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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Know thy Opponent 2008: Oregon Ducks

First off, I want to again thank Dave from Addicted to Quack for answering my questions earlier this week on the Ducks. Dave was a big help in basically scaring the crap out of me for this game. I originally thought that Purdue had a chance to pull off a shocker at the beginning of the season and gain some respect back. After hearing about how strong the Oregon running game appears to be, however, I am no longer so sure.

I have long viewed the Oregon game as the most critical of our four non-conference games. It will likely be our next chance to knock off a ranked opponent. Of the four games, they are probably the toughest opponent we will face. We’re expected to beat Northern Colorado and Central Michigan, though the Chippewas will be a dangerous team. As for Notre Dame, they will be better, but no one truly knows how much better they will be. If we’re going to win in South Bend again in the near future, this will be the year. I am not counting on it though.

The Ducks, therefore, rise to the forefront of our non-conference challengers. Should we lose this game we stand a real chance of starting the season 1-3. A win means a 4-0 start is possible before getting into the conference schedule. I am not saying this will make or break Tiller’s final season in West Lafayette, but it will set the tone for the first half of it.

Last Season for the Ducks:

On November 15th of last year Oregon headed to Arizona for a huge Thursday night ESPN game. Quarterback Dennis Dixon had an allegedly minor knee injury, but was expected to play against the Wildcats. The Ducks were ranked second in the BCS, had a favorable closing stretch in Pac-10 play, and Dixon was all but on the plane to New York to accept the Heisman.

It all came crumbling down in the desert.

After Dixon scored the game’s first touchdown on a 39 yard scamper the Heisman hopeful tore his ACL on the following series. Arizona scored a 34-24 upset win and losses to UCLA and Oregon State followed. The Ducks were relegated to Purdue’s New Year’s Eve home of the Sun Bowl, where they crushed fellow former #2 South Florida 56-21 to finish the season at 9-4. Among Oregon’s notable wins last season were a 39-7 beatdown of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a 24-17 win over Pac-10 champ USC, and a 35-23 win over Arizona State. This was clearly one of the best teams in the country last season, only to be derailed by injuries late.

Historically the Ducks have been very similar to our beloved Boilers. Both teams have been to 10 bowl games in the past 11 seasons. Of those bowls, one was a BCS variety like our trip to Pasadena, while the others were on par with our own bowl appearances (3 Sun Bowls for Oregon, two Holiday Bowls equaling our Outback and Capitol One, two Las Vegas = two Alamo Bowls, etc.). It is amazing that Purdue or Oregon has played in six of the past nine Sun Bowls, but not against each other.

Both teams finished 5-6 to just miss a bowl in that aberration year. For Oregon that year was 2004, when Gerry DiNardo and Indiana walked in Autzen Stadium and came away with a shocking 30-24 victory. The Hoosiers are the only non-conference team to win at Autzen in the last 14 years. Dave called it the worst Oregon game he has ever attended. Oregon assisted Indiana with seven turnovers and a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Lance Bennett, spotting Indiana a 23-0 lead at the half. We will not be so lucky as to face that type of Oregon team this year.

Oregon Offense:

Last season Dixon and running back Jonathan Stewart were the main cogs in an almost unstoppable offensive machine. Stewart recovered from an injury plagued first two seasons to rush for 1,722 yards, 11 touchdowns, and a hefty payday by declaring early for the NFL draft. He was selected 13th overall by the Carolina Panthers, and I thank him for leaving early because he possibly could have broken LaDainian Tomlinson single game NCAA record against our porous run defense. Dixon, in the meantime, ran for an additional 583 yards (in just over nine games) and threw for 2,136 yards and 20 TD’s against just four picks before he got hurt. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Steelers, so fortunately both will not be tearing up the Ross-Ade Stadium turf.

Unfortunately Oregon may have found someone better than Stewart in LaGarrette Blount. As Dave mentioned, Blount was the top JUCO running back in the nation last season. He comes in as a four-star recruit on Rivals and had an impressive spring game for the Ducks. He is experienced from the JUCO ranks, has already had a spring to get acclimated with the Oregon spread option, he’s big at 6’2” 235, and he’s fast. Personally, after seeing our defense struggle to stop Marcus Thigpen and a simple halfback draw at Indiana last year I am terrified of what this guy will do. Thigpen ran for 140 yards against Purdue last year after having just one game over 40 yards against a Big Ten team last season. What Blount doesn’t do senior Jeremiah Johnson might do. Johnson also suffered an ACL tear last season, but has more than 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns during his first three years in Eugene.

The quarterback position is much more unsettled as Justin Roper battles Nick Costa for the starting job. Apparently Eugene, Oregon is the worst place on the planet for the human anterior cruciate ligament, because Costa is also returning from an ACL tear. Roper started the Sun Bowl for Oregon and only threw for 180 yards, but had four touchdown passes. Stewart was most of the story on the day against the Bulls.

At receiver top target Jaison Williams returns, having caught 55 balls for 844 yards and 8 scores. Tight end Ed Dickson was the second leading receiver last season with 453 yards and three scores. The rest of the receiving corps is relatively new, but Oregon likes to spread the ball around much like us, anyway. All told the Ducks return just five starters on offense, but three of them are along the offensive line. Expect our new pass rush to be tested against an experienced line that returns starters Fenuki Tupou, Max Unger (a top NFL prospect at center) and Mark Lewis. These guys helped plow the road for more than 3,200 team rushing yards last season and protected for more than 2,800 yards passing. The bottom line is that Oregon’s experience returns in critical areas, while the newcomers are very talented.

Oregon Defense:

Whoever wins this battle of strength vs. strength on September 13th will walk out of Ross-Ade with the win. The strength of our team is obviously the offense with a shaky defense. Oregon’s offense may not be as shaky, but their defense will be a stiff test for Painter and company. Seven starters return, including three of the four players in the secondary that are all starting for a third consecutive season. Cornerbacks Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond have teamed with safety Patrick Chung to patrol the Oregon defensive backfield for the past two seasons. Chung and Thurmond were all Pac-10 performers last season, while the trio had a combined 14 interceptions. Chung had 117 tackles to go with 103 for Thurmond. Neither was afraid to venture into the backfield either, as they each had at least seven tackles for loss.

Nick Reed was a force as a pass-rusher last season. Reed led the Pac-10 with 12 sacks and had 22.5 tackles for loss. As a unit the defense had an astounding 122 tackles for loss for an average of nearly 10 per game. They also had 38 sacks, but must replace both starting defensive tackles. The ends will test our offensive line, which is a patchwork at best right now. If we cannot protect Painter or get any kind of a running game moving it will be a long day. Oregon certainly has the personnel to make it a long day for us on both sides of the ball.

The linebackers are lead by returning players John Bacon and Jerome Boyd. Boyd had 79 tackles and three sacks last season while Boyd had a respectable 42 stops. This defense is deep and experienced at every position except maybe defensive tackle. They have also survived several tests against the high-octane offenses of the Pac-10. Perhaps the one thing we can take some solace in is that Oregon did give up nearly 24 points per game last year. Of course, they did average 38 on the offensive side and with even marginal quarterback play they can approach that number again.

Oregon Special Teams:

Matt Evensen returns to handle the placekicking duties after hitting 16 of 20 field goals a year ago. He had a long of 47 yards and has been a solid kicker for the Ducks. Evensen was also a perfect 52 of 52 on PAT’s last season. Should he falter, Daniel Padilla, who hit on three of four last season with a long for 43, will likely step in. Josh Syria returns as the punter and had a fine 41.7 yards per punt average last season.

Chung appears to be the leading candidate to replace Stewart as the kickoff returner. Chung had nine returns for 201 yards last season. There is no word yet on who will be returning punts but both Byrd and Chung have experience in that department. Both punt and kickoff coverage units were solid for the Ducks last season, but not spectacular.

Intangibles:

This is a definite preseason top-25 team, and they know it. The defense has the confidence that naturally comes with experience. The triumvirate of three year starters in the secondary will not be afraid of Curtis Painter, therefore our receivers must be ready to take a huge step forward after facing an overmatched Northern Colorado in the opener. You could say that Purdue has a slight edge offensively because of the experience we return at running back and quarterback, but the Ducks have a pair of games against Washington and Utah State to get everything together before this one. The receivers and tight ends are approximately equal, while Oregon has an edge on the offensive line. Defensively I believe Oregon has a huge edge simply because I no longer have confidence in our defense to stop anyone’s running game.

Game Outlook:

If Oregon is smart they will come out and run the ball in a variety of ways until we can prove that we can stop it. They run a better spread option with better personnel than Indiana or Central Michigan, both of whom we were unable to stop in the last two games of last season. Even though they are inexperienced they will still be a tough test for our defense. To have a chance in this game we must slow down their running game and force them to throw the ball with an inexperienced quarterback and green receivers.

Offensively we cannot afford to turn the ball over. This is one of the better defenses that we will face on the 2008 season and it is certainly the best we will face outside the Big Ten. If we are able to mix it up and move the ball both running and passing we could be setting the stage for a pretty good season. If we have another game like we did against Ohio State last season, where we couldn’t move at all, we should expect a long year.

Prediction:

We have a slight advantage in that Oregon must travel across the country to play us. As Dave mentioned, Oregon normally struggles at Big Ten opponents only to defend its home turf at Autzen Stadium. I still think this is a winnable game for us, and a critically important one at that. After seeing what they have, however, I think I will shy away from predicting a win. Purdue must prove to me that it can beat a team of this caliber again, and we have been unable to do so since beating Iowa in 2003. Oregon 31, Purdue 30

15 comments:

J Money said...

I'm glad we're playing this game early, since Tiller teams always seem to fade and lose close games down the stretch...

I agree Oregon is good but this is the kind of game Purdue needs to schedule early in the season to be "taken seriously." If we want a respected ranking and all that jazz, we gotta play -- and win -- games like this.

Not sure the travel thing is any sort of issue for Oregon... as D-1 football players, they're not taking a bus or anything.

Too early for me to be making predictions, but 31-30 seems odd to me, Travis... if you think Oregon is better after your research, why pick a one-point game? Doesn't that imply you think the teams are about dead-even? Maybe you do, but I don't feel your write-up suggests you do feel that way.

T-Mill said...

I do think we are even, but I haven't seen any proof that we can beat a team like this base don the last four seasons. I think we'll give them a close game, but we'll falter in the end. The 30 means we'll get plenty of scoring drives, but end them in field goals instead of touchdowns. Oregon won't do that and I am more confident in them getting the late needed touchdown drive than us.

Nick said...

A few comments by an Oregon fan. First, this is one of the better previews I have seen by an Oregon opponent -- nice job. You clearly did your research.

Second, Dixon actually completely tore his ACL in the Arizona State game and tried to play on it in the UA game.

Besides breaking in a new QB and the addition of Blount, one of the biggest questions for Oregon on the offensive side of the ball is whether or not Jaison Williams eliminates the drops. He's on pace to break several Oregon receiving records, yet his inconsistency has been maddening to Oregon fans. A sure-handed Williams would make life a lot easier for whoever lines up behind center.

Brad said...

Oregon fan here - great write up, though I think you are rating our running game a little too high. Blount has looked good in scrimmages and JC but who knows how he'll look in game. I certainly don't expect him to be better than Stew.

Similarly, Johnson (our other top running threa ) is coming off his injury and who knows how well he'll play.

Also one of the really underrated parts of our running game was how well Dixon could do fake hand-offs, fake passes, and fake pitches. I can't tell you how many times players took hits just because Dixon faked to them. He really was a master at it and it forced Defenses to play on their heals, I don't think that part of the offense will be there.

Finally, I'm really worried this group of players will be overconfident going into this game because of the Michigan game last year.

T-Mill said...

Brad and Nick,

Thanks for stopping by. I base my opinion of the running game on our inability to make any in game adjustments whatsoever to stop a hot player. Against Michigan State last year they had a receiver that ended up with a career day because we refused to cover him over the middle on third down time and again.

Against Indiana we acted like we had never seen a halfback draw before, let alone beleiving it was a legal play. Marcus Thigpen ended up looking like Walter Payton when, for most of the season, he played like Jarrett Payton.

If one of your backs gets hot you porbably won't have any trouble at all.

A Duck Fan said...

Very good recap of the Ducks. I am glad to hear your run D has holes because you never know what you get with a new qb. Plus our receivers tend to drop the ball quite a bit. Personally, I really doubt Roper gets the nod over Costa...so I would expect him and a lot of running also.

The Nuts said...

Another Oregon fan here...

Just wanted to applaud your class and respect for our program, cheers! I have personally been looking at this game as a tough test for our Ducks and it will be interesting to see how it plays out for both teams. Painter is legit and even with our experienced secondary I look for him to make some plays.

gribbit1 said...

Nick--

from one Oregon fan to another, you should know that Dixon tore his ACL about 3/4 of the way before the Arizona game. When he planted in the backfield to change directions was when the whole thing gave way. See this article:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/writers/lee_jenkins/04/08/dixon0414/index.html

I'd also like to add my voice to the chorus of Duck fans thanking you for the write-up. It's not often that anyone East of the Rockies knows anything about our team.

Anonymous said...

if any Purdue fans would like to talk about the Oregon-Purdue game, feel free to register and join:
www.chat4quacks.proboards60.com

Nick said...

Gribbit, as for Dixon's injury I thought I remember reading that it was completely torn in the ASU game. Moseley wrote that as well after he got hurt in the Arizona game on his blog:

http://rgweb-c.registerguard.com/blogs/index.php/duckfb/comments/dixons_uo_career_is_done/

And, I also remember reading numerous local reports that stated he did not damage his knee any further in the UA game.

So, I guess it was a rounding error?

Anonymous said...

Great post Tmill, as always. I too agree that Purdue's defense is suspect. It's interesting that in a very short time we went from one of the best defenses in the country to one of the worst. What happened to Brock Spack's great defenses?

purdue1 said...

This is going to be an awesome game to watch, i think our D will be fine, im glad bick and vinson are both gone. purdue is going to have a good shot of winning if our receivers learn to catch the ball, im anxious to see what valentin can do. im anxious for football to start lol.

Mr. Anonymous said...

Purdue1,
There is an interesting article in Athlon's Big Ten preview magazine about how Purdue's receiving corp's energy level has dramatically increased now that Dorian Bryant, and his negative attitude, are gone. I think the receivers are going to be better than expected. The title of the article is "Addition by Subtraction". Indeed...

scott said...

we (oregon) do seem to do poorly in away games, but that holds true more so in pac-10 play than out of conference play. since 2002, our only losses were to utah (ranked #25 at the time) and oklahoma (ranked #2 at the time) in out of conference away games. the most impressive out of conference road win coming against michigan last year (yeah they were in the dumps after losing to appalachian state, but anyone who thought they'd get smashed by 32 points before the game would have been considered crazy, even if they were oregon fans). this game has the potential to be a great one and i hope it will be at least better than the michigan game last year, but i do admit it was pretty sweet to watch us rip apart michigan after every news outlet gave us no chance despite the fact that they lost to app state.

oh and great preview by the way. it was definitely a good read.

Anonymous said...

Another Oregon fan, this is an important game for both of us. Many Duck fans consider this to be the most difficult game of the start of the year.

Our running game will not be as good as last year, because Stewart will be difficult to replace and as Brad said we have to show that the option can be as well run as DD did last year. And I hope we address the possibility of overconfidence in the Fuskie game.

We have a lot of questions we need to answer on offense, the good thing is that we will have 2 games to ready ourselves before taking on a solid Big-10 on their turf.

May it be a great game, with only minor owies in the end.