Defining the second half challenge for the Oregon Ducks

imagesBye is a tough opponent, because it invites you to be complacent. At 6-0 the temptation is great to feel satisfied after a series of four-touchdown wins and 50-point games.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose: the more confident Marcus Mariota gets in using his quick feet to confound a defense, the more damage he’ll be able to do with his accurate arm ( photo).

But all 6-0 does is guarantee a trip to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, and set the stage for a marvelous opportunity. Handicapping the season, just about everyone expected the Ducks to reach this milepost. The real tests are ahead.




There’s a slew of road games against quality opponents. Arizona State, with the #2-ranked Webfoots visiting Tempe in ESPN’s Thursday night feature game, looks like a much bigger challenge than it did in August. That’s followed by a breather with Colorado, USC in the Coliseum, Cal in refurbished Memorial Stadium, #17 Stanford at home in Autzen, then at Oregon State against the newly-dangerous Beavers, perhaps minus their quarterback.

The Ducks are again in position to play in the BCS Championship. But to do that, they have to stay perfect. If they suffered a loss, Oregon wouldn’t go over a one-loss Notre Dame team, or a one-loss SEC team. If multiple teams remain undefeated, pressure would grow to reward the Irish or West Virginia because of their schedules. With 5 teams in he Top 15, the SEC is a lock to send at least one team to Miami.

The only realistic way Oregon gets in is to remain perfect. That means beating ASU, USC , Cal and Oregon State on the road, and Stanford and Colorado at home, and then either ASU or the Trojans a second time.

Chip Kelly is 40-6, an .829 winning percentage, the highest in school history. All but one of the losses has been to a top-ranked team (Stanford in 2009, up-and-coming but unranked, with a tank of a running back and a strong-armed young quarterback throwing howitzers). In the five top-ten lost showdowns, Boise State, Ohio State, Auburn, LSU, and USC, the Ducks lost some of their rhythm on offense and had trouble running the football. Big, agile defensive fronts disrupted what they wanted to do.

Their biggest vulnerability going forward is meeting another team that slows down the bread-and-butter running game, putting all the pressure on Oregon’s young quarterback.

First-year starter Mariota has been brilliant with lapses of mediocrity. He’s thrown five interceptions and lost four fumbles. At times he’s creative, elusive, quick-footed and resourceful. A few other times he’s been a brain dead freshman. Mariota learns. He absorbs everything and seldom repeats mistakes. His command of the offense is growing and his confidence and execution has improved through every test. Masoli upchucked against Boise State and the Buckeyes. Darron Thomas, for all his detractors, was productive, courageous, and pretty much unflappable, though his delivery and pocket awareness could be infuriating. The light didn’t go on for Dennis Dixon until his senior year. 8MM, ducking under two defenders, or leaping over one and dodging another, or sprinting outside to buy time and rifling a touchdown pass to Josh Huff, is showing signs of having the light come on at a very tender age.

Like the Ducks, his midterm grade is a solid B+. But he has tougher tests to pass, hostile games against packed crowds, quick and agile defensive fronts that threaten to stuff his tailback and force him to take on the pressure on passing downs. The light has to come on for him, the mastery of a rush of split second decisions, or the Ducks will be playing under much dimmer lights in December and January. He’s learning when to use his impressive burst to elude the defense, when to take off running and when to throw the ball away. He’s learning to trust what he sees and deliver the ball when a receiver comes open rather than hesitating and allowing the defense to recover. You just  hope he learns it all quickly enough, and doesn’t suffer any lapses in his development.

His demeanor and intelligence are a huge edge, increasing the chances he’ll be able to handle these biggest stages well. You can tell he loves to play football, displaying a quiet leadership style that fits this team perfectly. Lyerla and Addison are also coming along, emerging as talents that can complement Barner and Thomas, the featured stars that get every opponent’s attention. Extra weapons will help keep the offense in rhythm, giving Kelly and his staff more answers and counters. You worry a little about the offensive line, which has been productive so far but not quite jelled. They don’t seem as dominating or roadgrading a unit–yet–as the teams that paved the way for LaMichael James to run for 5000 yards. If they move Arizona State off the ball and dictate the pace of that game, the outlook gets a little clearer and more optimistic. They’re healthier now, going in to the second half of the season, after having Long, Johnstone and Clanton banged up early. Clanton spent the second half of the Washington game in street clothes and a sling, though Mana Greig filled in well. Losing York at the beginning, they’re still a work in progress, and their progress will do a lot to determine the fate of the team. They can’t beat USC twice without two good performances from the offensive line, or ASU or Stanford either.

The defense has been stellar, highlighted by a play making, teeth rattling, much improved secondary, and a tougher, saltier defensive line that’s developed good depth in spite of losing Jared Ebert to injury. Jordan, Hart, Wade K, Heimuli, Remington take turns blowing up the line of scrimmage, and Armstead, Buckner and Washington have taken their line changes capably. Alonso and Clay have anchored the middle, and Avery Patterson and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu have provided the big play spark to ease the loss of John Boyett to season-ending knee surgeries. Four pick sixes in the last three weeks? That’s crazy, unprecedented stuff, the beginnings of an all-time, legendary defense. Oregon is +3 in turnovers despite giving away the ball 14 times on offense, and the offensive errors are likely to decrease in the coming weeks.

Duck fans couldn’t have hoped for a better start. 52 points a game and a defense that looks prouder and more stalwart every time out. A 49-0 shutout over then-ranked Arizona. Kenjon Barner running for 122 yards a game. Colt Lyerla emerging into a fearsome weapon running or receiving. A ball-hawking, big-play secondary that’s been punishing and stingy.

Just like always, they have to finish the job. The challenges ramp up. The attention and distractions increase with every win.

If they stay committed and execute, this could be the most memorable year imaginable.