[Editor’s note: with the Ducks facing Wisconsin in just two weeks, The Duck Stops Here entered a semi-friendly exchange of emails with our counterparts at wiscobadgers.com, the first in a series where we’ll break down the game and introduce the opponent and their traditions.
Thanks to Andrew Coppens and the writers at wisco for participating in this fan interactive experiment. A companion article, with their answers to our questions, will appear immediately after this one.]
photo left: There won’t be any jumping around when Montee Ball and Wisconsin come to Pasadena, just some hard-nosed running, and there was no ducking these questions from Coppens and the staff at wiscobadgers.com (theheismanwinners.com photo).
1) Is there a sense of disappointment that you didn’t reach the National Championship game, or is there more excitement of getting back to the Rose Bowl?
DSH: Any realistic hopes of returning to the National Championship Game died with four turnovers in Dallas, and any idea of reviving them went wide left with a missed field goal in the closing seconds of a loss to USC.
Objectively, this Duck team achieved expectations in winning a third straight conference title and making the Granddaddy of Them All. Most Duck fans are ecstatic about that outcome, and excited at the prospect of a return trip to Pasadena, the opportunity to meet a very worthy and formidable opponent, the Champions of the Big Ten, Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and the Wisconsin Badgers.
Oregon hasn’t won a BCS bowl game other than the Fiesta in 2001, and they’re 0-2 in BCS tilts in the last two years under Chip Kelly. The prevailing attitude out here is, it’s great to get to one of these games, but it’s time to win one of these darned things, as defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti put it in the interview room after the win in the conference title game over UCLA.
Oregon’s only been to the Rose Bowl twice in the last 40 years, 1995 against Penn State, 2010 against Ohio State, losing both of those. In fact, the Webfoots haven’t won in Pasadena since 1917. No one is taking the Rose Bowl for granted, and there’s a lot of urgency and anticipation among both players and fans.
The Ducks started the year with just ten scholarship seniors, and during the season overcame injuries to nearly every one of their stars. Quarterback Darron Thomas, All-American running back LaMichael James, WR Josh Huff, MLB Michael Clay, RB Kenjon Barner, and safety John Boyett all missed games this season, but the players and staff never looked for an excuse in forging an 11-2 season. If they can find a way to beat the Badgers, it’s a very satisfying year.
2) Wisconsin fans are notorious for traveling well, taking up nearly two-thirds of the Rose Bowl last year, albeit against a much smaller TCU fanbase, how well do Ducks fans travel?
DSH: Oregon has a great base of fans in Southern California and with success, Duck fans travel increasingly well. The green and yellow clad were still significantly outnumbered against Ohio State though, against Auburn in Glendale, and in the Cowboys Classic versus LSU. The allotment of tickets (25,000) sold out quickly, but it remains to be seen whether fans will plunk down the money for travel and resist the temptation to make a significant stack of cash in the secondary ticket market. Most likely scenario? On game day it’s apt to be 60% red and white, 40% yellow. We haven’t reached Big Ten or SEC fanaticism out here, and the state has been particularly hit by the down economy.
3) Everyone knows about LaMichael James and Darron Thomas on the offensive side of the ball, who else should we be aware of on offense?
DSH: Chip Kelly’s spread offense thrives on getting the ball to speed in space, and the Ducks have plenty of that, provided they execute and handle the Badgers’ big defensive line, something they’ve had difficulty doing in marquee matchups.
They’re blessed with multiple weapons, beginning with Freshman All-American De’Anthony Thomas, “The Black Momba” (he spells it with an “O,” but everybody ignorantly insists on Kobe-izing the nickname). Thomas electrified the PAC-12 this year with over 1900 all-purpose yards, 16 total touchdowns, which included 9 receiving, 6 rushing and two kickoff returns. DAT had 13 touches of 30 or more yards, 9 of 40 or more yards. He’s explosive, an incredible open-field runner who has the ability to turn defenders around three times without losing speed.
#1B running back Kenjon Barner has 909 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Josh Huff, the Ducks best deep threat, shook off an early season leg injury and finished very strong this season, with four catches against USC and five against UCLA in the title game. Tight end David Paulson has the best hands on the team, 30 catches for 428 yards and six touchdowns on the season, including a career-high 8 for 105 yards and a touchdown in the North Division-clinching win over Oregon State in the Civil War. An X factor off the bench is freshman tight end Colt Lyerla, who had just 7 catches in his first season, but 5 of those went for touchdowns, with an average per catch of 21.0 yards, tops on the team.
4) Will Nike be busting out anything new in terms of uniforms for the Ducks in the Rose Bowl?Are you sick of people just thinking of you being Nike’s “experiment?”
DSH: Uniform choices are a closely-guarded secret, sometimes not revealed until game time. The designated color for the fans at the Rose Bowl is “wear yellow” if that’s any indication.
Most Oregon fans have embraced the fact the Ducks tradition is to have no tradition, to be innovative and well, sexy in their designs and styles. It works. While it may not appeal to the old-school, throwback green and yellow fighting Duck crowd, Oregon’s unis are a huge hit with players and recruits, so much so that in one survey Oregon was number two among fans 17 and younger behind the Florida Gators. Players like it, and kids do, and that’s the decider. Those who haven’t strapped on a helmet in 20 years (if ever) simply have to live with it.
Oregon’s style on the field is all about innovation and speed, and from that standpoint, the uniform design is a perfect fit.
5) What is a typical Oregon tailgate like and what are the beverages and foods of choice?
DSH: The Northwest is home to a number of great, locally-produced craft beers, and those are the centerpiece of the Oregon tailgate. Favorites include Mirror Pond Ale from the Deschutes Brewery and Ninkasa Total Domination, a full-bodied stout. We like our beers cold and bold, and the tailgate spread typically includes grilled and smoked meat in all the usual varieties. Duck fans are cordial and laid-back, reserving hatred and cold stares for traditional rivals like Oregon State and Washington.
6) There’s a segment of Badgers fans that see Oregon as a finesse team and therefore kind of onthe weak side. What can you point to that may tell us otherwise and who are some players to watch for on the defensive side of the ball?
DSH: The Duck defense is overshadowed by the flashy offense and seriously underrated. They allowed just 23.6 points per game this season and 4.93 yards per play, with 28 turnovers and 43 sacks. Standouts include linebacker Michael Clay, who ranges the field, averaging 9.6 tackles per game,”The Preying Mantis,” 6-7 defensive end Dion Jordan, who led the defensive linemen with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, and heady, tough safety John Boyett, a junior who’s led the Ducks in tackles two of the last three years, including a team-leading 91 this season.
Because of the offense’s explosiveness and no-huddle pace, the Ducks play a deep rotation on defense, employing as many as 24-26 players in a game. This keeps the defense fresher, but sometimes skews individual statistics. Fifteen different team members had at least one sack this season. Tackles and big plays get spread around.
Nick Aliotti employs a flexible 4-3/3-4 defensive front, with blitzing and stunts coming at the offense from all angles. Jordan and another athletic defensive end, former linebacker Brandon Hanna, or sometimes even fast, physical outside linebackers Josh Kaddu and Bo Lokombo, will be used either to drop back in pass coverage or rush the passer, starting the play in a three-point stance or upright depending on the offensive alignment. This creates a lot of confusion about where pressure will come in the defensive set. The Ducks try to use speed, agility and athletic ability to overcome an apparent disadvantage in size along the front seven.
7) With this appearance do you see Oregon as a player on the national stage? Or do you think you need to win this game to get into that discussion?
DSH: The Ducks have reached a plateau. They’ve become a nice little team that makes The Top 25 and even The Top Ten most years, but they haven’t gotten it done in big games, against elite schools, against teams with big, physical offensive and defensive lines or extra time to prepare. They need a win to challenge that national perception of them as a soft or finesse team–they aren’t, but they’ll continue to be perceived that way until they execute properly and win a marquee game against a quality opponent, which Wisconsin definitely is.
8) Will anyone outside of the SEC ever win a BCS Championship? If so will it be someone from the Pac-12 or Big Ten that breaks the streak?
DSH: SEC schools deserve full credit for their accomplishments, but the system has a built-in bias toward those schools as well. They play 8 conference games, all start out ranked in the top 20, and pad their schedules with North Texas and Georgia Southern, rarely venturing outside their region in out-of-conference play.
The winner of the SEC Championship is virtually guaranteed one of the top two seeds in the BCS’s little inbred party. Until there’s a playoff, that’s the law of the land in college football, and the only way a Big Ten or PAC-12 school can wedge their way in is to go undefeated, and hope a pair of schools from the SEC or Big 12 don’t do so in the same season. So we care about the BCS until we have a loss, then focus on the Rose Bowl, which is the only trophy we can earn on merit alone.
That said, the Ducks have an excellent chance to compete for a national title in 2012, provided they’re able to springboard themselves with a win over the Badgers. They return a starting senior quarterback and an excellent nucleus on both sides of the ball, even if LaMichael James leaves for the NFL as expected. They also have an SEC-type schedule next year with all their September games at home, including three exceedingly winnable contests to start the year, Arkansas State, Fresno State (with a new coach) and Tennessee Tech (Georgia and Kansas State both backed out of home-and-homes). Oregon’s had three excellent recruiting years, and with that slate to start, they’ll have an opportunity to build their depth and a resume of big wins.
The current system rewards cowardice. While playing a quality opponent on the road to start the year is courageous, the BCS penalizes a loss heavily, even if it’s to the eventual number one team. Until someone pulls the plug on the Colley Matrix, scheduling soft is the way to go.
9) Chip Kelly’s plug of UPS and Dr. Pepper has gone viral and made him a bit more of a national name, but do you think he needs a win to really get the recognition as a top tier coach?
DSH: Kelly’s a high-energy, fast-talking, quick-with-the-quip football genius, who scarcely ever worries about anyone’s (especially the media’s) perception of him. But another loss cements his reputation as a coach who dominates a weak conference and fails on the big stage.
He’s a innovator, a leader, and a tremendous motivator who understands and communicates football and discipline to his players in marvelous ways, but in the end, you are what your record says you are, and right now Oregon’s coach, 36-6 since taking over from Oregon’s all-time winning coach Mike Bellotti, is 0-2 in bowl games, both BCS January games for coveted prizes.
10) We’re about three weeks out from the game, can you give us your thoughts on what may be needed from Oregon to beat Wisconsin?
DSH: The Ducks have to execute and avoid what Kelly calls self-inflicted wounds, penalties and turnovers. They need a fast start to keep the Badgers from wearing them down and controlling the clock.
They need consistent and focused play from their quarterback. Darron Thomas, playing on a knee he injured mid-season against Arizona State, has been at times erratic and frustrating to fans despite completing 60% of his passes and throwing for 30 touchdowns. He particularly has trouble settling down early in games, sailing the ball high, struggling with his footwork and somewhat prone to disastrous early turnovers and unforced errors.
Wisconsin has a terrific run defense, about 155 yards a game, and the Ducks must achieve some balance and establish their rhythm and tempo in the game, or risk having Montee Ball and Russell Wilson running downhill for four relentless quarters. It’s like a heavyweight fight. Oregon needs to stick and move, while the Badgers want to slug it out. The Ducks can’t get caught in the clinch.