Grading Ducks vs LSU in the Cowboy Classic: running backs

LaMichael-James-APSpencer Ware has a short bio but huge potential. He was a spread quarterback in high school, and threw a halfback option pass against Auburn for a 39-yard touchdown. He’s a bruiser, a power runner inside the tackles at 5-11, 227 with 4.6 speed in the 40, more Steven Jackson than LaMichael James, a Chris Polk slasher rather than a guy built for speed. He’ll carry tacklers and run through them. He’s shifty and quick-cutting, running behind a big offensive line.

Duck fans have to be a little worried, remembering how the Oregon defense gave up 162 yards to Tennessee’s Tauren Poole last year, his season high, and gave up 143 yards to Michael Dyer in the National Championship Game. The Ducks have had a little trouble playing Smashmouth, playing against the teams with the dreaded big, elite offensive lines. Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor ran the ball 17 times for 113 yards. It begins to look like a pattern. Cal’s Shane Vereen had 112, though most of it came early.  Arizona State’s Deantre Lewis got loose for 127 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run. That’s too many 100-yard days, but the Ducks had their successes too. They held Chris Polk to 77, Jacquizz Rodgers to 87, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin to 69.

(photo at right: LaMichael James finds running room against USC, 239 yards and 3 touchdowns, against a team that-gasp-had a big, physical defensive line. Associated Press photo)

LSU has the biggest and most physical offensive line Oregon will face all year, although left guard Josh Dworaczyk, 6-6, 301, a two-year starter and one of the the best linemen in the SEC, has to miss the game with an injury that requires surgery. That leaves three starters returning, same as the Ducks. In 2010 LSU’s big fellas paved the way for Stevan Ridley to run for 1147 yards. In a relief role Ware got 24 carries for 175 yards, including 102 in a breakout performance at the Cotton Bowl, when he and the departed Ridley both went over the century mark. Underappreciated is that the athletic Ware is also dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield; he had 10 catches for 101 yards, a 29-yard long, quite a few considering he played just part-time as a freshmen. He solidified his hold on the starting job in the Spring Game, leading all rushers with 94 yards on just 13 carries, scoring twice. Ware is productive with his touches, 7.3 yards per run, 10.1 per reception. He’s hard to bring down and therefore dangerous. The Tigers will want to feed him the ball and frustrate the Oregon offense. He wears #11. A lot of LSU players line up in weird numbers for their position; it seems to be an LSU tradition, or perhaps it just reflects Les Miles’ affection for athletic quarterbacks in various roles.

Michael Ford is the probable 1B back. Also a sophomore, Ford is 5-10 215, a decorated high school recruit who carried the ball 45 times in his freshman spelling Ridley, with 6.0 average and 3 tds. His longest carry was 36 yards, against McNeese State. Ford caught a pass for a 27-yard touchdown against Ole Miss.

The Tigers will want to run the football, and both Ware and Ford are young but capable. They’re good athletes who came highly-regarded in high school, and the LSU faithful think they have an advantage at the line of scrimmage in this game.

One place they don’t have an advantage? Running back. The Ducks return the Doak Walker Award winner in 1700-yard rusher LaMichael James, and backup Kenjon Barner is healthy now after running for 551 yards and 6 touchdowns in an injury-marred 2010 season. The Ducks also expect some fireworks from incoming freshman De’Anthony Thomas, who dazzled teammates and onlookers all through summer workouts and fall camp with his electrifying speed and open-field moves. The Ducks want to run the ball too, but theirs is a quick-strike running attack, producing more big plays on the ground last year than almost anyone.

Trouble is Oregon’s fearsome running attack was grounded by Auburn in the National Championship Game, with James held to 49 yards on the soggy turf, Barner just 32. Oregon’s offensive line, with two new starters, has something to prove in Dallas, with many critics expecting a Boise State/Ohio State/Auburn-type debacle. Smaller than many lines, though improving in that category by adding the 291-lb. Grasu at center, 300-lb. and fiercely-strong Clanton at guard, the Ducks hope to use their bust blocks, double teams and agile slide steps to move the pile in Jerry World. If they fail, analysts from Bristol to San Jose to the offices of the Oregonian will be serving up a giant dish of I told you so to the Duck faithful.

As Charles “FishDuck” Fisher has pointed out, Oregon’s deceptive Zone Read game produces huge, devastating holes when it works, but it also allows more negative plays than other styles when the defense guesses right or gets penetration along the line. To win the line of scrimmage and move the ball effectively, new center Hroniss Grasu and his teammates must communicate well and prevent the disruptive penetrations. They can’t allow LSU’s big, athletic tackles, including 5-star freshman Anthony “the Freak” Johnson and 6-6, 306-lb. sophomore Michael Brockers, to manhandle and overwhelm them at the line of scrimmage.

The Oregon offensive line has to give James and Barner a chance to get untracked. If they do, the Ducks can flash their speed in their new anthracite uniforms, and make an eye-opening impression on poll voters, Heisman balloters, recruits, and the next cover of Sports Illustrated. Maybe this time it won’t be a jinx.

Running Backs Grade

Oregon: A