards and completed 61% of his passes. Fans lament his running, or seeming reluctance to run, but he’s added 122 yards, a 5.3 average and two more touchdowns when he keeps the ball.

Thomas hasn’t been brilliant in 2011, not the revelation and potential Heisman candidate observers foresaw after an incredibly solid first year as a starter in which he engineered a 12-1 record, conference title and a trip to Glendale. Some writers (me) thought he would rocket forward this season, achieve Andrew Luck status in his efficiency and mastery of the Oregon passing game, but that hasn’t happened. Breaking in a new set of receivers has been a challenge, but Thomas himself has been an occasional problem. He has lapses. He has glitches in his throwing motion and whole quarters where he reverts to the Cal game of 2010. Breaking in new wide receivers has been a challenge, but often the problem is Thomas himself: all three of his interceptions have been head scratchers, and sometimes he misses an open receiver by half a hashmark.

Darron Thomas is the Oregon quarterback until he leaves for the NFL combine in the spring of 2013. But to beat Washington and Stanford this year, he has to be better. He wants to be better. There’s nothing wrong with his record or his numbers, but the sharper he becomes going forward, the better chance the Ducks have of running the table. They may yet have a game where they need a drive in the fourth quarter to win. They could still face an opponent that puts together the right package of scheme and tenacity to shut down the running game for three quarters, forcing the Ducks to win through the air. Thomas has to demand more from himself, and he will.

For his development, this game represents an interesting crossroads. It might help to wear a headset and watch this one, to have the experience of watching someone else take his team out on the field. The extra burn in his belly might make him a better quarterback for the rest of his college career. Watching Bennett operate his offense fairly successfully could drive him to make an emphatic statement with the rest of his season. Knees and elbows aren’t meant to go at the angles collisions bent Darron Thomas and LaMichael James in recent weeks, and if the Ducks can win without them, an extra seven days to heal could be the safest and smartest decision Chip Kelly could make. But warriors want to come bearing their shield, or on it. James and Thomas want to go, if the doctors give the nod. They didn’t sign the scholarship to watch somebody else.

 Neither did Bryan Bennett. What came through in his relief stint last Saturday in Autzen was that Bennett takes his preparation seriously and has a great makeup for the position. For a year and half he waited for an uncertain opportunity, not knowing the time and place he’d be told to put on the helmet and take over. He’d made himself ready. The kid has the talent and moxie to be a very good quarterback in the proper time, and he made damn sure to point out, on the field, that his time is any time the coach calls his name. Bennett flies around the corner. Odd, because his official 40 time isn’t eye-catching, a shade above or below 5.0. You wonder if Oregon fudges on the testing for qbs, a little CIA double secret finger over the laser timer to conceal their top end. Somehow Bennett looks faster in a jersey and pads than Jim Radcliffe’s testing sheet reported.

Maybe it’s was just adrenaline, athleticism and desire, but Bennett lit it up, operating the zone rea, coming off the bench against ASU in the third quarter trailing 24-21. He engineered four scoring drives and ripped off career-best runs of 18 and 36 yards. Fishduck pointed out in his early-week video analysis that Bennett rides the mesh in the zone read a little longer than Thomas, putting more pressure on the defensive end. The unblocked player has to commit one way or the other, and the explosiveness that made Bennett a high school track star (long jump and relays) gives him a scooting start when he shoots around the defensive perimeter. Odd thing is, BB hasn’t been spectacular as a passer in spot duty, just 9-18 for 117 yards and a pair of touchdowns so far, but watching him practice, he spins the ball as beautifully as anyone the Ducks have had in the last eleven years, and that includes three qbs who won bowl games in college and then jobs in the NFL.

Warmups will be watched with extreme curiosity, and then who takes the field and how well they move the ball will be the big story of this game. I’m torn as a fan and an observer of Duck football. On one hand I want to see what the kid can do with the job, knowing it will hasten his development and constitute a huge insurance policy for the 2011 team going forward. Starts and snaps make quarterbacks. Both Thomas and Bennett are video warriors and enthusiastic practicers, but there is no substitute for being under fire. On the other hand, I’d love to see Thomas start and assert himself fresh, show why this is his job and no one else’s. The speculation could fuel a kick-ass effort from Oregon’s leader, the desire to show why he is the man and how.

The other questions of the day have been rendered less compelling by the lack of space. It’s a testament to our passion for the Ducks that we can talk about quarterbacks for 1600 words a few hours before a game they’ll win by 40. But improvement and focus have to be on display in several other key areas. The downfield passing game and receivers can continue to establish themselves. This is a chance to go live with referees against a banged up and undermanned secondary.

Defensive line play is about relentlessness: a d-linemen busts his butt for 80 plays to win two. Nick Reed and Kenny Rowe are the sterling examples: they rushed so hard and so fiercely they earned jobs on Sunday, even though undersized and combine anomalies in the No-Fun league. Getting paid off with a sack is the taste of blood for a defensive linemen. It quickens them and makes them more urgent. Colorado’s offensive line has yielded a league worst 21 sacks a game. Taylor Hart, Dion Jordan, Isaac Remington, Terrell Turner and their mates have an opportunity to stoke their inner fire today, butting helmets and chest bumping in a day of glory. A good defensive linemen wants to give the Gladiator speech, not in words, but in the sheer tenacity of his play on the field:

My Name is Maximus Decimus Meridius

 As Bill Parcells famously said in an often-played ESPN video clip, “this is why you lift all them weights.” To get to the quarterback and make him go down, hard. Pressure defense is infectious; it’s the shark feeding frenzy of the game. Defenses become a true unit when they taste blood and want more. A dominant, physical  performance by Oregon’s defense will make them stronger and more aggressive, facing Washington, Stanford and USC in a matter of days. Today, for them also it is their one opportunity to improve.

Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen is a competent passer. Despite the almost complete lack of a running game he’s thrown for 13 touchdowns with just three interceptions. The Buffs use a traditional screen game to check and frustrate opponents and apply it effectively. Oregon’s linebackers and defensive ends will have to play smart, and smart is good. Play a half inch out of control and always wind up in the right place. Stay thirsty, my Webfoot friends, and enjoy the smooth satisfying taste of 6-1.

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