Issues and Answers: key questions as the Ducks enter the season’s 4th quarter

Here in Oregon we have a coach with big balls, rather than a equipment manager with deflated ones.

Saturday the Ducks face another lackluster match up that will do nothing for their strength of schedule when they travel to Bezerkley to face a beat up 3-7 Cal squad. The objectives for this one are simple: 1) take care of business and maintain the execution that’s made Oregon one of the most formidable teams in the country and 2) stem the alarming flow of injuries, which is starting to become a real concern.

The Ducks are currently down four on the defensive line. Starters Ike Remington, Rickie Heimuli and Dion Jordan are nursing serious injuries, all doubtful for the Cal game, and reserve Jared Ebert, a mobile tackle, was lost early with a knee injury. It’s gotten so bad that the Ducks may take the mythical redshirt off true freshman defensive tackle Alex Balducci this weekend. Balducci is a big body at 6-4, 290, a former U.S. Army All-American, but he doesn’t have the physical maturity of Remington and Heimuli.

It’s a particular concern because smash mouth Stanford is next on the schedule, with bruising tailback Stepfan Taylor and their strong, big, deep offensive line, dotted with 4 and 5-star talent. Football is a game of matchups. Oregon has a lot of advantages over The Cardinal and all three of their remaining opponents, but the ability to stop the run becomes a serious question when the defensive front is so depleted. They need Remington, Heimuli and Jordan for the stretch drive. With Stanford, Oregon State, a possible PAC-12 title game and a shot at the national championship at stake, look for Balducci, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner to be tested in the coming weeks, and the veterans to make a concerted effort to get healthy or play through.

On to some questions and topics hot among Duck fans:

Is this the best Duck team ever?

Only if they finish the job.  Certainly this team has tremendous balance with a prolific offense and a ballhawking defense. They’re stronger than many recent teams also in that Marcus Mariota is such a complete package running and throwing. His cool and composure has exceeded the expectations of everyone except Chip Kelly.

To surpass the 2011 Rose Bowl team, the 2010 National Championship Game team, the 2001 Fiesta Bowl team, or the Cotton Bowl squad of 1948, these Ducks have to finish perfect in the PAC-12, win the conference title game (probably a rematch with the Trojans) and take Alabama to the fourth quarter.

It will take a great effort and a couple of breaks to beat the Crimson Tide. That defense is ferocious. But this Oregon team matches up much better than the Ducks that lost to Auburn and LSU, averaging less than three yards a carry on the ground. This squad has a big, athletic upgrade on the offensive line in 6-6, 294-lb. Jake Fisher and 6-7, 311 Kyle Long at the guards. Fisher was athletic enough to play tight end in high school, and Long earned a professional baseball contract by heaving 96 mph fastballs. Both are quick and tough, physical enough to manhandle USC for 730 yards of offense and 426 yards on the ground. The gap with the SEC has been closed. Oregon can play with anyone in the country, and this team, provided they continue to practice and prepare in the same way, could just win it all.

What’s the biggest challenge Chip Kelly would face in the NFL?

Former Minnesota Vikings star Chris Carter, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, was on the radio the other morning on the “Mike and Mike Show.” “In the NFL,” he said, “There are a lot of players who care about two things: Me, and my money.”

Everybody talks about the NFL as the pinnacle of coaching but it really isn’t. It’s a graveyard for coaches. Nowhere else in sports can a coach have an impact on a team and a program that a great college coach does. He has complete control of everything, the budget, the staff, the nonconference schedule, the style, system and identity of his team. That’s why great college coaches become legends and have streets named after them.

At the college level, a coach like Kelly, Urban Meyer or Pete Carroll gets a tremendous amount of buy-in from his players. They embrace his philosophy and his leadership, and adopt his world view. They allow themselves to be shaped and molded by his vision. Oregon players sound like Kelly in interviews, and they play and face hostile environments the way he has taught them to do so.

It isn’t that way in the NFL. A vast majority of players are playing for their next contract. Their primary motivation is to stay in the league and preserve their lifestyle, and too many pay far more attention to their agent or their mistresses than they do to a head coach. Many of them will be skeptical and uncooperative. Kelly would spend the first season or two identifying and finding his guys, and the window in the NFL is tremendously short.

Coach Kelly is a keen football mind with tremendous drive. He’ll probably succeed in the Not For Long league. But he won’t enjoy it as much and won’t find it as rewarding. He’ll go, though, because as a competitor he can’t resist the challenge. It’s a shame, both for Oregon fans and for him.

Should Duck fans be worried about the defense after SC’s 51-point performance?

Yes. They’ll have to play better and make some adjustments to beat Stanford, OSU and the Trojans a second time. They need to tackle better (after missing about two dozen in the Coliseum) and learn to handle a fast receiver without picking up costly pass interference penalties. The Beavers have two of them, and they’re dangerous.

Matt Barkley is a very different quarterback under pressure. Any time the Ducks got to him or hurried him last Saturday, he threw a pick or threw poorly. Trouble is, it’s very difficult to get pressure through the big offensive line of the Trojans, and several times Oregon players weren’t under control when they got through the pocket. The normally slow-footed Barkley was able to buy time with his feet, and that’s inconceivable.

Even considering the talent on the SC sideline, there were too many explosion plays last weekend. Oregon can’t have breakdowns like that in the weeks ahead. Because now, the standard and the stakes are much higher. If they avoid a stumble and commit themselves to keep getting better, they could be national champions.