Oregon out to conquer old demons against LSU's stout defensive line
Oregon-LSU will come down to spread offense vs. d-line, not to suspensions
Georgia-Boise State is a statement game ... just not for the team you'd expect
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When asked whether he was concerned about complacency coming off Oregon's BCS title game appearance, Ducks coach Chip Kelly had this to say: "January 10 seems like a loooong, long time ago."
He's not the only one who thinks so. After the most trying and tawdry offseason anyone can remember -- during which Kelly's program was one of many to come under the NCAA microscope -- this week's opening slate of games couldn't come soon enough. And this season begins in similar fashion to how last season ended: with Oregon squaring off against a highly ranked SEC foe in an NFL stadium. The third-ranked Ducks' matchup with the fourth-ranked LSU Tigers on Saturday night in Dallas will be the centerpiece of opening weekend.
Of course the summer of scandal has affixed its stain to this matchup too, starting with the infamous Willie Lyles' connection to both programs and culminating in the suspensions of Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, LSU receiver Russell Shepard and, following last week's arrest on second-degree battery, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson. While Jefferson's situation has become the dominant storyline heading into Saturday, he was never likely to pass for 300 yards. The game was always going to come down to whether Kelly's trademark spread offense could avoid repeating history.
At his postgame press conference after the title game, Kelly offered a simple explanation for Auburn's 22-19 victory over the Ducks: "The matchup with our offensive line against their defensive line was really the changing point," he said. That much was obvious to anyone who watched Auburn's Nick Fairley repeatedly burst into the backfield and barrel down on Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas.
Nearly eight months later Oregon is about to face another vaunted SEC defensive line, this time minus three veteran offensive line starters from last year's squad.
See any similarities, coach?
"Uh huh," said Kelly. "I keep watching that film and hoping some of those kids graduated, but they haven't."
That's not entirely true. LSU does return all of its key defensive ends (led by Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery), but lost both of its starting tackles (All-America Drake Nevis and Lazarius Levingston) from last season. But considering LSU's recent assembly line at the position that has produced NFL players such as Chad Lavalais, Claude Wroten, Kyle Williams, Glenn Dorsey and Nevis, it's reasonable to assume the Tigers' line will still be formidable. Michael Brockers, a 6-foot-6, 306-pound sophomore, and Josh Downs, a 6-1, 287-pound junior, are the expected starters, with four others likely to see action, including touted 6-3, 310-pound true freshman Anthony "Freak" Johnson.
Kelly's offenses have thoroughly flummoxed Pac-12 defenses in compiling a 17-1 conference record the past two seasons. Out of conference, however, the Ducks have gone a more modest 5-3, and the common thread in those losses was a trio of teams (Boise State, Ohio State and Auburn) with dominant front fours. Each held the Ducks well below their normal rushing output, with the Broncos memorably holding the Ducks to 31 ground yards in an ugly 19-8 defeat in Kelly's head coaching debut.
"When their offense is working, no offense looks more unstoppable because guys are running for 80-yard touchdowns and have the world's biggest holes to run through," said Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com. "But when it looks bad, it looks really bad, and everyone always flashes back to that Boise game."
Then, like now, the Ducks were breaking in three new offensive line starters -- and it showed. Boise mixed up its looks and shot linebackers up the middle, flustering Oregon's newbies (and really frustrating running back LeGarrette Blount). Two of the Ducks' first-time starters that night, guards Carson York and Mark Asper, are now their most seasoned veterans (Asper has since moved to right tackle), but redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu will likely be stepping in for departed All-America center Jordan Holmes.
So how does Oregon avoid a Boise/Ohio State/Auburn redux? Brown said we may have seen a preview in last year's title game, when Kelly opened with a much different look than he'd shown most of the season: three guys (LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and a motion receiver) often lined up in the backfield, allowing Thomas to essentially run the triple-option. The goal, it seemed, was to run plays to the outside, away from Fairley. Unfortunately, whether because of rust from the pre-bowl layoff or lack of practice with the new sets, Thomas looked uncomfortable and indecisive on his pitches. On a third-and-two near the Auburn goal-line, Thomas made a bad read and got walloped by an unblocked Fairley.
"One of the things Oregon does is try to read the interior defensive lineman," said Brown. "It's something Florida did [against] Glenn Dorsey. In the national championship game, they tried to read Nick Fairley, and he still managed to tackle the quarterback and the running back at the same time. That's why he was a first rounder."
The good news for Oregon is that LSU doesn't have one lineman as dominant as Dorsey or Fairley, at least that we know of. The Ducks have also had an entire offseason to practice their three-back sets, or whatever other wrinkles Kelly may have cooked up. Still, this hardly seems like an ideal matchup for an offense breaking in three new linemen.
Thankfully for college football fans, Kelly still scheduled the game.
"If you're going to be a top program, don't be afraid to play anybody, take their best shot and move on," said Kelly. "... We're going to line up with five offensive linemen on that first snap on offense, I can tell you that."
That may be one of the only remaining certainties about Saturday's game.
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