Nevada deserves respect for a number of reasons. One, they were willing to go on the road and schedule a team like Oregon for their opening game. They are defending Western Athletic Conference Co-Champions. They finished 13-1 last season with victories over Cal, Boise State and Boston College. They run an innovative offense which their coach invented, and he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame, one of only two active coaches to be so honored. Like the Ducks, they play fast and physical and fly around on defense.
The Wolfpack have gone to bowl games six seasons in a row. Most of them were minor, but even so, they’ve accomplished two things in the last two years that the Ducks haven’t: they beat Boise State, and won a bowl game. Something to keep in mind, while counting this one as in the bag.
A team that nobody gives a chance and with something to prove is a dangerous team. Chris Ault’s team has nothing to lose it Autzen, and they’ll come in fired up about the chance to compete against a highly-ranked opponent. It’s their first game, so they’ve had five weeks to prepare for this one, and no doubt, this is what they used to motivate themselves working in the summer heat of The Biggest Little City in the World.
As for the Ducks, they need a convincing and polished win tomorrow. They know they have a depth, size and talent advantage over the Wolfpack, and they have to see this game as an opportunity to get their season going in the right direction again. They’ll want to be crisp, to dictate the tempo and reclaim the line of scrimmage, to make Nevada pay for the embarrassment the Ducks felt last week, stumbling and fumbling away a chance to compete in another big game.
The Ducks want to show that they’re done with excuses, done with stupid penalties and turnovers, and done losing. For many of them it was the first time ever losing two games in a row. It’s not anything they want to get used to. Back home in Autzen, it’s an opportunity to win back their flair and mojo and confidence. LaMichael James wants to get back to being explosive, instinctive and elusive. “I want to do ME,” he told reporters this week, “I want to get back to running the way I want to run.” Expect James to blast into the open and have a big day.
Darron Thomas looked uneasy in Dallas. He looked rushed, out of rhythm and off target. His decisions and reads seemed a step slow and a touch cautious. Passing, he missed high wide and often, and simply didn’t look like the tough, confident leader who paced Oregon to 12 victories last season. Now he’s 12-2 as a starter. Expect him to make a bid for 24-2, beginning with a focused and smoother performance in game two.
The defense made a decent effort against the Tigers, but the offense and the scoreboard betrayed them. They held LSU to 3.6 yards per rush, 95 yards passing, 273 total yards. In a game where the opponent doesn’t start downhill drive after drive, those are good enough numbers to win a ball game. Nick Aliotti’s crew visibly wore down in the third quarter, asked to be on the field almost continuously after back-to-back turnovers. In all the Tigers had the ball 33 minutes, most of it inside the Oregon 30. Expect John Boyett and the rest of his teammates to be vengeful and vindictive on their home turf. Getting hung for 40 when you played well enough to allow 24 stings. This week, expect some three and outs, some big hits and big plays. Expect the defense to assert itself and be aggressive. The defensive line held its own against the Tigers, but against the Wolfpack, they’ll want to claim their own and defend their turf. In particular, the defensive line needs to be more of a factor this week. Dion Jordan, Ricky Heimuli, Taylor Hart, Isaac Remington, and Terrell Turner needs to get off some blocks and make some tackles in the backfield, to penetrate and disrupt and create some mayhem. They need to play physical and reclaim the line of scrimmage. A good defense stops the Pistol the same way it stops any other scheme, by breaking up plays before they can get started.
Nevada is miles better and miles closer than New Mexico. If the Ducks take their eye off the ball tomorrow, or carry a lingering hangover of disappointment with them from the Cowboy Classic, Nevada has enough talent to make the game scary or even disastrous. But that’s not going to happen. In the energized O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O of Autzen at full throttle, the Ducks will get back their blur, their efficiency and their execution. They’ll get back to playing Duck football.
The ESPN analysts will be ready to dismiss the win with faint praise, but they’re not the measure. Chip Kelly’s team will buy in to the message and commit. Tomorrow they’ll take the first step to earning a new season of success. Consider it a down payment on defending the conference title.
If Cliff Harris and Kiko Alonso play, the lift in energy will be huge. Both will be men on a mission, and Harris with that kind of focus is one of the most remarkable football players you will ever see.
If the Ducks are able to get off to a good start and establish tempo, they should lead early and be in command, allowing them to get Bryan Bennett, Colt Lyerla, and Tra Carson their first significant time on the field. Ifo Ekpre-Olomo, Jake Fisher, Erick Dargan, Derrick Malone may get the opportunity for a block of snaps and valuable experience.
It’s the home opener in Autzen, and the real opponent is the will to be great. Oregon 52, Nevada 17.