From a fan’s perspective, the Ducks have had a great start to this year’s schedule. They play three home games before October 1st, but don’t play any of them at home in the next consecutive weeks – which is crucial for maintaining fan stamina and spreading out the fun. Some fans may not like having an FCS team on the schedule, but it worked out great this year by having that game scheduled in the season’s first week, when fans are just excited to be back at the games, regardless of the opponent.
Their non-conference schedule concludes with an SEC opponent visiting Autzen Stadium for the first time in over a decade, with Tennessee coming to town. In between those two contests was last Saturday’s East Coast visit, which not only gave the Ducks a chance to play in one of the nation’s richest states for talented recruits, but provided them with what will likely be their biggest test amongst the season’s first five games.
Though the scheduling and timing of these home games may be different from 2012 and 2013, they are Week 2 games this year — against Virginia and last year against Fresno State – that ended up being similar to one another in many ways. Consider both games:
• The opponent won four games the year before, but looked much better than a four-win team against Oregon (in Fresno State’s case, they won nine games and went to a bowl, while Virginia has already defeated a good team in BYU)
• Oregon raced out to an early lead in a way that made it look like they were going to score 100 points
• They got that early lead in part to amazing, highlight-level running by De’Anthony Thomas
• They let the opponent hang around in a way that the outcome wasn’t in doubt, but didn’t feel as though the opponent was put away, either
• The opposing coach chose to kick a field goal late in the first half, despite already being down by more than 20 points
But it is the way the games differ that matters most for the Ducks in 2013.
Last season, Oregon’s game against Fresno State in Week 2 will be remembered more for the injuries that had occurred by its end than for any result shown on the scoreboard. That day started with John Boyett being scratched from the lineup even before kickoff; he wouldn’t appear at Autzen Stadium again until Senior Day when he was dressed in street clothes. Carson York would suffer a career-ending knee injury that day, and Josh Huff left with an injury, eventually returning to the sidelines in crutches. Huff’s injury, though not season-ending, looked the worst of the injuries that day, causing Duck fans to fear it was a much worse diagnosis.
That type of attrition was difficult for fans with nerves still frayed from the 2007 season. Many tears and much ink has been spent on Dennis Dixon’s injury, but he was just the final straw amidst an already injury-plagued season for that team – one that saw Brian Paysinger, Cameron Colvin, Jeremiah Johnson, John Bacon and Nate Costa, all lost for the year due to injury.
In 2012, injuries took their toll again. The coaching staff did its best to patch the holes with its “next man up” philosophy, but moves like pulling a redshirt off defensive lineman Alex Balducci or moving Koa Ka’ai back to defensive line late in the season, showed how severely those injuries took their toll on the team’s depth last season. After having injuries submarine two of the most promising seasons in school history recently, Oregon needs to stay healthy to have a chance at a championship season in 2013.
This is what made what we saw in the Virginia game on Saturday so worrisome. While the Pac-12 officials working Saturday’s game demonstrated hypersensitivity to protecting Virginia’s players (they just called three more roughing-the-passer penalties in the time it took you to read that sentence), they exhibited little of that same protection for their conference’s own team.
In particular, on a play late in the second quarter, De’Anthony Thomas was tackled, and then kneed by Virginia defensive end Jake Snyder. When Thomas got up to express his displeasure with Snyder and his actions, Snyder shoved Thomas in the face, which then resulted in a penalty for Snyder . . . and Thomas, apparently for defending himself.
This isn’t the first time Thomas has had to deal with this from opposing teams. Several Beavers went after Thomas in last year’s Civil War, yet the officials dealt with it then the same way they did last Saturday, by penalizing Thomas. Those incidents together show a pattern emerging of other teams who seemingly appear to be going after Thomas, with the intent to potentially injure him. Yet the officials offer him no protection, penalizing him in the instances when he defends himself, necessitated by the fact that they have demonstrated no interest in helping him, themselves.
As the incident with Snyder showed, by giving Thomas (for responding), the identical penalty as the instigator, does little to discourage opposing players from going after, and trying to provoke or injure him. If such an incident were to occur (*knock on wood it doesn’t, KNOCK ON WOOD!*), questions would need to be asked of the Pac-12 as to why its officials, whose jobs are to control the game, would have failed to do so.
What we saw on Saturday is what Oregon is capable of doing when they are healthy. Most notable in that description were the plays of Thomas Tyner. Injured for much of fall camp, a healthy Tyner was able to score two touchdowns on only four carries, all coming late in the game. His health, and the health of his teammates, is crucial in the future. Whether they will be able to remain that way, will determine the outcome of the season.
Next game: September 14th, Tennessee at Oregon, 12:30 PM PT, ABC/ESPN2
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