Oregon's D gets Ducks in mix, TCU makes jump, BCS picks and more
Oregon's defense has put the Ducks in position to challenge for the Rose Bowl
TCU deservedly jumped Boise St. in the BCS standings as the top non-BCS team
Frustrated Tim Tebow can no longer be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate
Football Insiders: Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
During the latter stages of No. 1 Alabama's near-unraveling against Tennessee, someone asked me the following question on Twitter: "Is this the least impressive set of BCS title contenders you have ever seen?"
That's one way of looking at it. Florida certainly added to that perception Saturday night against Mississippi State. But I've seen enough unglamorous national champions this decade (2000 Oklahoma, 2002 Ohio State, 2003 LSU, 2006 Florida) to know it's unwise to doubt anyone with a dominant defense. And this year we happen to be seeing a whole bunch of them.
It's hardly surprising to see Florida, Texas, Penn State, Alabama and TCU sitting in the top five nationally in total defense. We've come to expect it from those programs. Iowa's best teams have also usually been of the blue-collar variety.
But Oregon? Seriously? Where did this come from?
While teams like the Gators and Crimson Tide struggled to put away inferior opponents Saturday, the resurgent, 10th-ranked Ducks (6-1) plastered Washington 43-19 to improve to 4-0 in the Pac-10. In those contests, they've allowed an average of 9.5 points. Heading into next weekend's gargantuan showdown with No. 4 USC (the winner will take control of the Pac-10 driver's seat), a program better known for its garish uniforms and high-octane offense has reinvented itself with opportunistic defense and special teams. Frankly, it defies logic.
"I didn't see it coming," admitted Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Consider: Oregon has not finished in the top 40 nationally in total defense since 2004. This year, it ranks 19th. Four starters from last year's defense, including All-Americas Patrick Chung and Nick Reed, were drafted last spring. And since the season began, Oregon has lost both its top cornerback (Walter Thurmond) and his replacement (Willie Glasper) to season-ending injuries. Another corner, Talmadge Jackson, suffered back spasms against Washington. Safety T.J. Ward went down in the season-opener against Boise State and only returned Saturday.
Yet last Saturday in Seattle, the Ducks sacked Huskies quarterback Jake Locker four times. They intercepted him twice, one coming from a freshman cornerback, Cliff Harris, who didn't join the team until late August due to NCAA clearinghouse issues. The Ducks didn't allow a touchdown until the fourth quarter, after they'd already gone up 36-6.
For the most part, Oregon is generating pressure with a front four comprised largely of undersized career backups, most notably 6-foot-3, 232-pound defensive end Kenny Rowe, who has a team-leading seven sacks.
"I am extremely proud of our front four. They have played beyond what I thought they could be due to lack of experience," said Aliotti. "It's kind of an unsung-hero defense. There isn't any real star. You wish you could bottle up this type of attitude and chemistry."
Against Washington, Oregon also blocked a punt for a touchdown, set up another with a fake field goal and once again rode freshman tailback LaMichael James, who, since stepping in for the suspended LeGarrette Blount, has posted three games of 150-plus yards (including 154 on 15 carries Saturday). Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, returning from a knee injury that cost him a game, had 211 total yards.
But it's the defense more than the offense that gives Oregon a shot at pulling off a potential landmark win this weekend against the Trojans.
While it's true USC's normally stout defense has played poorly in the second halves of its past two games (the Trojans allowed a staggering 482 yards in Saturday's 42-36 win over Oregon State), Pete Carroll's defenses have traditionally fared well against Oregon's spread. In the teams' 2007 meeting in Autzen Stadium, played under a similar buildup, USC held sizzling Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon to 233 yards of total offense. But Oregon's defense secured the 24-17 victory by twice picking off Mark Sanchez.
At the time, that game put Oregon in position to end the Trojans' run of Pac-10 supremacy, but Dixon suffered an ACL injury the following week and the Ducks wound up losing their last three conference games. Now, they get another shot. A victory Saturday would give Oregon (4-0) a two-game lead in the standings over seven-time defending champion USC (3-1), a feat that would be all the more remarkable considering just how disastrously the Ducks season began that infamous night in Boise.
"They're solid," Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt, formerly of USC, said of the Ducks. "I think it will be a great game. The thing Oregon has going for 'em is they're playing at their place. They're really good at home."
Perhaps it's asking too much. Perhaps the Trojans' veteran offensive line will impose its will against Rowe and Co. Perhaps quarterback Matt Barkley will pick apart Oregon's depleted secondary. ("We're still a little nervous at corner," admitted Aliotti.) Perhaps Ducks linebacker Casey Matthews (son of former USC star Clay Matthews, brother of recent USC draft pick Clay Matthews Jr.) will remember his lineage and get caught giving the Victory Sign.
Either way, this figures to be one of the season's most intriguing games to date because of the multitude of ramifications. A Trojans win will put them squarely at the front of the BCS one-loss pack. An Oregon win will put the Ducks in the Rose Bowl driver's seat, push USC to the cusp of rare BCS oblivion -- and, interestingly, further help Boise State's cause.
The Sept. 3 Oregon-Boise State game was an eventful way to begin the year. At the time, the low-scoring 19-8 contest was almost an afterthought to the Blount melee that followed. Who would have guessed it would actually set the tone for this defensive-dominated season -- both at Oregon and across the country?
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